The objective in psychological interventions is to trigger change: some people want to worry less, be calmer, and others want to improve their interpersonal skills. Whether it is proper, full-on psychotherapy or just a simple technique you can try at home – people use them because they expect some change. This articles will explore just that: what changes when we change? Behaviour modification seems easy, so does learning new skills. But can we improve our deeper characteristics? And finally: how do we know the change is lasting and sustainable?
[Please note that this article does not provide information about the reduction of clinical symptoms; it talks about behaviours and states that are not considered pathological]
Let’s begin with the basics: learning new skills – or maybe modifying behaviour patterns. Arguably, psychologists can help you acquire new interpersonal skills, teach you how to manage time or how to behave in conflict situations. Those interventions will not cause a profound change in you as a person, but they will widen your repertoire of behaviours. This means that you can choose the response that is most adaptive and appropriate to the situation. For example, Berkhof and colleagues (2011) analysed the effectiveness of communication training for physicians and found that communication with patients improved slightly as a result of more extended, practice-oriented training. This is good news: soft skills training is a big thing at the moment, and it is good to know it produces results. However, it is difficult to quantify those effects precisely, and lasting behaviour change was achieved only by those doctors who practised the skills after the end of the intervention. It seems that practising the newly gained skills in everyday life is the key to success. That communication training you attended will be useful if it offers you simple techniques that you can implement in everyday situations. Overall, when it comes to our communication training, assertiveness, stress, reduction, etc., we do have some research to suggest specific techniques work in certain aspects. However, so much more research is still required. It may sound controversial, but my favourite source of research on behavioural modification are medical journals: those public health people really do robust research on lasting behaviour change. Us, soft skills psychologists, can only look up with inspired gaze at that methodological rigour.
Let’s now go deeper: everyone has a personality. According to the trait theories of personality, our traits are relatively stable over time and constitute a blueprint for who we are. The Big Five is the most popular model with neuroticism, extraversion / introversion, openness to experience, agreeableness and conscientiousness as five essential traits that allow predicting behaviour and functioning in various areas of life (big business people – you probably came across personality models like Myers-Briggs and ‘what colour is your personality’ – I will not talk about them here as they are rarely used in academic research). Do you remember the Cambridge Analytica scandal, where information about people was harvested on social media and used to sway their behaviour? The word on the street is that the company sneakily measured people’s levels of the big five personality traits to use them in sinister ways. It worked because once you have this information, you can make pretty accurate predictions about one’s behaviour, including political preferences. So the idea is that the heredity of personality is approximately 50%, and the traits are relatively stable throughout our lifetime.
I have a very high level of openness to experience (and neuroticism – a great combination!) – does it mean that life experiences will not change this? Well, we do have some evidence that personality traits’ levels change in adolescence and adulthood. For instance, Jeronimus et al. (2013) demonstrated that positive and negative life events predict changes in neuroticism (yay!): the modifications are lasting, but the size effect is rather small. Can I please draw your attention to the word small? It is a statistically significant result, but I am not convinced the change would be noticeable in real life. So how about proper psychological interventions – can they change our personality make up? A review of studies examining just that (Roberts et al., 2017) showed that psychological interventions lasting longer than four weeks resulted in moderate changes in personality, and the effects were most prominent for neuroticism and extraversion. Be mindful that we are talking about clinical interventions here – not simple techniques you can use at home. And the effects would be moderate – which is moderately good news for people who have very high levels of certain traits. I do not think this is bad news, though. My strategy is to learn how to manage what you have got – instead of trying to change your traits. Maybe you cannot change your conscientiousness level quickly, but you can learn planning skills (for example) that will allow you to compensate. Mastering interpersonal skills can alleviate problems resulting from low agreeableness. I would be sceptical of interventions – especially light touch, non-clinical ones – that promise profound, lasting change to your behavioural and emotional patterns. That said, I am always up for exploring what you already have and how you can make it work for you.
Shall we use emotional functioning as an example? Neuroticism, as a trait, is characterised by the tendency to worry, experience anxiety, and, in general, by unstable emotionality. People differ in their emotional experience: let’s imagine someone was rude to you in a store. For some people, this event is sufficient to trigger anger, but not for others – we have different thresholds of stimuli needed to trigger an emotion. We also differ in the intensity of emotional reaction and its durance. Together, those characteristics constitute our emotional reactivity – the rude shop clerk may evoke intense, long-lasting negative emotions in Person A, but will trigger no serious emotions in Person B. Which person you are depends on how lucky you were in the great genetic lottery – overall, heredity of emotionality varies between 40 and 60%. That said, even if you have a genetically determined tendency to experience negative emotions, there is still a lot you can do to improve your experience. Let us go back to the rude clerk: your automatic reaction was to get angry, and that happens to the best of us. Now what you do with that is what matters. Do you (a) suppress your emotion – not great, (b) play a video game to distract yourself – may work for a while, (c) feel guilty for the way you feel – hmm. This is called emotion regulation, and the examples listed above show maladaptive ways of reacting to our emotional reactions. The adaptive ways to manage emotions begin with self-awareness and mindfulness: with the ability to notice your emotional states early, respond to them with acceptance and reframe your thoughts associated with the event (i.e. Troy at al., 2018; Lindsay et al., 2018). It sounds easy, but obviously, it is all about practising and becoming more attuned to our emotional experience. Overall, even though the genetic basis of emotionality is substantial, psychological techniques can do a lot to help you tame that dragon and make your emotional life more workable.
And now for the big thing: happiness. Well-being, satisfaction with life, whatever you call it. How effective are psychological interventions in improving our overall happiness and… does the enhancement last as life goes on? I will write a separate article about happiness in the future, but here is a little spoiler: heritability of psychological well-being is quite high, even up to 60% (Bartels, 2015). To make things worse, we all suffer from hedonic adaptation. Imagine that you buy a new, shiny car or get that fantastic promotion. Your happiness level will go up for a while, but then the hedonic adaptation gets hold of you: the new, shiny circumstances become something normal, and you go back to your default happiness levels. Psychologists Lykke and Tellegen famously said in the 90’ that trying to be happier is as futile as trying to be taller (I find this approach reassuring as it allows you to let go). Since that time, though, psychologists have identified activities that can potentially lead to a limited, but lasting increase in happiness. Those activities, accounting for approximately 40% of the variance in happiness (i.e. Lyubomirsky et al., 2006), include helpful behaviours (for instance, regular exercises), cognitive activity, and the so-called volitional activity. Cognitive activity is the good all reappraisal – reframing the way we think about the events, what beliefs we apply to explain the incident. It also refers to our ideas about the world and ourselves. It is not a new concept. Stoic philosophers in ancient Athens talked about it; nowadays, it is the backbone of cognitive behavioural therapy. As for the volitional activity, it refers to the radical idea that we should spend time and energy on things that matter to us and are meaningful. Long story short: getting that excellent promotion can increase your happiness – assuming that you do something that you find meaningful and that has intrinsic value for you. Indeed, Sheldon and Lyubomirsky (2006) studied the changes in happiness as affected by the change in objective circumstances and as a result of intentional activity – only the later one produced long-lasting effects. To summarise, buying that Italian car will do the trick for a while, but doing some work around your thoughts, values and life goals can take you much further. Nothing beats the genes though.
Bartels, M. (2015). Genetics of Wellbeing and Its Components Satisfaction with Life, Happiness, and Quality of Life: A Review and Meta-analysis of Heritability Studies. Behavior Genetics, 45(2), 137–156.
Berkhof, M., van Rijssen, H. J., Schellart, A. J. M., Anema, J. R., & van der Beek, A. J. (2011). Effective training strategies for teaching communication skills to physicians: An overview of systematic reviews. Patient Education and Counseling, 84(2), 152–162.
Jeronimus, B. F., Ormel, J., Aleman, A., Penninx, B. W. J. H., & Riese, H. (2013). Negative and positive life events are associated with small but lasting change in neuroticism. Psychological Medicine, 43(11), 2403–2415.
Lindsay, E. K., Chin, B., Greco, C. M., Young, S., Brown, K. W., Wright, A. G. C., … Creswell, J. D. (2018). How mindfulness training promotes positive emotions: Dismantling acceptance skills training in two randomised controlled trials. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 115(6), 944–973.
Lyubomirsky, S., Sheldon, K. M., & Schkade, D. (2005). Pursuing Happiness: The Architecture of Sustainable Change. Review of General Psychology, 9(2), 111–131.
Sheldon, K. M., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2006). Achieving Sustainable Gains in Happiness: Change Your Actions, not Your Circumstances*. Journal of Happiness Studies, 7(1), 55–86.
Troy, A. S., Shallcross, A. J., Brunner, A., Friedman, R., & Jones, M. C. (2018). Cognitive reappraisal and acceptance: Effects on emotion, physiology, and perceived cognitive costs. Emotion, 18(1), 58–74.