Most psychology studies aren’t that much use to us in our daily lives because most psychologists aren’t that interested in giving us practical advice on how to improve ourselves. In these two studies, however, the researchers stumbled across a way to drastically improve our daily lives. They figured out how to make people get physically younger and become healthier by using nothing but their minds.
The year was 1979, but for a group of elderly men, the year was actually 1959. At least, Ellen Langer, the psychologist leading the study, had convinced them to pretend that the year was 1959:
The magazines, newspapers, and music the men saw and heard were all 20 years old and the men themselves were told to behave and talk as if it were 1959.
It doesn’t sound particularly impressive does it? Get a bunch of old men to play make-believe, what could that possibly do? Apparently it can do a lot, because at the end of the experiment the men:
- Looked visibly younger
- Had straighter posture
- Had more flexible joints
Now the problem with all of those is that they’re kind of hard to measure. There was, however, one area of improvement where the evidence was incontrovertible: finger length.
As we get older, our bodies succumb to gravity and generally shrink, and our fingers, which are no exception to this rule, get shorter. But the fingers of the men in this study were actually longer at the end of the experiment. The aging process had literally been reversed.
Healthy Hotel Maids
Just a year ago, in 2007, Ellen Langer started a new experiment, this time with colleague Alia Crum. The researchers took various health measurements from a group of 84 hotel workers, and then split the group in two. They told one group that the physical exercise they were getting by cleaning hotel rooms satisfied the Surgeon General’s recommendations for an active lifestyle and the maids were given specific examples of how their work was actually exercise.
Langer and Crum told the other group, the control group, nothing.
And the results:
Four weeks later, Langer and Crum returned to find some measurements of both groups: the control group hadn’t changed physically, but the test group had decreased all of the following: weight, blood pressure, body fat, waist-to-hip ratio, and body mass index.
It’s important to realize that the maids hadn’t actually done anything different, they changed all those physical aspects of themselves with their minds. It almost sounds like science fiction, but it’s not. Your mind is an extremely powerful tool for change.
So what can we learn from this?
What was going on in the brains of the senior citizens and the hotel workers is a process called the psychosomatic effect. Most of you are probably familiar with the psychosomatic effect but don’t know it, because it’s what causes stress to be so unhealthy for us.
But rather than letting it make us unhealthy, we should be using the psychosomatic effect to our advantage:
- Think Young – It might be a stretch to surround ourselves with 20 year old magazines and T.V. shows like the seniors in the first study did, but there are other things you can do to stay young. First, don’t act your age! Most people would agree that people younger than themselves are more active and are out having more fun, so go be more active and have more fun. Second, recognize and enjoy the things in your life that are ‘young’, like that sport you love to play or that late night out with friends.
- Think Healthy – It would be difficult to sit on the couch and think your waist line smaller, but what you can do is recognize that the exercise you do get is effective and good for you.
- Think Happy – This may sound a little counter-intuitive, but just like stress has a lot of negative effects on the body, happiness has a lot of positive effects on the body. One thing you can do is just be mindful of your own mood. If you’re not happy, look for some aspect of the situation you find yourself in that is positive, and be grateful for it. Something else you can do is smile more. Our brains don’t know the difference between a real smile and a fake smile, so even a fake smile, although it might not look great, causes your brain to release a lot of the same ‘happy chemicals’ that it would release if your smile had been real.
These are all great ways to use the psychosomatic effect to your benefit, but remember that it’s equally easy for it to have a negative effect on your body. That means that you should also focus on banishing negative thoughts from your mind, lest they counteract all your positive thinking.
– How You Tell The Story Of Your Life by Senia Maymin