Can Chocolate Take a Bite Out of Stress? Psych Prof Says Yes – If Done Correctly
About a week after most students had left campus, psychology professor Laura Sockol drafted an email to all psychology majors, faculty and staff members. Her instructions were simple: Write down three good things they had experienced that day, and why they thought those things had happened.
As students adjust to changing circumstances, psychology professor Laura Sockol is providing them with evidence-based exercises designed to enhance their well-being, and the well-being of their cooped-up cohabitants. Sockol curates and shares the exercises, which are grounded in positive psychology research.
The simple exercise, she wrote, might make them feel better during a time of tremendous stress.
“In positive psychology, we often say, ‘Bad is stronger than good,’” Sockol’s email said. “For example, the positive emotion that someone feels if they find an unexpected $20 is usually less intense than the negative emotion that someone feels if they lose $20. ’Three Good Things’ is designed to focus your attention on positive experiences.”
Sockol’s email however offered more than a coping mechanism. In a spoonful-of-sugar twist, a link at the bottom of the email pointed readers to a 2003 study from the Journal of Personality & Social Psychology that explained exactly why “Three Good Things” works.
Sockol’s email was intended to soothe stressed-out students. But it also displayed, for all to see, the rigorous backbone that supported her advice—unlike, say, so many of the self-help memes on Facebook.
As psychology chair Kristi Multhaup put it, “She is effectively teaching as well as offering useful coping tools.”
It’s nothing new for Sockol, a clinical psychologist whose research is focused on well-being during the transition to parenthood. She has long been weaving positive psychology exercises into her classes—a win-win for students and the instructor.
For example, in the 300-level Research Methods in Clinical Psychology, Sockol’s students complete a battery of these exercises on their first day.
“The data we generate is used as the basis for a series of lab assignments where students practice conducting and reporting statistical analyses,” Sockol said. “In that class, students have also conducted their own studies of positive interventions.”
Last fall, one of the research teams developed a novel intervention, Sockol said. They showed that 15 minutes of both structured and unstructured play led to significant reductions in negative affect.
But now, Sockol’s emails—which bring new exercises (with links to relevant studies) to inboxes a couple times a week—are finding new audiences.
Ellie Lipp, a sophomore psychology major from Mountain Brook, Alabama, has shared them with her family.
“My family and I have done almost every exercise,” she said. “For an exercise focused on savoring, we gathered a bunch of different types of foods from our pantry, had one member of our family close their eyes, and had them guess what the food was after engaging all of their senses except sight.”
Lipp is also a hall counselor for freshmen who she thought could use a boost. She condensed the first couple of exercises into an infographic that she could share with her students easily.
“I wanted to allow my residents to see these activities in the hopes they could ground them as they have helped me!”
- April 9, 2020