Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Jun 18, 2019

Improving and Affirming Our Personal Stories Can Make Us Happier, Healthier, and More Successful

by Brett Pelham
woman wearing hijab in the mirror

Human beings are motivated to do many different things – which is both a blessing and a curse. Consider Maslow’s classic theory of human motivation. In the 1950s, Maslow suggested that people first fill their physiological needs and then move on to psychological needs.  This means you won’t worry as much as usual about your safety if you are starving.  Likewise, you won’t work very hard to build close connections to other people until you have filled both your belly and your needs for safety and security. The list of basic needs keeps growing.  In fact, recent research by Doug Kenrick and colleagues suggests that there are several basic needs that not even Maslow acknowledged. 

One problem with being motivated to do many different things is that some of the things we want right now get in the way of other things we want down the road.  Eating lots of ice cream fills a basic physiological need to consume delicious food.  But it does little to promote a healthy body weight.  Further, even when we know we want something, self-doubt and self-sabotage sometimes get the better of us. The singer Jackson Browne seems to have understood very well how hard it can be to create a better future for ourselves. As Browne put it, “while the future’s there for anyone to change, still you know it seems, it would be easier sometimes to change the past.” Can psychologists offer us any good advice about how to change our futures for the better?

Tim Wilson probably can. In his 2011 book, Redirect, Wilson offers readers a great deal of advice about how to create lasting changes.   Wilson offers many tips for getting what you want out of life.  I’ll just summarize just a couple. 

First and foremost, a thread that runs throughout Wilson’s book is the idea that the stories we tell ourselves are very important.  Unfortunately, these stories can sometimes be self-defeating.  For example, many college students believe that anyone who ever struggles academically – or who feels out of place in college – may not belong in college. In a 1982 study, Wilson and his colleagues identified a group of struggling college freshmen.  These were students that, as Wilson put it “were at risk of blaming themselves and thinking they weren't ‘college material.’” 

Half the students were just followed over time – as a control group.  The other half got a simple message.  They learned that a lot of students struggle in their first year of college. They further learned that struggling students merely need to adjust to college and improve their study skills. The experimenters reinforced this message with videos of real college students who reported having had exactly this “it will get better if I keep trying” experience.  This simple intervention had a lasting effect, increasing the future GPAs of the students who were invited to see their setbacks in college in a new light. 

More recently, studies have focused on the personal stories middle schoolers tell themselves over the course of a school year.  These studies show that reinforcing a student’s positive personal stories helps at-risk students perform better in school.  In two large studies of White and Latino middle schoolers, David Sherman and his colleagues had some of the students write about things they deeply valued.  At 4 or 5 key points in the school year, the students selected and wrote about three things they personally valued (chosen from a list of 11 popular values). As an example, a student might be given time in class to write about why she deeply valued being funny, artistic, and religious. (Other students did a very similar writing activity that focused on things they did not deeply value.)

In both studies, Latino middle schoolers who did the self-affirmation exercise – that allowed them to write about what they deeply valued – ended the school year with better grades than Latino students who did the control writing activity.  Among White students, who were generally at lower risk for academic problems, the values affirmation had no effect. Note that this simple and enjoyable exercise did not require any extra tutors, any new computers, or any parental assistance or reminders. Having at-risk students spend a total of about an hour doing something pleasant over the course of a school year increased their GPAs by about a third of a letter grade.  That’s a truly remarkable academic return on investment.     

There are many other ways to help people edit or reinforce their personal stories in constructive ways.  For example, Jamie Pennebaker and his colleagues have asked college students to write about painful or traumatic experiences for about 15 minutes per night – typically for four nights.  This simple exercise allows most people to tell a new story about the painful event and gain a better understanding of it. In addition to improving emotional well-being, this simple writing activity has beneficial effects on people’s physical health.  That’s obviously another great return on investment.

Finally, As Tim Wilson notes, people often construct new stories about themselves when they engage in new behavior. This means that merely getting people to begin doing something they wish to do regularly (as Wilson puts it, “do good, be good”) can help people rewrite their personal stories.  (“Just getting on the track and walking a mile makes me think I can stick to an exercise program after all.”)  There is no magic bullet for making constructive changes to our lives.  But Wilson’s research – and his careful look at the modern research of many others – offers us reason to believe that getting what we want may be within our grasp after all.  In all of us, Wilson argues, there is a little engine that could.      

Note: If you wish to learn more about James Pennebaker’s writing activity and how you can use it in constructive ways in your own life, check out his user-friendly web site: https://liberalarts.utexas.edu/psychology/faculty/pennebak#writing-health


For Further Reading:

Pennebaker, J.W. (2004). Writing to heal: A guided journal for recovering from trauma and emotional upheaval.  Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Press.

Sherman, D. K., Hartson K. A., Binning K. R., Purdie-Vaughns V., Garcia J., Taborsky-Barba S., et al. (2013). Deflecting the trajectory and changing the narrative: How self-affirmation affects academic performance and motivation under identity threat. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 104, 591-618.

Wilson, T. D. (2011). Redirect: The surprising new science of psychological change. New York: Little, Brown. (Paperback version published 2014 with additional chapter).


About the Author

Brett Pelham is a social psychologist who studies the self and social cognition.  He is also an associate editor for Character & Context.

About our Blog

Why is this blog called Character & Context?

Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

Get Email Updates from the Blog