Saturday, September 12, 2015

What Works?: Mindset, Positive Thinking, Negative Thinking the Placebo Effect, Optimism

We live in a world of “spin doctors”-those public relations folks who manage to put a positive spin on just about anything. While we often disregard this type of information, we react quite differently when it’s a doctor or a perceived authority that tells us something.

Study after study has documented the “placebo effect.”  If a doctor administer medication for pain, versus a pump that automatically delivers the exact same dosage, the patient has better pain relief. How information is perceived, organized and interpreted impacts how we feel and heal.

Dr. Alia Crum in her TEDx talk Change Your Mindset, Change the Game, describes a number of research studies that demonstrate that if we believe that something is going to be helpful to us, or if what we are doing matters, we are more likely to fair better. For example, hotel workers told that their daily work met the Surgeon General’s requirement for exercise actually lost weight, reduced blood pressure etc. in subsequent months as compared to similar workers who weren’t given that information. 

Having a positive mindset definitely matters as our psychological and physiology are benefited or harmed by how we feel and perceive things. Research shows that those who are optimistic have major health benefits, live longer, less chance of developing chronic disease, better outcomes when diagnosed with serious illness and are able to handle life’s difficulties. Optimism 

However, there is a difference between optimism and pop culture’s “positive thinking” movement, which is best summarized in “The Secret.” This book, movie and countless Oprah hypes says that if you want something long enough and do various incantations and such, it will come true. However research shows that  willing yourself and applying the “Law of Attraction” by focusing on the outcome alone does not get the job done. It’s like the amputee spending lots of time visualizing his limb growing back. Not happening.

As a backlash to the “positive psychology” movement, there are now lots of books and discussion about how negativity is good for you. The Greeks believed in “the premeditation of evils,” or visualizing the worst-case scenario. This was my mother in a nutshell, who was a lot of fun to hang around with-unless she was worrying about some awful scenario-and she lived to be 99.

Cut to the chase, there are lots of ideas about what works and what doesn’t as far as creating a mindset that is conducive to healing. In truth, what works for me might not work for you. That noted, consider the following:

• Invest in the Process: As Warren Buffett noted, We enjoy the process far more than the proceeds. Focus on outcome (cure, remission or whatever else) as a direction you are heading towards, but do not invest in it. Instead invest in the process. Invest in the Process of Healing 

• Understand that failure is an important part of the process: Failure is not a flaw. It is not only a part of life, but it’s what helps us move forward. “...without the sting of failure to spur us to reassess and rethink, progress would be impossible. …” One entrepreneur even went so far as to say “If you aren’t failing, you aren’t trying hard enough.”

Although you may not always be able to avoid difficult situations, you can modify the extent to which you can suffer by how you choose to respond to the situation.” Dali Lama

Be a thriver not just a survivor by practicing resiliency 

• Be realistic: While it’s important to dream big and “shoot for the stars,” recognize what is a realistic goal or outcome and what isn’t.

• Do the work: No one wins a marathon by thinking they will but never bothering to train. So just thinking healing and healthy thoughts isn’t going to be all that helpful. Take action where you can-such as healthy eating, exercise, getting sufficient sleep etc. Check out Healing the Whole Person: Ways to Increase Well-Being 

I've mentioned this before, but Ellen Langer, a psychologist at Harvard, has been doing cutting edge research on the importance of developing mindfulness, which doesn't require meditation or yoga. Check out her interview with Krista Tippet's show On Being. 

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