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  • Our circumstances shape our ability to form healthy relationships, but so too do our mindset and character. Tweet This
  • If personal beliefs and character can bolster or reduce people's life chances, how can we shape those factors? Tweet This

Stephanie has started and then dropped out of college six times. She quit her cosmetology program just months before finishing. In the last year and a half, she has had at least five different jobs and long stretches of unemployment.

“For some reason, I’ll start something and then I don’t finish it. Ever,” Stephanie explains. “It’s not good…. I’m not really sure why I do it.”

A psychologist at the county mental health office once told her that she might have a personality disorder. She didn’t go back to see him again, but that’s her default explanation of why she finds herself repeating cycles that she has resolved to stop.

To be sure, Stephanie had a traumatic childhood and adolescence. Her parents divorced, remarried, and then divorced again. She’s not sure if it’s true, but her dad says that her mom neglected her as a baby, leaving her in her crib for long periods with a full diaper and dirty clothes. During the second divorce, she was sexually abused by a family member, but no one in the family ever believed her. She started having sex when she was fifteen, and since them she has pretty much constantly been in one relationship or another, some of them abusive. She got pregnant for the first time in her late teens, and now has two children.

We're “hardwired to connect,” but our family background and experiences can interfere with this wiring.

The growing research on attachment makes it clear that we humans are “hardwired to connect,” but in some cases our family background and experiences interfere with this wiring, leaving young adults in the vulnerable spot of desperately desiring connection and yet fearing it, unsure of how to achieve it in a healthy way. This is further complicated by our biology. As Dr. Paul Zak discusses in his popular TED talk, the hormone oxytocin plays a role in our connection to others, empathy, and trust—but half of women who were sexually abused do not release oxytocin on stimulus, which can include things like hugging, massage, dancing, or demonstrating trust in someone. This may make it more difficult for them to have healthy relationships.

So is there any hope for young adults like Stephanie?

This is a tension I wrestle with often as I interview young adults in southwestern Ohio about family formation. I do not want to make light of mental illness, or of childhood trauma, and I want to be realistic about the added challenges these situations create for young adults as they form families of their own, and realistic about the therapeutic interventions needed. But neither do I want to write Stephanie off and by so doing deny her human agency.

Psychologist Martin Seligman writes of this tension in his book, Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being: “In the nineteenth century, politics, morality, and psychology were all about character.” The Haymarket Square riot in 1886 was a turning point, he says, when the new “big idea claimed that it was not bad character but a malignant environment that produced crime.” “Almost the entire history of twentieth-century psychology and her sister disciplines of sociology, anthropology, and political science have acted out this premise,” he says. We gave up character as an explanation of why we do what we do.

Seligman takes issue with this idea, saying that it ignores free will as at least a partial cause of individual action. This is part of the reason he founded a new type of psychology: “positive psychology,” in which the focus is not only on “undoing malignant circumstance” but also on making the world a better place “by identifying and then shaping character.”

Richard Reeves of the Brookings Institution recently wrote along the same lines: “The development of character is perhaps the central task of any civilized society and every individual within it…. This is perhaps most true of the current debates about inequality and social mobility. Gaps in character development closely correlate to gaps in income, family functioning, education, and employment. The character gap fuels the opportunity gap, and vice versa.”

Indeed, there is a growing body of literature on the importance of character for life satisfaction and success. University of Pennsylvania psychologist Angela Lee Duckworth has found that noncognitive skills, like grit, are more powerful predictors of success than measures like IQ. Journalist Paul Tough marshals a wide body of evidence supporting the same point in his bestseller, How Children SucceedAnd Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck has found that “changing people’s beliefs—even the simplest beliefs—can have profound effects.”

There is a growing body of literature on the importance of character for life satisfaction and success.

In a previous post I explored Dweck’s research and its implications for young adults and their mindsets about love. Dweck has achieved great success in changing students’ mindsets from “fixed” to “growth”—from the belief that one’s ability to learn is fixed, to the belief that it can change with effort—through “Brainology” workshops. Is there a similar tool that could be used to help young adults adopt the mindset necessary for success in relationships, marriage, and family life? The website and online community, I Believe in Love, is beginning to change messages and mindsets about love, but I suspect that there is more that can be done.

Seligman has also had success through “positive education” programs in schools and “resilience training” in the military. Is there a complementary model for young adults who are struggling with their own personal demons and past trauma as they try to transition into adulthood?

At this point, I don’t have answers, but I agree with David Brooks in his column “The Character Factory” that “if families, communities and the government can envelop lives with attachments and institutions, then that might reduce the alienation and distrust that retards mobility and ruins dreams.”

One neighbor, Nicole, is trying to do this for Stephanie. The two arranged to meet up at a local coffee shop to talk about work and budgeting. Stephanie was a little nervous and took a long smoke break before walking in, but when she finally did Nicole greeted her cheerily and handed her a coupon for a free drink.

“Story of my life!” Nicole laughed. She is an exemplar of thrift. “I don’t think I’m going to get anything. I wanted to, but I just had a huge protein shake at the gym, so I don’t think I need anything.”

Nicole cares about Stephanie because she was there once, too. She was raised by a single mom with few resources, got pregnant in high school, and was an unwed mother with no college degree and a low-wage job. But after several years of balancing childcare and multiple jobs and learning to save money religiously, by the age of 19 she and her boyfriend had saved up to buy a $70,000 townhouse. They’ve been married now for 14 years and recently upgraded to their dream home, modest but charming.

Nicole stressed that she had few positive models in her life, as well as family issues from her parents’ divorce, but that she learned that “it’s a mental game—you have to psych yourself out of whatever is getting you down.” She doesn’t know about the research on character, but she knows what she had to do to get ahead.

Stephanie thanked Nicole for her time and plugged her number into her phone.

It was good for me to witness this neighborly exchange. It was a reminder to me that whenever I talk about the influence of a person’s environment and upbringing, it is just as important to emphasize character and human agency. Together the two—environment plus character (both/and not either/or)—come closer to describing the complex truth of what motivates us to act. And this more nuanced understanding offers a more hopeful and constructive model of the way forward.