How Well Do You Bounce Back From Life’s Twists and Turns?
New personality research examines how people regroup in the face of change.
Posted February 25, 2023 | Reviewed by Vanessa Lancaster
- Life events can have a significant impact on an individual, even if those events are positive in nature.
- A new large-scale investigation looks into the impact of life events holistically.
- The study found that people bounce back from life events, but not in predictable ways.
Life events are known in psychology to be one of the largest sources of stress that people can face, even if those events are positive. The idea of adjusting to an altered set of life circumstances can cause panic in anyone, particularly someone who enjoys sameness, continuity, and routine.
Consider a relatively small but potentially disturbing incident in your home where your bedroom starts to flood due to a water main break. Miraculously, you were able to limit the damage to a closet, but you have to find some way to repair the floor and replace the ruined clothing. Calls to the insurance company and coordination with a flooring expert force you to spend precious hours of your day that you could use for more productive, if not fun, activities. Worse, the flood damaged your unreplaceable family albums and other memorabilia, further destabilizing your emotions.
Life events can also take on much larger proportions, but even if they’re ones that improve your situation, they can still produce stress via the need to veer from your straight and narrow pathway. Think about such happy changes as moving in with your romantic partner, getting a desired job, or being offered an exciting new position in your favorite volunteer organization. You’ll have to find some way to incorporate this new reality into your daily existence.
A New Approach to Understanding Life Events
As you think about how life events have affected you, consider not just whether they’ve led to stress or joy but how they’ve potentially changed your personality. Did you become any different from the standpoint of your overall understanding of yourself and your life? Did these events make you feel like a different person entirely?
According to Washington University in St. Louis psychologists Amanda Wright and Joshua Jackson (2023), it is impossible to answer these questions because prior research in this area failed to take into account the “unique responses to life events” that require a “holistic view of event-associated changes” (pp. 1-2). Throughout this body of literature, researchers measured average changes in personality traits in response to specific life events (such as widowhood). This approach, the Wash. U. researchers maintained, masks the idiosyncratic ways that people may change as they go through the transitions caused by a significant event.
In the person-centered approach that Wright and Jackson adopted, changes within an individual’s pattern of personality traits become the main focus. You may have entered into a significant life transition being low in neuroticism and high in agreeableness. However, the experience shakes up this ordering within you, and your neuroticism starts to skyrocket while your agreeableness takes a huge dip.
Consider a significant event, such as having your partner decide it’s time for a divorce. What you thought was a relationship you could count on has shattered beneath you. In a mean-centered approach to personality change, all that would be examined is whether you went up or down in scores on these two traits and are compared to everyone else in the same situation. The person-centered approach, in contrast, would explore whether you change in consistency or the relative ordering within yourself and these traits across the course of the life event.
Testing Person-Centered Change Across Life Events
At the disposal of the Wash. U. researchers were four vast longitudinal data sets involving almost 25,000 individuals. Over 14,000 had complete data across testings on the five-factor traits of neuroticism, agreeableness, conscientiousness, openness to openness experience, and extraversion. The beauty of their method was that the studies were not conducted after a life event but before, during, and after. Rather than wait for an event to happen and see if it changed people, the researchers could track personality changes across the event’s duration and beyond.
Wright and Jackson grouped the life events into health, relationships, family, education, career, financial, and social (such as becoming a volunteer). The authors compared trajectories for those who did and those who did not experience each event. In the between-person comparisons, the authors looked at these group differences. In the within-person comparisons, they examined unique patterns of change in the correlations among the five traits for each individual.
Overall, the between-person comparisons showed that those who did not experience a change continued on an upward path over time, slowly consolidating into a more unified whole. Those who did experience an event, by contrast, showed a cliff-like drop in consistency, which evened out on the subsequent test occasions. As the authors concluded, life events can “serve as a disruption to the system of one’s personality coherence” (p. 12).
The within-person comparisons revealed a strikingly different picture. Rather than stick to a general pattern, 75 percent of the effects attributed to change were completely random, suggesting that individual differences “reign supreme” (p. 12). In other words, although a general pattern of change in consistency can be detected when groups of people who experienced an event are compared to those who didn’t, if you look instead at how one person’s inner structure changed over time, they would not conform to anything approaching a unitary pattern.
Some additional findings provided intriguing interpretations. One was that people higher in personality consistency tended to have more positive life events occur to them. Conversely, those low in personality consistency appeared to drift into more negative types of events. The authors concluded from these findings that it could be “undesirable for an individual to always have a shifting personality,” making it more difficult to hold onto a partner or perhaps even a job.
The Benefits of Personality Consistency
As you can see, life events have a mostly unpredictable effect on the internal structure of people’s personalities. Although on average, people recover, the individual variations in patterns of change outweigh any general group differences.
However, those with high levels of personality consistency may face fewer life events associated with their own qualities. They may not be protected from those random events such as a water main break or a tragic event such as the loss of a family member or romantic partner through death. Even so, the impact of such occurrences is difficult to predict without understanding the unique constellation of traits within each person. You may not bounce back from a sudden negative life event, and based on the Wash. U. research, this is completely understandable.
To sum up, it may be reassuring to know that for most life events, people do regroup internally. However, as you seek that path to fulfillment in the aftermath of a significant change, it’s just as important to understand that yours may take its own unique and idiosyncratic turn.
Wright, A. J., & Jackson, J. J. (2023). The associations between life events and person‐centered personality consistency. Journal of Personality.. doi 10.1111/jopy.12802