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17 Aug 2020


Have you ever seen a product advertisement and thought to yourself, “Why would I buy something like that?” Whoever was selling that product was probably hoping you would buy it, but they failed to show or convince you how the product would be beneficial to you. Sometimes reading research can feel like that. At times you can think “so what?” or “who cares?” We ask ourselves these questions because it is unclear how the research (or product!) can be useful to us. Here are some tips for how to connect research to real life.

1. Recognize the tale being told

Most research tells two basic types of tales: cautionary or triumphant. Cautionary tales in literature help us recognize “dangers” like the Big Bad Wolf. Scientific cautionary tales alert us to patterns of threat and risk, such as the link between smoking and poor health. Literary triumph tales teach us about heroic strength and powerful tools, like Harry Potter’s bravery and magic wand. Scientifically supported strengths and tools include physical health and social support - having them helps people with all kinds of challenges! Knowing the type of tale you’re reading will help you focus on what your takeaway should be: a healthy awareness of a risk or a helpful tool to try out. As a helping professional or policy maker, you can instead loosely translate “dangers” in cautionary tales as “indicators of people who could probably use my help.” Likewise, you can translate “tools” in triumph tales as “skills to be taught that can enhance the well-being of the people I serve.”

2. Look at the details and put them in motion

Maybe you read a triumph tale study and learned that social support is a tool for maintaining mental health - great! But do you know how to use it? Try reading deeper into the study to find what the researchers specifically meant by “social support.” Was it a count of the number of friends? Having at least one friend to call when in need? With a clearer picture of what the researchers meant, you can think of specific ways to apply this information. Do you need to get out and socialize to up your friend count? Do you need to let yourself be okay with reaching out for help? Try to plan your next steps like an actionable to-do list. A great way to get started is by asking yourself “based on this information, what is something I can do or try?” If you are a helping professional or a policymaker, ask yourself, “How do I help my client or constituents put this into practice?” Perhaps a clinician can assist their client in developing a realistic plan of inviting a new acquaintance to coffee in order to build their social support. Alternatively, policymakers and community leaders can provide public space or host community events that bring people together, creating opportunities to boost social support among those whom leaders are responsible for.

3. Be resourceful

Perhaps a study demonstrates that healthy family functioning can be a tool to enhance overall life satisfaction. But none of us come from perfect families, so how is that supposed to help? Sometimes the findings from a study will direct you to focus on resources at your disposal to get to the tool you need. As a family aiming for healthier functioning, you can seek out online resources or professional services. As a helping professional, you can employ your existing techniques or seek new training in a specific area. As a policy maker, you can write policies that help families have better access to resources or use funding to build programs and host events that support families in obtaining the tools that research has unearthed.

4. Take note of the characters

Broadly speaking, who participated in the study? Try and see them in your mind’s eye. Do you see yourself or people you care about? If the study is about military children, the study might be about your child! If not, you might know a military child, work with one in a classroom or therapy practice, or have military child constituents. This is important because it helps you understand to whom the findings will best apply. Okay, now think about who participated, more specifically? Dig deeper. Maybe the study is about military children, but it turns out all of these children were white, age 2-5, and from Great Britain. Maybe the people you were picturing don’t seem to fit here anymore. That doesn’t mean this study doesn’t matter; you will just have to work harder to exercise your judgement in applying the findings.

5. Be mentally flexible and creative

If a cautionary tale points out risk, don’t assume it is destiny at work! Research highlights patterns that tend to be true among the people who participated, so it might not apply to different types of people who weren’t in the study. It might not also capture exceptions. This means that, even if you read a scientifically solid study, always consider the findings with healthy caution. One good study does not convey absolute truth. Lots of studies working together to study a phenomenon is a much more trustworthy illustration of what we really know about any given risk (or tool)! If a triumph tale points to a tool, remember there is more than one way to use it. Hammers can be used to insert nails, but can also be used to remove nails, and even to remove wine corks. Think about how tools can be used in your hands specifically. Maybe you have fairly stable mental health, and for you it is a tool to help you maintain relationships and do well at work. Great! Maybe you’re a person with depression and for you, “good” mental health is having a day where you take a shower. Great! This level of mental health can instill hope for better days ahead. The same tool can be used differently by different people.

6. Conduct your own research

If you’re having trouble applying research, remember how big the scientific community is! A quick search can bring information to clarify a concept, or point you to relevant resources for minimizing risk and maximizing tools. Good research that has been replicated is also likely to have testimonials from those who have applied the findings themselves. Venture out bravely, ready to ask questions and make connections.

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