Harvard Business School might not seem like a likely place to find dating advice, but a recently published working paper has good insights for anyone wishing to perform well under pressure.
The study, which I learned about from the Science of Us blog, shows that people who receive positive feedback before undertaking a stressful task were calmer, more creative, and made a better impression than those who did not.
In the first part of the study, participants read hand-written stories by a close friend or family member describing them at their best. For example: “You are unafraid to be intelligent. So many people, particularly women, are afraid to be the smartest person in the room. You are a wonderful role model for all bright, quick, and articulate women in the world, showing that it is more than ok to be clever and to allow people to see that you are smart. I can think of a time when you won the argument with class, and I found it inspirational.”
Afterwards, the participants were asked to write and deliver a three-minute speech explaining why they should be hired for their ideal job. The people who had read the uplifting feedback were evaluated more highly by observers than individuals in a control group.
In the second phase of the study, researchers monitored the participants’ physiological responses to praise. Each participant read several stories about a time when she performed at her best, written by friends, family members or coworkers. An example of one response: “I remember the time when you stayed up all night to make sure that I knew I was worth more than what my high school bullies would try to make me believe. Your compassion and words allowed me to feel loved in a world that is often cruel. You reminded me of my potential to be a great yet humble person. During those blinding moments, you showed me a lot more about myself that I might not have known until years later.”
The participants then performed a series of stress-inducing and/or problem-solving tasks while researchers monitored their physiology. The researchers found that these individuals had higher resistance to disease and resilience to stress and burnout than people in a control group. They were also more creative with their problem-solving and performed better under pressure.
Here’s what I love about this study: The participants’ friends weren’t pumping them up with phony phrases or platitudes. They were describing real situations accurately. And in doing so, they presented their friends with a version of success that had nothing to do with winning first place or reaching far off goals. Success simply meant being the best version of themselves.
As the researchers note, there is a misguided belief in our culture that focusing on people’s weaknesses inspires them to perform better, and there are few vehicles for recognizing what we admire in others. “Highlighting people at their very best often is reserved for social endings, such as retirement parties and funerals … ,” they wrote. “These results suggest that there is considerable lost potential in keeping silent about how others affect us when they are at their best.”
While the Harvard study was focusing primarily on work, I think it applies to all areas of life, including the search for love. I remember speaking with a woman who, after being single for many years, married a lovely man when she was in her forties. At the wedding, she heard story after story of how wise and strong she had been to hold out for true love.
“It was really nice,” she said. “But I sort of wish people had said this to me when I needed to hear it—like before I met Ben. Back then, the consensus seemed to be that I was too picky.”
So the next time you need a confidence boost, ask a trusted friend what she’ll say about you at your 80th birthday party. Let her tell you about the wonderful person she admires and loves—the person you don’t have to do anything to become, the person you already are.
And then do it for her. After all, that’s the sort of thing your best self would do.
Sara Eckel is the author of It’s Not You: 27 (Wrong) Reasons You’re Single. You can get a free bonus chapter of her book at saraeckel.com. You can also find her on Twitter and Facebook. Ask her any questions here.