According to new research, writing down affectionate thoughts about close friends and family can reduce your cholesterol levels. Floyd et al. (2007) randomly assigned participants to one of two groups: one experimental and one control. The experimental group wrote with affection about one person in their lives for 20 minutes on three occasions over a five-week period. The control group wrote mundane descriptions of their activities over the week, jobs they had done and places they had lived.
The results from two separate studies demonstrated that after only 25 days, the experimental group who had written affectionate notes, showed a significant reduction in cholesterol. These reductions were seen independently from the effects of general health factors like age, drinking, smoking and so on. Mean cholesterol levels reduced from 170 mg/dL to 159 mg/dL (figures are from the second study which was methodologically more secure).
The researchers also examined whether linguistic features of the experimental group’s writing affected cholesterol reduction. They found that those who wrote directly to someone showed greater reductions in cholesterol than those who wrote in the third person about someone.
One of the strengths of this study was that it specifically examined the benefits of expressing affection. Other studies have found evidence for the benefits of expressing affection but have had difficulties separating the expressing from the receiving. This is because when you express affection towards someone else, they are likely to reciprocate. Expressing is, therefore, tightly bound up with receiving.
In an age where human nature is often considered profoundly selfish, here’s a selfish reason to be nice to people. Of course compared with all the money-spinning methods of reducing cholesterol levels around nowadays, you’ll never see this one advertised (except on PsyBlog!) because it’s essentially free. So, pass it on…
These are preliminary results. The research was carried out in a small sample (Study 1, N=34; Study 2, N=30) of healthy US college students all in the normal range for cholesterol. More research will be required to see if this generalises across cultures, overall health status and so on. On the other hand, the possible side-effects of writing affectionate letters are not that worrying, unless you count paper cuts.
» This post is part of a series on the psychology of relationships.