Self Improvement Might Sound Healthy. But There’s a Downside to Wanting to Change

4 minute read

Ours is a culture that values change. Millions of Americans set resolutions each winter and buy self-help books year round.

But a new study published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science finds there’s also value in aiming to stay the same. People who imagine staying fairly constant over the years may have more satisfying lives than those who think they’ll grow to be different, according to the study.

“When people think about themselves over time, the people who perceive there to be the most similarity between who they are now and who they will be in the future end up being more satisfied with their lives in 10 years time,” says study co-author Hal Hershfield, an associate professor of marketing at the University of California Los Angeles Anderson School of Management.

The study was based on data from almost 5,000 adults who took the Midlife Development in the United States survey. In the 1990s, when people were ages 20 to 75, they answered questions about their current personality traits — how calm, caring, wise, willing to learn, energetic and knowledgeable they were — and how they thought those traits might change over the coming decade. They also answered questions about how satisfied they were with their work, health, relationships and life overall.

A decade later, they answered similar questions again. After comparing the results and adjusting for factors such as age, gender, income and education, the researchers found that there was a correlation between predicting a future you who’s similar to the current you and being satisfied with life later on. Imagining a similar future was more strongly linked to well-being than any amount of predicted change, whether negative or positive.

“People were not accurate at all at predicting how much they were going to change,” says study co-author Joseph Reiff, a doctoral student in behavioral decision-making at UCLA Anderson. But that didn’t matter; thinking you’ll remain fairly constant, even if you were wrong, was linked to greater future well-being, Reiff says.

In some ways, the findings are intuitive. Someone who expects to stay the same probably has a fairly pleasant and stable life, while someone who expects to change may have good reason for wanting something different. But Reiff says the findings were constant regardless of life circumstances that often affect well-being, like socioeconomic class and age.

That may be because people who predict feeling similar to their future selves tend to make choices that will benefit the person they’ll become, whether that means maintaining good health by exercising and eating right or saving for retirement, Hershfield says. But people who think they’ll be totally different in the future may be less motivated to make forward-looking choices now.

Aspiration has long been known to have a downside. One 2002 study found that people who had positive fantasies about their future lives tended to have more negative life outcomes, perhaps because fantasizing often means downplaying the hard work that actually goes into success, and can therefore discourage people from working to make their dreams come true. Research has also shown that trying too hard to be happy can backfire, since you’re more likely to get hung up on negative emotions when they inevitably surface.

But does that mean you shouldn’t make a change if you see room for improvement?

While the new study didn’t address that question directly, Hershfield says there’s likely no harm in striving for self-improvement, as long as people act on a realistic, specific plan for that change. There’s a reason experts advise breaking goals into smaller chunks; making a concrete plan of action, and understanding how to reach a larger goal and overcome obstacles, can help you achieve results, research shows.

People who thoughtfully consider changes they want to make, as well as impediments that stand in their way, may also be likely to make the measured, proactive decisions of someone connected to their future self, Hershfield says.

“My guess is that people who want to be better and also recognize what stands in the way of doing that are the people who would take action to get to a better place in life,” he says. “It’s not bad to think positively about the future, so long as we think about what stands in the way and how we can overcome it.”

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