When life gets messy, stress can make it hard to concentrate and keep a clear mind. But simply thinking about one's values can boost that problem-solving ability.
The findings, published today (May 1) in the journal PLOS ONE, suggest that thinking about what's important in life can essentially protect people from some of the corrosive effects of stress.
"Simply thinking about a value can completely ameliorate all these negative effects that stress can have on your problem-solving performance," said study co-author J. David Creswell, a psychologist at Carnegie Mellon University. [5 Ways Your Cells Deal With Stress]
For instance, some studies showed that "affirmation can help you manage threats to your sense of self-worth," Creswell said.
But affirmation isn't about self-esteem, per se.
"It's not a Stuart Smalley type of idea like 'gosh darnit, I really like myself,'" Creswell said.
Instead, self-affirmation means identifying and focusing on each person's most important values, whether they are family, friends, money or leisure.
It also seems to play a role in cognitive performance: Research has shown middle-school students who perform self-affirmations tend to do better academically than those who don't, Creswell said.
Creswell and his colleagues asked 73 college students to solve 12 problems designed to test people's creativity and problem-solving abilities. The team gave students three words, such as "cone," "mobile" and "flake," then asked them what word tied them all together. (In this instance, the word "snow" is the correct answer.)
The researchers then asked students to fill out a questionnaire on their experience of stress in the recent past.
Half of the students also completed a self-affirmation exercise in which they prioritized values, such as family, religion or business/money, and then wrote an essay about why their top-ranked value was important.
On average, students were able to solve around eight out of 12 of the remote association problems. Those students who reported chronic high stress performed even worse: They got approximately five out of the 12 correct, on average.
But stressed-out students tasked with writing a self-affirmation did just as well as their counterparts who weren't stressed, suggesting the mental exercise could protect them from the brain-hindering effects of stress.
No wrong answer
Creswell thinks thinking about what's important may remind people about the resources they have internally to deal with stressful situations.
The boost in problem-solving appeared whether people prized a belief in God, a sense of humor or wealth.
"It doesn't even matter what the value is, it's about finding something that's personally important to you that can have these effects," Creswell said.
Sign up for the Live Science daily newsletter now
Get the world’s most fascinating discoveries delivered straight to your inbox.
Tia is the managing editor and was previously a senior writer for Live Science. Her work has appeared in Scientific American, Wired.com and other outlets. She holds a master's degree in bioengineering from the University of Washington, a graduate certificate in science writing from UC Santa Cruz and a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Texas at Austin. Tia was part of a team at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that published the Empty Cradles series on preterm births, which won multiple awards, including the 2012 Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism.