Just in time for the holidays, a new study explores the real-life Scrooge-style moments of awakening in regular 21st century folk. If you’ve ever wished this kind of transformation for certain people in your life, or for yourself, the good news is that they’re not just the stuff of fiction – they can actually happen to real people. Of course, the downside is that there’s often a lot of pain and suffering that precedes this sort of change. But afterwards, you might be a whole new person, and this shift in consciousness could last for the long haul. But the lingering question is, can we do anything to bring about these transformations, or do they just sort of…happen to us?
“I’ve often thought about this, whether these transformations are really sudden or gradual,” said lead author of the study, Jon Skalski, which will be published in The Humanistic Psychologist. “It’s like water boiling – you can look at that as a discontinuous change from not boiling to boiling, but there are certain elements going on beneath the surface that allow for the dramatic change to take place.”
The Big Change
People who are inching towards a major psychological shift usually “hit rock bottom,” as Scrooge did, before it happens. The new paper chronicles the shifts that happened for 14 people (found, interestingly, through Craigslist ads). For example, “Kevin,” a once-successful entrepreneur, was having increasing bad luck in business, a development that disrupted his whole identity. He had neglected personal relationships (somewhat like Scrooge), and says his “psyche was in very dark place.” But when Kevin hit his psychological rock bottom, a transformation occurred.
“And so I was almost just compelled to let go, to let it go… Because if I didn’t, if I held on to that, it’s just going to destroy me… I say it’s the best thing that could’ve happened, because my life is so much more rewarding than it once was. You can’t put a price tag on certain…events that I maybe missed before – certain events, and a marriage, and a family, birthdays, you know? Certain things that are just really fun to be a part of are more meaningful, and it is happiness – the kind that lasts. I know these truths have been around forever. But for me they’re new.”
Many of the participants said they had a whole new understanding of life and all the cause-and-effect actions that take place. For some, the change was linked to a discovery of God, but not all – some just found a new connection with the universe, and certainly with the people and events in the world around them, even the negative ones. “Even things that don’t make sense, make sense,” said another person in the study. “You know, like crime or this and that. It all makes sense in its own realm, in the big picture.” And a woman who’d previously derived her self-worth almost solely from her academic accomplishments said, “Now I measure success by my – how much time I spend serving and doing those things, because those – serving and being with people – are really what bring me satisfaction now.”
How Change Happens
The common denominator for all of the people who experienced a major internal transformation was a growing sense of “disintegration” before the transformation occurred. Disintegration simply means that people experienced mounting stress, anxiety, and general internal suffering: It’s almost like a breaking down, or at least a reshuffling, which sets the stage for change to occur. “Some form of disintegration and suffering was an essential and inseparable constituent of the experience,” said Skalski, who conducted the research while he was a grad student at Brigham Young University.
Whether the change that follows is a conscious choice or not is the question. But it’s likely that it might be both – that this kind of change can “just sort of happen” to us after a certain level of pain, and that there are some ways we can actually urge a change to occur within us.
“It seemed that most of these people who had these life transformation were bottoming out and basically got smacked upside the head,” co-author Sam Hardy, PhD, told me. “There are things in my life I’d love to change and improve, so, I wondered if there was a way to embark on such life transformation without bottoming out or getting smacked upside the head. People do change, obviously, but, the question is what role they play in that change. I believe people have agency and thus that people generally have a lot of control over their lives.”
There are some models of (intentional) behavioral change, like Dr. James Prochaska’s, which outlines five stages of change, from pre-contemplation, contemplation, preparation, and action to maintenance of that change. His research has helped people make overall changes to their life as well asrecover from addiction. Other researchers like Drs. Linda and and Mark Sobellhave also developed programs of behavior change that use a combination cognitive-behavioral approach, and are aimed at people battling addiction, but also those trying to instill more general positive changes in their lives.
“In short, there is evidence that people can largely self-initiate salient life changes, and in fact probably more people do so than we might think,” added Hardy. “However, it is generally more of a long and difficult process…rather than a critical life event. And, it takes a lot of drive and guidance, so in that sense is more difficult and complicated than getting smacked upside the head.”
Here are a few tips for making changes to your life. As Hardy points out, when you’re committed to change, you’re already in the middle of the process. For people who aren’t quite ready, there are some steps to ready yourself (see this more detailed description of all the stages).
Picture who you want to be. “What would your life be like if you were that type of person? How is that different than your current life? Visualizing the traits you want to embody helps give you a target to shoot for and also motivation to change,” says Hardy.
Commit to change – to yourself and others. “Tell others about your goals as well. This holds you more accountable,” Hardy adds. This works in a few different ways: it adds a bit of (positive) pressure to your commitment to change. It also makes you have to verbalize why you’re not fulfilling your goals, if you aren’t – and, on the flip side, you’ll have someone to share your successes with when you achieve them.
Determine the positive traits you want to develop – not just the negative traits you want to get rid of. “In other words, it is best to think not just in terms of stopping a negative behavior (e.g., smoking), but replacing it with a positive behavior (e.g., exercise or meditation),” says Hardy.
“Pray, mediate, listen.” Skalski points out that looking outside the self for guidance has worked for people over many centuries, in many different religions and philosophies. Whether you go for guidance in the universe, God, or in a friend who triggers it (like Scrooge’s dead business partner Jacob Marley), this “other” can be an important way to take you out of your own head and get you in touch with the bigger picture.
See a professional. If you’re in the market for a major personality overhaul and aren’t having the “Ah-ha” moment you want, think about seeing someone who specializes in behavior (a psychologist, life coach, etc.) and can help you work through it methodologically. Some people are lucky and can do it themselves (or it just happens to them), but others need a little help from a professional who can be a guide in the process. It might be worth a try – in a year from now you could be a whole new person.