Is Lasting Personal Change Possible?

Do you remember the series finale of Mad Men years ago where Don Draper is sitting cross-legged on a hill in California overlooking the Pacific Ocean? He is ostensibly at a retreat to escape all the lies and crazies associated with the advertising world back in New York; he wants to change and to grow. As he sits there, eyes closed in meditation, a small smile crosses his face as the Coca Cola jingle “I want to buy the world a Coke” plays softly in the background, perhaps just in his head. Fade to black. The point makes us question Don’s ability to change, even after all that he went through in seven seasons and ninety-two episodes.

Let’s Define Change

On a personal level, in terms of behavior, change is that thing we want others to do. Isn’t it always someone else’s behavior that needs fixing? We think about changing the world but hardly ever about changing ourselves.

In terms of the physical, change can be particularly challenging. I’ve been trying to lose weight and keep it off my entire life … and I’m not alone in this endeavor! I lost a ton of weight and kept it off for several years, but I’ve since gained it back.

It’s important to differentiate change from lasting change. Change in the short term is easy – the short term in my opinion being less than five years. Short term can include completing a program, taking a class, or some kind of intervention, whether mandated or self-imposed. Lasting or long-term change is when the initial changes have prevailed more than five years (again, just my number).

The difference between short- and long-term change doesn’t matter, however, if we’re talking about the unspeakable. Let’s say you committed murder and, with mental health help, have “changed” so you won’t commit murder in the future. Well, my friend, in this case, it doesn’t matter if you’re successful in the short term or the long term. To be considered changed, you can’t ever murder again.

Change:  Is It Truly Possible?

I don’t know about you, but I think change for the better is pretty tough to create, especially long-term change. I’m skeptical. I subscribe to the tenet that once a thief, always a thief. Change isn’t a theory that is easily provable. Five years after a person changes doesn’t automatically mean they’ll never do that thing again. You must wait and see.

Can you consider yourself a non-smoker after quitting for six months? How much time must go by before you feel your change is solid? There is no pat answer. It’s always personal, when it’s personal … if you get my point.

As Elders, How Much Change Should We Attempt?

How you look at change depends on your age. Say you’re looking at two people, one twenty and one seventy. They both quit smoking six months ago. Would you think, the older person has probably changed permanently, and the younger person has a whole lot of time ahead of them to start smoking again? I would.

A common mischaracterization is that young people are more open to change while elders are more set in their ways and, therefore, less able to change. This is probably true, but the resistance to change for seniors isn’t that simple. To me it’s also a matter of effort versus outcome. How important is it for me to change from being an introvert to an extrovert? It isn’t, so I won’t, and I might be considered unable or unwilling to change. And I don’t care.

When we have expectations about the need for others to change, we’re interfering with someone else’s life. Yes, it’s hard when our partner changes … or doesn’t change … and we have expectations about their behavior.

One thing I know for sure is that I don’t care if Don Draper picks right back up being an ad man. I do care about how much change I’m willing to make to be happier. And I’ll let you decide your willingness and ability change for yourself.