Recently, I was alerted to a post by Wharton professor and author Adam Grant – it had appeared on LinkedIn and was about the power of expressive writing to improve productivity. For those who do not have the time to read it all, here are some of the amazing results.
Four months after 100 senior engineers were laid off by a computer company, not a single one had found employment. In a bid to understand the situation, Stefanie Spera and Eric Buhrfeind conducted a study, aided by health psychologist James Pennebaker.
The engineers were divided into three groups. In the control group, the engineers did nothing unusual. The remaining engineers were randomly assigned to a second control group, where they wrote about time management, or they joined an expressive writing group, which involved keeping a journal about their deepest thoughts and feelings associated with the job loss.
Three months later, in the two control groups, less than 5% of the engineers were reemployed. In the expressive writing group, more than 26% of the engineers were reemployed. Interestingly, expressive writing didn’t land the engineers any more interviews. It just increased the odds that they were hired when they did have an interview.
Expressive writing affected the quality, not the quantity, of their job search. The engineers who wrote down their thoughts and feelings about losing their jobs reported feeling less anger and hostility toward their former employer. They also reported drinking less.
Eight months later, less than 19% of the engineers in the control groups were reemployed full-time, compared with more than 52% of the engineers in the expressive writing group.
However, I believe that sometimes, when you engage in the expressive writing process, it begins by making the situation worse! We have all been given the advice that if you have experienced a stressful event you should sit down and write about it.
The hypothesis is that to suppress negative experiences is stressful, and to express them will lift the burden. But this is not always the case.
In another study, a collection of adults that had had a stressful experience were divided into two groups.
In the control group, the adults wrote about everyday topics – they described their shoes, their living rooms, and a tree. In the treatment group, the adults wrote about the most traumatic experience of their lives. They expressed their deepest thoughts and feelings about the traumatic event. They wrote for 15 minutes a day over the course of four days.
The results were totally unexpected. Writing about a traumatic experience made the participants worse off. They were unhappier and more distressed, and had higher blood pressure. The researchers had apparently discovered a fool-proof method for causing depression.
The good news is that after two weeks the results were reversed. It turns out expressing the traumatic event did improve their health; it just didn’t improve it straight right away.
The other key finding of research in this area is that writing about traumatic events only improves health when people describe facts and feelings. The writers must involve their emotions.
By putting their feelings into words, they can start making sense of a negative event. They come to understand it better, gain insight and perspective, and sometimes even find silver linings. Now that they have a coherent story about the negative event, it’s easier to summarise and move on.
All this work is a terrific example of emotional intelligence in action.