Study: These ‘Mind Hacks’ Help People Make Healthier Choices

Study: These ‘Mind Hacks’ Help People Make Healthier Choices
General Health

A study released earlier this year shows that there are some mindset hacks revolving around total self-improvement that can help you make healthier choices in life.

If you’ve been finding it difficult to make healthy lifestyle changes, you’re not alone. That frustration can wreck your self-confidence and make it even harder to do what you need to do for your own benefit. Most people know that leading a sedentary lifestyle is unhealthy and that they need to get moving, but being told not to do so … well, it can be off-putting.

Senior study author Emily Falk, Associate Professor of Communication, Psychology, and Marketing at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication, said in a statement: [1]

“One of the things that get in the way of people changing their behavior is defensiveness. When people are reminded that it’s better to park their car further away and get in a few more steps, or to get up and move around at work to lower their risk for heart disease, they often come up with reasons why these suggestions might be relevant for somebody else, but not for them.”

Fortunately, there are simple things we can do to change this mindset, which will ultimately help you to get past any aversion you may have to hearing messages about getting active and abandoning a sedentary lifestyle. [2]

Researchers recruited 220 sedentary adults and divided them into 3 groups. Those in the first 2 groups (“self-transcendent” groups) were given mindset tasks intended to help participants stop focusing on themselves and focus on others.

  • Group #1 was asked to think about something they valued deeply – family, friends, spirituality, etc. – and think about those things in detail. For example, envisioning the next time they’d spend time with friends and what sorts of activities they would do together.
  • Group #2 was asked to repeatedly wish the people in their lives well. For instance, wishing them health and happiness.
  • Group #3 – the control group – was told to go about their business as usual.

Read: 10 Small Steps to Help Change Your Life and the World

Each participant underwent an fMRI brain scan while they completed these mindset tasks. Then, they were confronted with a series of health messages aimed at getting them to become more physically active.

One message focused on “making a habit of walking up and down stairs whenever possible instead of taking the elevator.” Another message was brutally honest, stating that “sedentary people are at serious risk of heart disease … and higher risk of sickness and death.”

The experiment continued for the next month, with the first 2 groups continuing to receive self-transcendent messages (focusing on friends and loved ones, etc.) and the control group receiving neutral messages. Then, all of the groups of participants received health messages similar to the first.

As you might have guessed, the participants who completed the self-transcendent mindset tasks and received the follow-up tasks were more likely to ditch their sedentary lifestyle during the month.

Also, their brain scans showed greater activity in areas of the brain associated with reward and positive valuation compared to those of the control group. In other words, redirecting their thoughts helped “prime” their brains to accept health messages they would have otherwise rejected and to accept positive rewards.

Interestingly, similar brain activity is seen in people who are actively pursuing activities they are excited or passionate about.

The researchers theorize that self-transcendent thoughts help people break out of their defensive shell and focus on others, which is both intrinsically rewarding and teaches people to think and behave in new, healthier ways.

Read: Our Greatest Health is Happiness: How Compassion Makes Us Happy and Healthy

Falk said:

“If you let people first ‘zoom out’ and think about the things and people that matter most to them, then they see that their self-concept and self-worth aren’t tied to this particular behavior – in this case, their lack of physical activity.”

Lead author Yoona Kang noted that “people often report that self-transcendence is an intrinsically rewarding experience. When you are having concerns for others, these can be rewarding moments.” [1]

In a nutshell, it’s often much easier to do things for the people you care about than it is to do things for yourself.

Kang said:

“The idea of self-transcendence – caring for others beyond one’s own self-interest – is a potentially powerful source of change.”

The study is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


[1] HealthDay

[2] Forbes