Opinion | You Can Be a Different Person After the Pandemic

When the pandemic lockdowns began, Catherine Steffel, a medical physicist and science writer in Madison, Wis., noticed that her daily routine didn’t change very much. It unsettled her that her regular life so closely resembled quarantine.

Then, in January, her 29-year-old husband died suddenly from an aggressive form of cancer. Her husband loved to sail and fly airplanes, but Dr. Steffel had always been more cautious and work-oriented. In honor of his memory, she decided to embrace his zeal for living.

“There has to be something more out there,” she thought. “Why am I not doing it?”

She created a bucket list of new activities to try when it’s safe to do them. After the pandemic finally ends, she plans to try dog-sledding and glassblowing and to visit an alpaca farm.

To follow through on these plans, Dr. Steffel will need to make changes to her personality. Social interaction makes her tired, so she’ll have to become more extroverted: Some of the bucket-list pursuits will require taking classes full of strangers. She’ll also need to be more open to experience — another trait that trying new activities will require.

Dr. Steffel has been spending more time writing in a journal and doing yoga in order to soothe her anxiety. She’s also going to start seeing a therapist, who she hopes will help her “identify where I want to go and who I would like to be in the future.” Dr. Steffel will, in effect, come out of quarantine a new woman.

With the death of her husband, Dr. Steffel’s life would be changing regardless of the pandemic. But other people too have been reassessing their futures in this brutal year. Something about the strangeness and tension of the pandemic seems to have prompted some people to shake up their lives.

After all, the person who emerges from quarantine doesn’t have to be the same old you. Scientists say that people can change their personalities well into adulthood. And what better time for transformation than now, when no one has seen you for a year, and might have forgotten what you were like in the first place?

It was long thought that people just are a certain way, and they’ll remain that way forever. The Greek physician Hippocrates believed that people’s personalities were governed by the amounts of phlegm, blood, black bile and yellow bile that flowed through their bodies.

Modern science, of course, has long since discarded notions of bile and humors. And now, it appears the idea that our personalities are immutable is also not quite true. Researchers have found that adults can change the five traits that make up personality — extroversion, openness to experience, emotional stability, agreeableness and conscientiousness — within just a few months. Much as in Dr. Steffel’s case, the traits are connected, so changing one might lead to changes in another.

Changing a trait requires acting in ways that embody that trait, rather than simply thinking about it. As Richard Wiseman, a psychology professor at the University of Hertfordshire, put it in “The As If Principle,” you can behave “as if” you are the person you want to be. Pretty soon, you might find that it is you.

Dr. Wiseman writes that George Kelly, a prominent 1950s psychologist, went so far as to ask his clients to perform “roles” that represented personality traits they would like to adopt. A person who wanted to be more extroverted might sign up to speak in front of people or go to bars and talk to strangers. After a few weeks, many people began to think of the roles as their real selves. “Many of Kelly’s clients reported that the new role seemed as though it had always been their real self,” Dr. Wiseman writes, “and that it was only now that they were becoming fully aware of it.”

Geraldine Downey, a psychology professor at Columbia University who studies social rejection, has similarly found that socially excluded people who want to become part of a group are better off if they assume that other people will like them. They should behave as if they are the popular kid. Going into social interactions expecting the worst, as many socially anxious people do, tends to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

This science behind personality change has been firmed up through recently published research. For example, in one study, putting more effort into homework led students to become more conscientious — a reversal of the popular notion that conscientious students put more effort into their homework. In another, people were able to become more extroverted or conscientious in four months just by listing the ways they’d like to change and what steps they would take to get there. So, someone who wanted to become more extroverted might write down, “Call Andrew and ask him to lunch on Tuesday.” After enough lunches with Andrew (and presumably with others, too), people became the extroverts they hoped to be.

Therapy can help with this process. Take neuroticism, a trait responsible for anxiety and rumination. Neuroticism tends to decline naturally with age. But one review of studies found that a month of therapy — any kind of therapy — reduced neuroticism by about half the amount you might expect to see it naturally decline over the course of your entire life. The individuals’ personalities remained different for at least a year after the therapy took place.

After neuroticism, introversion was the most-changeable personality trait, according to this research. As it happens, neuroticism and introversion are the two factors that play a major role in social anxiety. Change those two elements of personality, and you can extinguish much of your self-doubt.

Brent Roberts, a psychologist at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and the lead author on that review of studies, was surprised that such a short burst of therapy could have such sizable effects. He thinks the reason it worked might be that when a person reaches her nadir and realizes she wants to change, there’s something beneficial about having a warm, comforting presence available for support. The therapist “sends an unambiguous message to you that you’re a valued person,” he told me. It helps to have people in our corner, even if it’s because we pay them by the 50-minute hour.

For those who can’t afford therapy, digital tools might soon be available. In a recent study of 1,500 participants, Mirjam Stieger, a postdoctoral researcher at Brandeis University, found that the most popular goals for personality change were to decrease neuroticism, increase conscientiousness, or to increase extroversion.

Dr. Stieger and her colleagues developed an app that reminded people to perform small tasks to help tweak their personalities, like “talk to a stranger when you go grocery shopping.” Then, the app asked them if they actually did that behavior. Dr. Stieger found that the study participants’ personalities did, in fact, change, compared to a control group who didn’t use the app. And at a three-month follow-up, the changes had stuck.

Here’s what a post-pandemic dispositional makeover might look like: Someone who was chronically late in the Before Times might work on being more conscientious, or timely. One way to show your friends how much you missed them is to start respecting their time.

Or if you’re someone who typically reacted with suspicion and anger when an acquaintance canceled plans, you could try to be more agreeable, or forgiving of minor social slights. Even making those plans in the first place might help you become more extroverted or open to new experiences. And for neurotic nerve bundles like me, Dr. Stieger suggested relaxing for, say, 10 minutes every night. It sounds crazy, but I suppose it might work.

Despite its chipper connotation, agreeableness involves greater empathy and concern for others. The pandemic has laid bare the frightening inequality of American life, and it has caused some people — such as single parents and essential workers — to carry a crushing weight. By becoming more agreeable, we could try to remember the uniqueness of each person’s experience, and become gentler toward one another. Though the pandemic will end, its scars may take a while to heal. Treating people with patience and, yes, agreeableness, will help in that healing.

Through painful isolation, this past year has, perversely, revealed the value of friendships and social ties. For those who want to renew connections that have atrophied, solidify friendships that have migrated to Zoom, or otherwise live differently, it’s very possible to do so. Remember that your personality is more like a sand dune than a stone.

Olga Khazan is a staff writer for The Atlantic and the author of “Weird,” from which this essay is adapted.

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