Mind over matter: You really can think yourself healthier and happier?

A positive mindset isn’t just mental – it can trigger physical changes making you fitter, slimmer, more energetic and less stressed. It will even help you live longer (New Scientist)


“OUR minds aren’t passive observers simply observing reality as it is; our minds actually change reality. The reality we experience tomorrow is partly the product of the mindsets we hold today.” That’s what Alia Crum told global movers and shakers at this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. It may sound like New Age nonsense, but Crum, who heads the Mind & Body lab at Stanford University in California, can back up her claims with hard evidence showing the mysterious influence the mind has over our health and well-being.

Crum’s pioneering research was inspired by her own experiences as a child gymnast and college ice hockey player. “You can be the same physical being from one day to the next,” she says, “but your mindset can have a dramatic effect on performance and physiological capabilities.” She often wondered why. Then, as a psychology student, she read about the placebo effect and had a eureka moment: if our expectations can influence the effectiveness of a drug, perhaps something similar can happen in other situations, too.

Pursuing that idea, Crum and others have discovered that your mindset affects everything from your weight and fitness to the physical toll of insomnia and stress – even how well you age. The upshot is that two people could have identical genes and lifestyles but one can end up healthier than the other, thanks solely to their different thoughts….”

All these findings give us plenty of reasons to reassess our mindsets. But perhaps the most provocative research concerns ageing – with some strong evidence that negative beliefs could knock decades off your life.

The first clues emerged in the early 1980s. Ellen Langer at Harvard University – who later collaborated with Crum on the hotel cleaner study – took a group of pensioners to a monastery in New Hampshire and told them to act as if they were 22 years younger for the duration of their stay. The retreat was decorated as if the year were 1959, and filled with music, films, magazines and books from that era. Their rooms contained no mirrors, only pictures of their younger selves. After just five days, the pensioners’ arthritis had improved, their posture was more upright, and their thinking – as measured by an IQ test – was sharper.

Inspired by this study, other teams have since shown that our attitudes really can influence how our bodies fare over time. Overall, people who view ageing positively live 7.5 years longer than those who associate it with frailty and senility. Negative perceptions of ageing are not merely the result of poor health; they can foreshadow symptoms by as much as 38 years.