Brian Little, one of the world’s leading experts on personality psychology, is renowned as a public speaker. If you watch his recent TED talk on personality, as millions of others have, you will see an engaging and witty orator holding his audience’s attention with aplomb. You’d probably conclude that Little is an extravert: he’s not only good at what he’s doing, but he seems to be revelling in the opportunity.
In fact, Little is a self-proclaimed introvert. After his talk you would quite likely find him seeking a few minutes of quiet refuge behind the locked door of a toilet cubicle. This is one of the “restorative niches” described in his 2014 book Me, Myself, and Us, which he uses to recover from the exhausting demands of acting extraverted.
Little can behave extraverted when he needs to, he explains, because he is enacting what he calls a “free trait”: behaving out of character in pursuit of a deeply meaningful “personal project”, which in this case is to engage and educate his students and others in the value of personality psychology. This isn’t a peculiar quirk of this Cambridge University professor. He believes that each one of us is able to act out of character when we are motivated by an important and meaningful personal goal.
Indeed, Little and his colleagues have spent many years studying how we can break free from the constraints of our more permanent personality traits, and live a happier life too.
To get a flavour of his research, take a few minutes to write down your own current personal projects – for instance, it might be losing weight, being a better pet owner, or writing a book. The list doesn’t have to be exhaustive, but as a guide, most people identify around 15 things.
Your traits describe who you are, your projects describe what you do, and they are eminently changeable
Now, spend a few moments reflecting on each one, in particular think about its importance and meaning to you; how much it is consistent with your personality and values; whether the project brings you joy or stress and frustration; the origins of the project; whether you share the project with anyone else; how much progress you’ve made; and how confident you are about ever completing it. These questions tap into the five main dimensions measured by formal Personal Projects Analysis: meaning, manageability, connection (to others), negative emotions and positive emotions.
Now zoom in on the handful of projects that are the most meaningful and relevant to your values and identity. These are your core projects and they are especially likely to affect your happiness and well-being. This is an empowering finding, as Little explains in Me, Myself and Us, because whereas your traits describe who you are, your projects describe what you do, and they are eminently changeable. Choose the right projects, and approach them in the right way, and you can make your life richer and more enjoyable.
How your projects affect you
You are especially likely to be happier if your personal projects feel attainable. In fact, Little has found that our confidence in achieving our projects is an even more important factor for our wellbeing than how much meaning a project has. Put differently, there are few things worse than having a core personal project that feels unobtainable. In fact, findings show that when someone is engaged in a personal project that makes them stressed and miserable, this is an even more powerful drag on their wellbeing than other more obvious factors like poverty. The perfect combination is to have one or more sustainable core projects that feel within reach and are also full of personal meaning, reflecting what matters to you in life.
Your projects are likely to be more sustainable and joyful if you are pursuing them for your own reasons
There are many other findings to bear in mind. Your projects are likely to be more sustainable and joyful if you are pursuing them for your own reasons, and not simply to please someone else, for instance, and romantic partners tend to be happier together if they share some of the same personal projects.
Perhaps most intriguingly, pursuing these personal projects allows you to break free from your personality traits, which can itself be rewarding: research shows that introverts like Little enjoy acting extraverted more than they think they will, for instance. Even so, Little warns that this can take a toll over time and that it is important to give yourself restorative niches – whether that’s an introvert’s moment alone after a public talk or an extravert’s party time after a day of quiet study.
Reframe your plans
Armed with this kind of knowledge, you can look back at your notes and perform a kind of personal project appraisal. Are there any projects that you’ve marked as lacking progress, or that you’ve identified as highly stressful and feeling impossible to achieve? If so, and if these projects have little meaning or importance, then perhaps you should consider dropping them.
Alternatively, if the stalled projects are necessary and important, you may have identified a key source of unhappiness in your life. When projects get “stuck” in this way, Little recommends various strategies for making progress, including reframing the project to make it more attainable. For example, you could reframe the goal of “Try to write a book” to become “Try to write for half an hour each day”. As an aside, other research has shown that something as simple as the way we phrase our personal goals can influence our chances of success: direct phrasing “Write for half an hour each day” is often more successful than more tentative aspirations such as “Try to write for half an hour each day”.
One strategy for unblocking projects where you’re making no progress is called ‘concept matching’
Another strategy Little recommends for blocked projects is to use “concept matching”, which involves looking for metaphorical parallels between the stalled project and a completely different domain for which you have expertise. For example, if your writing project has hit the buffers and you love football, you could create two lists, one describing aspects of the writing project, the other describing common elements involved in success in football. Then the trick is to look for parallels, which may unlock creative solutions to your stuck project. For instance, what would be your writing project equivalent to home support or pre-season training? Perhaps such questions could get you thinking about your working environment or courses you need to go on, potentially rejuvenating your project.
All of which paints an optimistic picture of our capacity for change. For Little, three forces govern our lives: our biogenic natures (whether we are physiologically extravert, introvert or whatever), our sociogenic natures (how we are raised, the culture we live in and the company we keep), and finally, our idiogenic or “third natures”, which are comprised of our personal projects and the free traits we express in pursuit of them.
Choose those projects carefully, and you may surprise yourself with what you can achieve. “Whereas contexts embed us, projects pull us forward into new possibilities,” he says. “And one of those possibilities is a better life and a happier life.”
Dr Christian Jarrett edits the British Psychological Society's Research Digest blog. His next book, Personology, will be published in 2019.
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