AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.
For many Americans, today is a reset day. We look at our waistlines, our drinking habits, maybe how much we're getting done on that secret dream project; and we commit to do better in the New Year, to finally step into the selves we've always wanted to be.
This next story is about a technique that could help. It involves telling yourself slightly altered personal stories. Turns out, editing your own life story can result in huge changes in your behavior, from health and self-control to performance at work and school. NPR's Lulu Miller reports.
LULU MILLER, BYLINE: Before I heard about this technique from a research psychologist, I heard about it from my nephew.
MILLER: He's 4 and a half. His name is Lewis. And what happened is this: When he was 2and a half, he happened to encounter a thing that terrified him, a 4-foot tall statue of Frankenstein.
ALEXA: Do you remember that time we saw the Frankenstein in the toy store?
MILLER: That's his mom - my sister Alexa.
LEWIS: I think I do.
MILLER: The statue was standing just outside of a toy store. And Lewis was so startled by it ...
MILLER: ....take it away, Alexa.
ALEXA: He ran deep into the store, and he had this expression on his face that I have very rarely seen in his almost five years of being alive. It was like, shock.
MILLER: Of course, now he had a problem. To leave the store, he was going to have to walk by the Frankenstein again. So he steeled himself; he held his mother's hand; and they walked closer and closer.
ALEXA: And then he just jumped into my arms. (Laughter) And he kind of put his head into my shoulder. So we left the store.
MILLER: And she said that after that...
ALEXA: He was really rattled. Really, really rattled.
MILLER: They had to make a four-hour car ride.
ALEXA: And the entire car ride, he just said over and over, hey, Mom, do you remember the Frankenstein? And I'd say, yeah. And then he'd be quiet for a little bit and then it would just start over. Hey, Mom, do you remember the Frankenstein - do you remember that? Do you remember that? He was so stuck on it.
MILLER: Again and again, he told the story of running past Frankenstein in fear. Sometimes he'd make his mom tell it back to him.
ALEXA: Frankenstein, the Frankenstein, the Frankenstein.
MILLER: And then, after likely hundreds of retellings, suddenly something funny happened.
ALEXA: He jumped in and said, and I pooped on the Frankenstein.
ALEXA: And then I peed on the Frankenstein.
MILLER: She said his face was pure delight.
ALEXA: You know, it became not a story about how scared he was, but it became a story about how he overpowered it.
MILLER: And that was the Frankenstein story that lasted.
LEWIS: And I pooped on it.
TIM WILSON: Well, my main thought is your nephew is a brilliant story editor. What a nice turn of narrative.
MILLER: This is Tim Wilson, the aforementioned peer-reviewed psychologist.
WILSON: I am a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia.
MILLER: And I took this story to him because, well, teaching people to pee on Frankenstein is basically what he does for a living.
WILSON: Yeah, sure.
MILLER: He calls the technique story editing.
WILSON: Story editing.
MILLER: But the principle is the same. The idea is that bad stories can actually bring you down; stories like, I'll never succeed or nobody likes me, or I'm a coward.
WILSON: That's, unfortunately, self-reinforcing; that once you say that to yourself, it's very hard to get out of it.
MILLER: But if you tweak a story like that just a little bit...
LEWIS: I pooped on it.
MILLER: ...it can help you get out of a place of fear or unhappiness or defeat.
WILSON: A little tweak to our story can go a long way to changing what we do, and how happy we are. And there are, you know, for those of us who aren't as clever as your nephew and are struggling with events, there are writing exercises that I think do just that. They allow us to find a different meaning in something that's bothering us, in ways that we can put it behind us.
MILLER: And that, says Wilson, is the first step toward recovery: making sense of a negative outcome. And back in the 1980s, Wilson discovered how profoundly a simple writing exercise - seriously, ones that take less than 40 minutes - can help. In that study, he watched as a new story helped college students...
WILSON: Improve their grades.
MILLER: And though his research interests have since changed, ever since then he's been keeping track of whenever a story editing intervention was successful. And recently, he complied all these examples into a book called "Redirect," which reads as a sort of "Ripley's Believe It or Not" of story editing - story Editing interventions that can help parents stop abusing their kids; story editing that can reduce violence, depression, drug abuse.
WILSON: And let me give you another example, if I may.
MILLER: Social belonging. In this study, two Stanford professors did an intervention with college freshmen - men and women, white and minority. The researchers knew that freshmen often have trouble connecting socially on campus, especially minority students. And the researchers also knew that the kids tended to blame themselves for their problems.
WILSON: I just said to these students, hey, you know what? A lot of people experience social difficulties at first. A lot of people have trouble making a lot of friends at first, and it's a natural part of the college process.
MILLER: What they did is have the students read accounts written by older students who'd had a hard time fitting in at first, but then ended up happy.
WILSON: And I actually asked them to make a speech for high school students.
MILLER: Describing what they just learned.
WILSON: So that incoming students know to expect that it might be a little rough at first.
MILLER: And that was basically it. One intervention less than an hour long, in which the students were simply asked to consider a different story - that having no friends at first, is normal.
WILSON: It was fascinating. It led to a remarkable turnaround. They did better academically. Three years later, if they had gotten this intervention, they were actually healthier than the control group that didn't. I think it's another one of these little story editing nudges that seems trivial, but it's self-reinforcing. And it just cascades in a positive way, down the road.
MILLER: Now, if you want to try this at home, simply Google the name James Pennebaker. He's a psychologist at UT Austin who's another one of the pioneers of this work. And up on his website, he's got a bunch of exercises you can do to try this yourself.
WILSON: Typically in the Pennebaker writing technique, you write for three or four nights in a row - maybe 15 minutes each time - about a particular problem. And you just write about your deepest feelings. You try to open up, and just write freely about what it is.
MILLER: And that's all you do. You pick a troubling event, and write everything you can about it for 15 minutes, for four days.
WILSON: We know that from many, many experiments that randomly assign people to do this - or to a control condition that doesn't - is that on average, it is helpful. We know that college students who do this don't go to the health services much. Workers who do it have better attendance records. There's lots and lots of data.
MILLER: The way that this seems to work is that as people write about this troubling, confusing event again and again, eventually they begin to make some new sense of it.
WILSON: By the end of it, they have constructed a new narrative. They've found some new meaning in the event. They've looked at it in a different angle. They've, in a way, tied it up so that it doesn't prey on them as much.
MILLER: Which brings me back to my nephew. I can report that as of Thanksgiving 2013, Lewis is unafraid of Frankenstein. My sister actually tested. She pulled up a photo of that same green, bolted-face...
ALEXA: All right, ready?
MILLER: ...to see how Lewis would react.
LEWIS: He doesn't look scary.
MILLER: A self-confidence...
MILLER: ...that is built on an act of imagination. He didn't pee on Frankenstein. He cowered like a little baby in his mother's arms.
WILSON: But what's the harm? If it conquers the fear and doesn't lead to maladaptive behaviors in the future, I see no problem with it.
MILLER: A little lie can go a long way?
LEWIS: Bye, Frankenstein
MILLER: Lulu Miller, NPR News, Washington.
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CORNISH: For writing exercises to help you edit your own story, visit our health news blog Shots, at NPR.org.