Writing about values can improve your life

A fifteen minute writing exercise on values may help improve academic success, reduce stress and increase prosocial behavior.

Take a minute to think about things in your life that are important to you, the things you really value. Things you value might include your family, your faith, your job, music, art, sports, reading or spending time with loved ones. Pick three things and in just fifteen minutes write a couple of sentences about why they are important to you. It is a simple technique and research has proven this writing exercise can have life changing effects on people.       

In one case, Akira Miyake from the University of Colorado used the technique of value affirmation to help close the gender gap between the young women and men in his university physics course. Women who choose to pursue Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) career paths need to contend with a long history of gender stereotypes. If women buy into this stereotype, even a little, it can cost them greatly in lower grades.

Miyake used this writing exercise twice at the beginning of the semester. He randomly chose two groups. One group did the value affirmation writing exercise (what is important to them and why), and another group of students wrote about their least important values and why they thought these values were important to others. At the end of the semester, in the group of students who wrote about their least important values, the men out-performed women on tests by an average of 10 points. However, in the group of students who participate in the value affirmation exercise the gender gap disappeared, with more women getting B’s rather than C’s. The men’s scores stayed the same.

In several other studies conducted by Geoffrey Cohen in 2005 in middle schools, similar results were shown in closing the academic performance gap between African American and Latino students, and Caucasian students. Students were given a value affirmation writing exercise at three critical times: the beginning of the year, before exams and before the winter holiday break (all seen as high-stress times). At the end of the year, the racial academic gap was reduced by 30 percent. In comparison, there was no difference in the academic performance of Caucasian students. This indicates the greatest impact of value affirmations is specific to those under the most “stereotypical threat” or stress.

Students can experience high levels of stress related to social belonging when transitioning from grade school to middle school and then again from high school to college. Young people may benefit from a value affirmation writing exercise during these major academic milestones.

Constant high levels of stress hormones, such as cortisol, can lead to physical and mental health issues. In another study, J.D. Creswell in 2005 demonstrated that having people write about personal values can help lower levels of stress hormones and lead to a healthier life.

Another study done by Sander Thomaes and Brad Bushman in 2011, shows that having young people write about personal values and needs actually helps increase their responsiveness to the needs of others improves their prosaical behaviors. The most dramatic changes were in youth with the most teacher reported antisocial behaviors. Value affirmations can be a promising intervention to help young people adopt more prosocial behaviors. It allows them to write about their own personal values and gives them a stronger sense of self.

Even though it seems like a simple fix, well-timed value affirmations, or writing about what is really important to you and why, can help close gender and racial academic gaps, reduce stress in young people and adults, and help young people develop more positive behaviors. In short, fifteen minutes of writing may lead to a happier, healthier and more productive life.

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