Personal growth is a wild and wonderful thing — that is, until you turn 30, and then change becomes impossible, and you’re basically stuck with your personality as it is forever. Well, at least until you die. I know it sounds like I'm throwing a whole lot of “glass half empty” stuff at you right now, which seems totally rude coming off a holiday weekend, but this isn’t me being pessimistic, friends. This is science. New York Magazine's Science of Us blog decided to look into the age-old question "how much can you really change after you turn 30?" And the answer is, apparently, not much.
In fact, that's exactly the answer Brian Little, author of Me, Myself, and Us: The Science of Personality and the Art of Well-Being, had to offer when enlisted to weigh in on the matter. "You're doomed! What you've got now — that's it," he tells New York Magazine's Melissa Dahl in a way I hope is at least semi-facetious. So let's take a second to all feel indignant and maybe a little sorry for ourselves, and then let's unpack that statement.
Turning 30 has been seen as a milestone for more than a century. As Little, a psychology lecturer at the University of Cambridge, points out, the idea that 30 is the end-all be-all for personalities dates back to 1890, when Harvard psychologist William James first wrote in The Principles of Psychology,"In most of us, by the age of thirty, the character has set like plaster, and will never soften again." That might seem a little extreme, but there is modern research to suggest James might have been on to something. After following the same subjects for an extended period of time, researchers at the National Institute of Aging found that people tend to experience the biggest and most noticeable changes in personality when they're children and adolescents. This comes as a surprise to basically nobody who's ever met a moody teenager before. But while people can still continue to change as adults, by the time 30 comes around, we're all pretty much set in our ways. We know what we like and what we don't like, and as the National Institute of Aging's Dr. Paul Costa puts it, changes in personality become more "muted."
Here's the thing, though. A lot of our personality traits are derived from genetics, which means they were pretty much decided for us from the get-go anyway. Take shyness, for instance. If you're shy when you're younger, chances are you'll be shy as an adult. But as for our behavior? That's more in our control. We can choose to fight against shyness by taking certain measures to make ourselves feel more confident interacting with a group of people, like enrolling in public speaking courses. But the problem with "acting out of character," as Little puts it, or acting in a way that goes against our natural inclinations, is that eventually it can cause us to experience anxiety. And unless "acting out of character" has become a habit for us, after a while it just doesn't feel like it's worth the trouble.
Of course, there are other factors at play, too. As Dahl points out, it's not that our personalities come up against a brick wall once we turn 30 or that they completely plateau — instead, it might have something to do with our maturity levels being fully realized. When we're teenagers growing up, maturity changes us. Once we become older and, well, more mature, it's not that we aren't capable of change — it's just that we don't need to change as rapidly as we did when we were younger.
That's not to say we become static monsters when we grow up. As Jezebel writer Tracy Moore puts it, just because we turn 30 doesn't mean we'll stop experiencing huge, life-changing milestones — the exact opposite is true, duh. We start families. We get promotions. People come in and out of our lives. And when these things do pop up, we don't just sit back and watch them happen — we respond to them. "We may retain our core personalities, but these things stretch our idea of ourselves, force us to see ourselves more clearly, and give us nothing but opportunities to upgrade," Moore says. In other words? We grow.
For the full study — including a pretty nifty breakdown of the Big Five traits that make up a personality — check out the Science of Us. In the meantime? Try not to stress too much about getting older, k? I promise you're not old and boring just because you've made it to another decade of life. You are dynamic and smart and talented and wonderful, and you have plenty of time to do whatever it is you want to do, science be damned.
See? I told you I wasn't a pessimist.