We recently talked to Janina Bühler about her paper, "A closer look at life goals across adulthood: Applying a developmental perspective to content, dynamics, and outcomes of goal importance and goal attainability", which will appear in EJP’s special issue on aging at the European Journal of Personality. Janina is a PhD student at the University of Basel.
Read more about the study below!
Q: Hello Janina! Can you tell us a little about yourself and what got you into personality psychology?
I am a researcher at the University of Basel, about to submit my doctoral dissertation. I connect different research strands of personality, relationships, and life-span research, aiming at providing a better understanding of individuals' personalities, their close relationships, and the transactional development of personality and close relationships across the life course.
As a child, I was already interested in psychology, as I really liked to observe people and get an insight into how they felt and what was going on inside of them – without sounding too much like the classical misconception of a psychologist who can read minds. At first, I wanted to be a clinical psychologist and work with kids. But, after completing a couple of internships, I thought, "Yes, kids are nice, but I don't want to work with them". During my master’s coursework, I took a class on the interplay between personality and romantic relationships and I thought it was enlightening that one could actually study such a topic. It was at this point that I became focused on research.
However, I'm also trained as a couple therapist and also counsel couples from time to time. Sometimes, I have questions from those sessions that I later implement into my research. This also works the other way around; I try to provide information to these couples and to a broader audience through different means than in my research. That's also why I really like the EJP Blog. It helps to encourage broader circulation of our ideas outside of our areas of research, and to transfer what we do as researchers to a broader audience. I think that is generally also my motivation as a scientist.
Q: What is your study about?
In our study, we focused on one particular aspect of personality - life goals – and examined the content, dynamics, and outcomes of what people rate as important and perceive as attainable. Here, our focus was driven by a life-span perspective. This means that we wanted to know how life goals express themselves across the life span. On a statistical level, we examined age as a predictor of the content and, then, we used age as a moderator to elaborate on the dynamics and the outcomes. In terms of dynamics, we tested age as moderator on the reciprocal association between goal importance and goal attainability over time. In terms of outcomes, we investigated age as moderator on the link between goal importance/goal attainability and different indicators of subjective well-being.
In line with our hypotheses, we found that first, goal importance and goal attainability mapped fairly well onto the developmental tasks that people usually encounter in a specific life stage. For example, young adults are considered to be in the "rush hour" of life because they have so many life tasks. We found that particularly goals related to personal growth, status, and work were rated as more important and were perceived as more attainable the younger participants were. We also found that, second, goal importance and goal attainability were reciprocally linked to each other over 2 years with goal importance exhibiting a stronger and more robust effect on goal attainability than vice versa; third, goal attainability of intrinsic goals, compared to goal importance of intrinsic goals, had a more pronounced effect on cognitive indicators (life satisfaction and domain-specific satisfaction) and affective indicators (positive affect and negative affect) of later subjective well-being; and finally, predictions of life goals on later domain-specific satisfaction reflected thematic links (e.g., attainability of health goals predicted satisfaction with health domain).
For age, we found that it was a predictor for goal content. It predicted the importance and attainability of specific goals, like we expected. That is, it mapped onto the developmental tasks associated with the life stages. For the second and third hypothesis on the dynamic interplay and the outcomes, we only found in less than 10% of the cases that age was a moderator.
Implications of our research are that while the content of goals was sensitive to age, the dynamic interplay between goal importance and goal attainability and goals’ predictive power on later well-being were less sensitive to age. In other words, the goals that are relevant for people differs per specific age stage. But when it comes to adapting the goal importance and goal attainability to each other over the timespan of two years, it's not so much a question of age. Also, when it comes to predictions of subjective well-being, it's also not that much a question of whether life goals predict well-being in different life stages. That means that although age is important for what we strive for, it's not so much important for how we strive for and also how we adapt the different parts of goals. This implies that people of any age are able to adjust their goals and to benefit from these goals. In the context of successful aging, our findings suggest that it is relevant that people of any age have goals, and that they have the perception that they can achieve them.
Q: What made you decide to study life goals?
I guess this motivation was manifold. My understanding of personality is heavily shaped by the view of conceptualizing personality as different levels; levels that go beyond core/dispositional characteristics. This drove the decision to study personality aspects on the level of characteristic adaptations/surface characteristics. Life goals, in particular, have the ability to motivate and to navigate behavior, therefore shaping who we are or who we might become in the near future. Given this relevance, it was our motivation to examine how life goals are embedded in people’s lives across adulthood; that is, to scrutinize characteristic motivational aspects of personality in a sample that spanned the entire life span (18 – 92 years).
Q: Where do you see yourself in the (near) future?
Well, this seems to be a question of life goals! I am dedicated to conducting research, so I see myself in the near future as a postdoctoral researcher contributing further insights to the fascinating research areas of personality psychology, relationship research, and life-span research. For instance, when you think of a personality-relationship transaction – so how does personality affect romantic relationships and how do romantic relationships affect personality in terms of development – I'm always interested in examining whether age matters. I think it's totally important to have the possibility at least to try to find findings that are generalizable across the lifespan, or to find more age specific findings. Both in personality research and relationship research, I'm driven by this thought of how age matters.
Q: Do you have any tips or advice for young researchers?
Well, I am a young researcher myself. I think the most important aspects during this early stage of one’s academic career are dedication, passion, and commitment to the research we do. At the same time, it is essential to have wise mentors, role models, and experts we are eager to learn from. Together, this provides, at least in my view, the best catalyst for expanding one’s potential.
In addition, I don't think you can push yourself to find something you want to dedicate yourself and devote so much time to. So it's more a matter of that it emerges and, once you have found it, you have to stick to it. Because when it's really something that you want to do, you need to keep going. I think it's natural to have setbacks – that's part of the game. Try not to be too sad or frustrated if something doesn't work. And above all, try to like what you do, it's an amazing job – if you can even say it's a job.