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How a Positive Mind Really Can Create a Healthier Body

By Jacob Andreae

What you think about — everything from the food you eat to the stress you experience — directly influences how your body responds. Even doing all the right things for your health may be undermined by simply thinking negatively about them. Positive thinking is a key component of optimism, and the good news is, optimism can be learned, practiced and bettered.


Many years ago, I was suggested to read a book by one of my cousins who is a psychologist, which I truly believe changed my life. The book was called Learned Optimism and was written by Dr Martin E. P. Seligman. The book explains how optimism can be learned and how you can use the three P’s do so. The 3 P’s are: Permanent, Pervasive and Positive. Learning to be more optimistic is habit change, and it needs to be practiced so.


Mindset underpins everything.

Positive thinking isn’t about burying your head in the sand and ignoring all of life’s challenges and so-called “negative” experiences. Positive thinking is about approaching life’s challenges and less-than-ideal experiences in a more positive way. In positive thinking, you focus on better case scenarios; and if worst-case scenarios occur, you acknowledge they are fleeting moments in time and look to learn from them.

How a Positive Mind Really Can Create a Healthier Body


Physical activity. A 2007 study by Alia Crum and Ellen Langer of Stanford University in California manipulated the mindsets of 84 female hotel cleaners across seven hotels. The researchers told half of the participants (the informed group) that cleaning the hotel rooms met the Surgeon General’s recommendations for an active lifestyle. Four weeks later, the informed group perceived themselves to be getting significantly more exercise than before. As a result, when compared to the control group, they showed a decrease in weight, blood pressure, body fat, waist-to-hip ratio, and body mass index.


Hunger. A later study by Crum and colleagues in 2011 tested whether physiological satiation as measured by the gut peptide Ghrelin may vary depending on one’s mindset towards food. Crum told the 46 participants that a 380-calorie milkshake contained 620 calories and was “indulgent” on one occasion and then 140 calories and was “sensible” on another occasion. When participants consumed the shake believing it was “indulgent”, they had a dramatically steeper decline in Ghrelin after consuming the shake meaning they felt less hungry. On the other hand, when participants believed it was “sensible”, their Ghrelin response was relatively flat, meaning the drink didn’t really do anything to curb their hunger. 


Stress. Another study by Crum and colleagues in 2017 manipulated the stress mindset of 113 participants using multi-media film clips to either enhance or debilitate the nature of stress. They found that a stress-is-enhancing mindset produced sharper increases in growth hormones relative to a stress-is-debilitating mindset. In addition, when the stress was evaluated as a challenge, the stress-enhancing mindset produced sharper increases in positive affect, heightened attention to positive stimuli, and greater cognitive flexibility. With so much public health messaging around the debilitating nature of stress, this could be doing more harm than good when there are in fact plenty of enhancing qualities.


Tiredness. A study by Kenneth Lichstein in 2017 found that insomnia identity is a better predictor of daytime impairment than actual poor sleep. People can be “complaining good sleepers” or “non-complaining poor sleepers”. Those who slept well (according to sleep-time monitoring of brain activity) but believed they are insomniacs, were most likely to experience daytime fatigue, high blood pressure, depression and anxiety. On the other hand, poor sleepers (once again, according to monitoring of their brain activity while they sleep) who didn’t believe they had a poor night sleep, were surprisingly free of ill-effects. 


Ageing. A study by Langer in 1981 (who later collaborated with Crum on that physical activity study in 2007) took eight men in their 70’s and had them live in a converted monastery in New Hampshire, which was decorated as if it were 1959. Everything — the music playing on the radio, the shows on the TV, the magazines on the bookshelf, the decor, absolutely everything — was designed to make the participants feel as though it was 1959. They had no mirrors, only pictures of their younger selves. After only five days, the men’s manual dexterity had improved, their posture was more upright, their sight improved, and their thinking (as measured IQ) was sharper.


You can do all the behaviours that improve health perfectly — get a good amount of high quality sleep, eat high-quality food, drink the purest water so you’re are chronically hydrated, exercise in all the components of fitness — but if you’re thinking about any of these is negative, you may not be getting the full benefits, or worse, you could be doing harm to your health. These studies show that the placebo effect is real and your thinking is key. Mindset underpins everything. Practice learned optimism to develop a positive mind to create a healthier body.


How do you think about physical activity, food, stress, sleep and ageing?


Leave your answer to that question in the comments section below. 


Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash

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