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QUALITY IMPROVEMENT


When It Comes to Change, A


round the new year, many people set resolutions to end or start new habits. But can we really change


who we are—our personality? William Chopik’s research says yes. Not


only does your personality change, but the way you feel about aging—and the way others around you regard age—changes. Chopik is a social-personality psychologist


with multiple publications on how relation- ships and the people in them change over time and across situations. He is also direc- tor of the Close Relationships Lab research group at Michigan State University (MSU), where colleagues and grad students investi- gate topics such as how couples change and influence each other and late-life issues. His research on gratitude across the


lifespan recently won the Mather Institute Innovative Research Gold Award. This interview was edited for length and clarity.


Q. Some people may say they’re too old to change. Is this true? A. It's possible to change your personality at any point in life. It was sort of a myth early on in personal-


ity research—this assumption that after you turned 30, nothing new happens. You don't really change very much. Luckily, there have been numerous studies that show people keep changing across their lives. There are two main theories about why


you change. One is that it has to do with your biology: your genes, how your brain develops. Another theory has it that your personality changes because of stuff that happens to you; you get married, you get divorced, you start a new job. There’s also a third, called volitional


change, which basically means you can change if you want to. We have a few papers


on that showing that indeed, if you want to change, it's possible to do so. It’s kind of fun; we've done intervention studies where we give people homework to try to change the personality. If you're a shy person, we assign you homework to reach out to connect with friends. And we find the answer is yes, you can


change your personality, but it takes work. Like most things, you have to realize that there's a problem, then take active steps.


Q. What about your empathy study, where people ended up changing more than they thought they would? A. That started out as a study for people who wanted to connect with other people in a more meaningful way, to get better at empathizing with their friends and family. At the start of the study, we asked if


people wanted to get better at taking other people's perspectives or having more sym- pathy or warm feelings. If they said yes, we followed that group every week for four months, asking about their empathy. And they became more empathetic—like I said, if you want to change a certain way, you can achieve that. But another strange thing happened. We


were measuring political attitudes as well. And we found that people who became more empathetic started to endorse more liberal political views. They didn’t say they were going to vote for a Democrat, I want to clarify. But they started caring more about vulnerable groups, trying to protect people from harm, and focusing less on power structures.


Q. What about your gratitude studies? So many people are finding gratitude important to their well-being these days.


32 SENIOR LIVING EXECUTIVE JANUARY/FEBRUARY 2021


No One Is Immune to the Effects By Sara Wildberger


Thought Leader Profile


William Chopik, PhD


Assistant professor, Michigan State University


A. We're doing a lot of that work right now. One good thing is that it looks like people become more grateful over time—as they age, they’re more grateful for more things about their lives. What’s behind that may be that there are


theories that as you age, you start to focus on things that bring you happiness and emotional balance and spend less time on superficial stuff like trying to form business connections. It looks like some of those interventions


where people list things to be grateful for before they go to bed, or write gratitude let- ters, have the potential to increase gratitude. But one question is how long do you have


to do something like that? Every day for 50 years? It looks like, in the short term, it's largely a good thing. It makes people hap- pier. But it's not clear how long-lasting those things are. If you stopped and didn't do it for a week, do you go back to where you were before you started? It’s kind of like a muscle, or it seems that way.


Q. What about changes in attitudes toward aging? A. One thing that has always been fascinat- ing to the Lab is negative attitudes about older adults. Everyone becomes older. There will be more older adults than ever


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