Can People Change? Most Of Us Are Better At Self-Improvement Than We Think, Study Shows

It's the question at the heart of thousands of years of philosophy: Can people change, or is it pointless to fight against our natures? Like most things, the answer lies somewhere in the middle. Research has shown that although our personalities largely remain constant throughout our lives, we also change more than we realize — and we might just underestimate our capacity for flexibility. Even though most of us tackle the prospect of self-improvement one step at a time — first we'll finish college, then we'll train for a marathon — recent research indicates that people are capable of making multiple, drastic life changes all at once. 

Researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara, recruited 31 college students for an intensive lifestyle change program. Half the participants were assigned to a wait list, aka the control group, and the other half underwent five hours of training, including mindfulness practice and physical exercise, five days a week for six weeks. During that time, participants were advised to limit their alcohol intake, get at least eight hours of sleep each night, and eat a nutritious diet — your basic healthy living tips. It's the kind of wholesome lifestyle even Gwyneth Paltrow couldn't find fault with, but surely forcing such drastic changes on the students destined them to fail. Right?

Wrong, of course. Researchers tested participants on factors like fitness and reading comprehension to see how the changes affected their lives, and the students showed astonishing improvements in all areas. In fact, follow-up tests six weeks later found that they even maintained positive changes after the program finished.

Common wisdom holds that we should focus on just one major life change at a time, but the participants in the study were capable of juggling five hours of physical fitness, mindfulness training, and psychology lectures a day on top of their regular coursework, and it paid off. Researchers noted that although most scientific studies focus on changing one aspect at a time (which makes sense, if you want to establish cause and effect), their study is more indicative of real life, where changes impact each other. 

"It's easier to drink less coffee if at the same time you get more sleep. Our intervention extended this logic by helping people make progress in many ways, which can create an upward spiral where one success supports the next," lead researcher Michael Mrazek said, according to Science Daily.   

In short, it might be time to make all those life changes you've been putting off — they might seem daunting all at once, but you might be more flexible than you think. 

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