“From birth to age 18, a girl needs good parents, from 18 to 35 she needs good looks, from 35 to 55 she needs a good personality, and from 55 on she needs cash.”

Sophie Tucker


Despite increasing evidence that most personality traits are highly genetically determined (current estimates suggest as much as 50%) much of personality is flexible within our “set point” ranges and that it changes over our life span shaped by our experiences.

Recent longitudinal and cross-sectional aging research has shown that personality traits continue to change in adulthood ((Roberts, B. et al. (2008). Personality trait change in adulthood. Current directions in Psychological Science, 17, 1, 31-35)). Change in personality traits occurs in middle and old age, showing that personality traits can change at any age. Research by Brent Roberts, Professor of Psychology in the Department of Psychology at the University of Illinois, summarizing over 100 studies of personality suggests that most people become more confident, warm (agreeable), responsible (conscientious), and emotionally stable as they age, especially in young adulthood (ages 20 to 40).

Although there is much debate about genetic “set points” for personality, we can change significantly according to new research from Carol Dweck and her colleagues at Stanford University. Dweck’s research suggests that people either have fixed beliefs about their personality (it can’t be really modified) or they have a malleable set of beliefs that it can be developed through efforts and education. Adults (and children) with a malleable viewpoint are more open to learning new things, confront new challenges, stick with tough tasks and demonstrate greater resilience.

Her research suggests that this orientation is trainable and can result in greater performance and other personality related changes (e.g., increased openness to new experiences and sociability). She suggests that by emphasizing and praising traits (e.g, intelligence) we are reinforcing a fixed perspective and that we should really recognize effort or strategies. Today parents seem upset if their kids come in 6th place in any competition and don’t receive a trophy–maybe they are on to something here!

Even our level of happiness can be changed despite evidence that at least 50% of our happiness is genetically programmed. For example, Ed Diener and his colleagues analyzed data from a 15 year study on marriage transitions and life satisfaction ((Lucus, R., et al. (2003). Reexamining adaptation and the happiness: Reactions to changes in marital status. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 527-539)). On average, most people moved toward their baseline level of happiness but interestingly a large number remained at their baseline and others stayed below it.

In our own research on happiness with individuals with the auto-immune disease multiple sclerosis (MS) we have seen significant positive changes in work and life satisfaction ((Giesser, B., Coleman, L., Fisher, S., Guttry, M., Herlihy, E., Nonoguch, S., Nowack, D., Roberts, C. & Nowack, K. (2007). Living Well with Multiple Sclerosis: Lessons Learned from a 12-Week Community Based Quality of Life Program. Paper presented at 17th Annual Art & Science of Conference, March, 2007, San Francisco, CA )). We have explored how a comprehensive 12-week “MS Living Well” program that meets for 4 hours over 12 consecutive weeks can modify well-being using our own stress and health risk assessment called StressScan. We use one scale in particular which is called “Psychological Well-Being” and is a global measure of life satisfaction or happiness (it includes aspects of positive affect, engagement and meaning). We have also replicated this finding with an online version of this program that also demonstrated a significant increase in happiness over the same 12-week period ((Giesser, B., Coleman, L., Fisher, S. Guttry,M., Herlihy, E., Nonoguchi, S., Nowack, D., Roberts, C, & Nowack, K. (2010). Living Well with Multiple Sclerosis: Comparisons of a 12-Week Blended Learning Versus Direct Classroom Program)).

It would appear from all the current research that our beliefs about ourselves can change and so can our personality. However, it remains seen just how much change in basic personality occurs over time.

Most of my executive coaching assignments with “competent jerks” seem to result in little or no personality modification or behavior change. Following up later it seems that if my old clients “derail” entirely or get fired they tend to become a bit more mellow and reflective. I’m guessing that it’s the kind of experiences that shape our personality more than others.

If only we really could figure out the kind of developmental experiences that truly enhance resilience, growth and development in both children and adults.

Unfortunately, it’s more art than science right now…..Be well….

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