Are Your Wellbeing Approaches Backfiring?

  • Michelle McQuaid

Do you struggle to consistently make healthy choices when it comes to your wellbeing? You really meant to get the side salad, but somehow wound up munching on a side of fries? You really meant to get in some exercise, but somehow have collapsed on the couch? You really meant to keep your stress levels in check, but now find yourself overwhelmed and anxious?

Let’s face it when it comes to maintaining your wellbeing, often the gap between knowing what you should do and actually doing it can quickly turn into a gigantic chasm. So what can you do to better align your healthy intentions with your actions?

“Whilst we assume that a healthy mindset would serve us best when it comes to improving our wellbeing, we’ve found that this is not always the case, ” explained Dr. Alia Crum, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, when I interviewed her recently. “In fact in some instances our seemingly smart approaches to things like healthy eating may actually be backfiring.”

For example, in one study Alia and her colleagues found that when hungry participants consumed a milkshake labeled ‘Indulgence: Decadence You Deserve’ with 620 calories and 30 grams of fat, their blood levels of ghrelin (known as the hunger hormone) went down leaving them feeling full. The following week when the same hungry participants consumed a milkshake labeled “Sensi-Shake: Guilt Free Satisfaction with 140 calories and zero grams of fat, their blood levels of ghrelin saw a much smaller decline leaving them feeling less full.

But here’s the thing: the milkshake labels were a sham. Both times participants had been given the same 380-calorie milkshake. Yet when they believed the milkshake was an indulgent treat, their grehlin levels dropped three times as much as when they thought it was a diet drink. Because their minds believed they are consumed more calories, their bodies responded accordingly.

Alia’s most recent studies have replicated this effect and found that by changing the labels of healthy dishes on menus to sound more indulgent, exciting or fun, not only are people more likely to opt for these meals but they’ll feel more satisfied after eating them. But how can our beliefs about what we’re eating have such a significant physical impact?

“Your mindsets are a lens through which you view and make sense of the world,” explained Alia. “They interact with your reality and shape your reality in self-fulfilling ways by triggering off a cascade of psychological and physiological effects on attention, arousal, motivation and affect.”

For example, in another study Alia and Professor Ellen Langer put the impact of our mindsets to the test with housekeepers across seven hotels who despite doing work each day that has been found to burn over 300 calories an hour (putting it on par with weight lifting and water aerobics) believed they weren’t exercising regularly and whose blood pressure, waist-to-hip ratio and body weight reflected this perception.   At four of the hotels the housekeepers were given a 15 minute presentation and poster that explained that the work they were doing each day meant that they were clearly meeting or exceeding the general recommendation for physical exercise and should expect to see the health benefits of being active. At the remaining hotels the housekeepers were simply told how important physical exercise was for their health, but not that their work qualified as exercise.

One month later those who had been informed that their work was exercise had lost weight and body fat, their blood pressure was lower and they even like their jobs more. That had not made any other changes outside of their work, it was only their mindset about what they did each day that shifted.   In contrast the housekeepers in the other hotels showed none of these improvements.

This doesn’t mean that if you tell yourself that watching television or eating a donut is a healthy choice that you will burn calories or lose weight. Rather than when two outcomes are possible – in the case of the housekeepers the health benefits of exercise or the strain of physical labor – that your expectations influence which outcome is more likely.

So how can you shape your mindsets to improve your wellbeing?

Alia suggests experimenting with the following approaches:

  • Healthy Eating Mindset – When you eat something you believe is indulgent your body will feel satisfied, and will respond as if you have consumed more calories. By shifting your mindset to believe that healthy foods are snacks or meals that are enjoyable and indulgent, you can boost you motivation to eat them, and help you feel more sated when you consume them.
  • Stress Mindset – developing a stress enhancing mindset can change how your mind and body responds to stressful situations. Studies have found that believing stress is bad for you can increase negative physical symptoms, decrease work productivity, and can lead to premature death, compared with believing that stress can be performance enhancing. Choosing a more helpful mindset is a three step process. Firstly, acknowledge your stress instead of denying it. Then welcome your stress as a sign that you value or care deeply about something. Thirdly, instead of spending your time, money, effort and energy trying to avoid the stress, find ways to use that same time, effort, money and the boost of energy stress gives you to stand up what you care about.
  • Exercise Mindset – When you’re up and moving chances are you’re also exercising your body. From walking to work, to taking the stairs, carrying the groceries, making the beds or doing the vacuuming often we dismiss these everyday activities as opportunities to strengthen and build our bodies. By shifting your mindset to believe that there can be healthy benefits in these everyday movements your expectations may help to improve the physical wellbeing outcomes you’re experiencing.

What can you do shift your mindsets