Can circumstances change attitude?
March 23, 2009 5:12 AM   Subscribe

Can someone who seems embittered by their experiences with the world in general, and with people, institutions, religion and relationships in particular, improve their view with a change in circumstances? Or, is how they handle the feelings from those experiences more about character, with a change in location or fortunes not having much long-term emotional effect?

I was going to give an long explanation of what I know of a friend person's history. Over the years, me and other have seen their attitude worsen as their own fortunes have changes. But I realized explaining the context might not be that necessary since I think the questions is pretty straightforward. If the responses indicate context is needed, I'll add it.

So, again, is there any thinking or research that answers the question, in general, of whether changes in scenery or circumstances help people become better, happier selves, or can negative experiences in life twist people to where they are permanently unable or unwilling to be more accepting of or optimistic in the world?
posted by CollectiveMind to Human Relations (18 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
The only change I've seen of this sort is a) voluntary and b) usually involving therapy.
posted by twiki at 5:26 AM on March 23, 2009

It seems to me like some people like being embittered and cynical because they think it's cool or something. You know, the "I am too good for this world" sort of deal. If your friend is that sort, then no, they'll just find something else to be bitter about in their new circumstances.

On the other hand if he actually wants to change this bitterness deal, I think it's possible.
posted by Xany at 5:39 AM on March 23, 2009

Can someone who seems embittered by their experiences with the world in general, and with people, institutions, religion and relationships in particular, improve their view with a change in circumstances?

Only if that someone wants to.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:42 AM on March 23, 2009 [2 favorites]

This tends to happen when people hit rock bottom in one form or another and realize their actions or train of thought, while correct in certain ways, has brought them little to no happiness in their lives. Positive thinking and energy can yield both positive and negative results just like negative thinking, but it (positivity) tends to allow you to bounce back or try again more readily. From anecdotal personal experience, changing location can be helpful sometimes but usually doesn't help perceptions unless the person changes along with them.
posted by seppyk at 5:49 AM on March 23, 2009

No matter where you go, there you are.
posted by acorncup at 5:55 AM on March 23, 2009 [5 favorites]

Bitterness as opposed to sadness or melancholy allows for impetus towards change because of its caustic nature, bringing an uncomfortablity factor into the equation, whereas sadness merely depresses and stagnates making change an impossibility. This I learned from the Jewish teachings of Chassidut. Be well.
posted by watercarrier at 6:03 AM on March 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm a giant misanthrope. I essentially think yes, most people are morons (fun fact: 40% of adults can't think logically because they haven't reached the last stage of cognitive development), and at the same time, I try to stay somewhat emotionally distant from that and do things that are important to me.

Optimism and pessimism are both completely inane; it's best to live logically.
posted by kldickson at 6:03 AM on March 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

I was a short sighted misanthrope like kldickson until I lived in the city for a few years.

Seeing human interactions amid the back drop of the urban environment, whether it's people offering directions on the bus, or helping one another get around in the winter, really turned my perceptions around about people.

I came from a region of the country where most people wake up, get in their car and drive to work, get back in their car and drive home. They maybe interact with a dozen people during their day. In that environment people are completely alienated from one another, suspicious of others, and often negative in their outlooks.

For me the city forced me out of this mode of thinking. There is something about seeing hundreds, maybe thousands, of different faces in a day and the interactions of people that changed my outlook.

I now think that people are basically good, or at least born that way. Rousseau thought that man was a feeling animal, that we still possess from an earlier era certain characteristics that reveal our more noble core. All people (well most) have an aversion to viewing suffering in their fellow man. All children, even in the poorest neighborhoods, desire only to laugh and play.

I don't know what you could do to help turn your friend around, but I for one am grateful every day that I live in a place that reaffirms the human condition rather than promoting the self-loathing that masquerades as misanthropy.
posted by wfrgms at 6:49 AM on March 23, 2009 [18 favorites]

40% of adults can't think logically because they haven't reached the last stage of cognitive development

kldickson, do you have a citation for that tidbit?
posted by wfrgms at 6:55 AM on March 23, 2009

Wow wfrgms great answer.

It is a terrible conceit to think that we as individuals can simply move through our circumstances without impact; but a very important one, I think. You really do have to make lemonade, even if its not really lemonade. There is really no point in allowing yourself to become distraught over the circumstances of your life, cause its probably not that bad, or probably not that great at the end of the day - it is what it is.
posted by RajahKing at 7:01 AM on March 23, 2009

"Character" is not a great word for this, overlaid as it is with judgments of "poor character" or "negative character."

The answer is: it depends.

While age isn't a guarantor of inflexibility, as people get older, they do tend to become more set in their ways. Also, the types of experiences they have matter. If someone has some legitimately bad experiences happen, through a run of bad luck, circumstances of birth, etc., then their expectations that the world is a bitter place are valid for the experiences they have had, in which case you're asking someone to reject the evidence of their eyes. That is typically a hard sell. Optimism makes sense if it is warranted by experience. If experience does not warrant it, optimism would be irrational.

Certainly we see that some people are very vulnerable to PTSD from negative experiences, more so than others. And who is vulnerable is not easy to predict.

So, without knowing the details of your friend's life (and consider that you might well not know all of their embittering experiences), it is difficult to say how much is inborn tendency and how much of it is legitimate, if unfortunate, learning.

If you're looking for arguments that, gosh, if people just smile more, it'll all be better, your friend has probably had a bellyful of that already.
posted by adipocere at 7:22 AM on March 23, 2009

I am going to answer this from a completely different perspective.

There have been studies demonstrating that people with clinical depression and/or an anxiety disorder plus a particular type of serotonin receptor (that detail won’t be necessary for where I am going with this) do perceive things differently. For example, whereas most people would look at a series of faces and perceive the faces in set A to be neutral, the faces in set B to be happy, and the faces in set C to be angry, people who have depression or the anxiety disorder perceive the set faces in A to be hostile or angry. I’d start from there, memories and perception is skewed making the world a bad place.

What would I do to try to change someone like this? There is a form of treatment that has demonstrated efficacy for people with these disorders, namely, cognitive behavioral therapy: change how they think about things and ultimately perceive things. I think this would be the best course of action – state at the start that they perceive the world and past experiences to equal hostility, and work with someone to change those perceptions.
If this friend or person would not go to this on his or her own, I would try to point out inconsistencies in their thinking – but ultimately, this has to come from the person.
posted by Wolfster at 7:22 AM on March 23, 2009 [2 favorites]

I have had several friends who have devoted themselves to the "geographic cure". It hasn't worked for them. I do believe we all can change and the key is our attitude.
posted by pointilist at 8:12 AM on March 23, 2009

There is also something to be said about places' energies and not being in sync with a particular place where a change of place, pace and direction can in many cases can alter a person's entire outlook on themselves and their relationship to the world at large and a more even flow achieved. There is a saying "Change your place, change your luck - there is more than a grain of truth to this.
posted by watercarrier at 9:13 AM on March 23, 2009

I think either can change a person's attitude, depending on what is causing the attitude. I've had to move frequently the past couple years. In the places I just didn't like living, I had a much more negative attitude than I usually do. When that happens, it's easier for me to feel depressed, and if I feel depressed, it's easier for me to feel negatively toward people in general. In the places I like, nothing could get me down and the world seems great.

Then, having had to move multiple times between these places I like and don't like sort of tempered me toward trying to have a good attitude regardless of where I am. So now the places I don't like don't depress me quite as much.

In that sense, I think it's possible for moving to a certain place to change someone's character. Anything that exposes you to new experiences or changes up your daily routine will change your character in some way. I've certainly seen people who felt trapped in some crappy situation blossom just by moving alone.
posted by Nattie at 10:04 AM on March 23, 2009

I am so appreciative of these answers. Sometimes, I feel like I'm watching a slow motion train wreck. Thank you all.
posted by CollectiveMind at 10:19 AM on March 23, 2009

Some people become bitter because are adrift in the world and feel cheated or rejected by it. In these cases, discovering someone to love, who loves them (and/or children later on) can anchor them back in the world and turn everything around.
Israel had considerable success defanging some of its fanatic stone-cold killers in this way when things had changed and such people had become a liability instead of an asset. I read an article about this (to the effect that Israel had a proven cure for terrorism), but I can't find it amongst all the noise about Israel and violence.
posted by -harlequin- at 1:32 PM on March 23, 2009

It doesn't fix everything - but cognitive therapy/thinking practices can really, really truly help. Quietening down the mind noise - or just not believing every little thought that comes up as the absolute truth can be soooo helpful. I used to think that listening to my own mind spirals used to lead me to great reveleations - then I discovered I was kidding myself.

My relatives used to give me two quotes which still ring true today and really help me:-

'As a Man thinks, so is he' the Bible (my interpretation - garbage in, garbage out)
'and this above all things my son, to thine own self be true, for surely it shall follow as night shall follow day, you cannot be false to any man' Hamlet, Shakepseare (don't feed yourself depressing mindtalk rubbish, don't believe the voices that tell you you are rotten, and you will be ok)

In addition - where depression has reached medication stage, cognitive therapy is a good confidence builder, providing tools for people to help themselves (ourselves), find and stand on their own two feet to regain confidence lost when they found out they had depression. Change the way you view the world so it suits you, not the other way around, because that way never works.
posted by IdleRepose at 2:27 AM on March 26, 2009

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