Take a moment to ponder your response to this question : What is your health based upon?
Typical answers regard factors we can relate to but not necessarily control. Some might answer genetics or geography, age or nutrition, mood or some combination of these.
Few would reply that our state of health is a reflection of our perceptual expectations influenced by the prevailing social construct. Pardon? Come again?
Let me illustrate with a few examples:
Have you ever thought about eye charts? No, me neither, until it was pointed out that these are designed in such a way that the large letters are at the top and the smallest at the bottom. So the inherent expectation built into this test is that at some point you will not be able to see. (Failing eyesight is inevitable is it not?) When a researcher reversed the chart – little letters at the top, big letters at the bottom, the test results were different for participants. Their eyesight scores improved.
In another perceptual study, researchers wanted to look at the healing rates of two groups with identical wounds – in this case gunshot trauma to the abdomen. One group was composed of civilians, the other of military personnel. Which group would have a faster healing rate? If you answered the military you are correct but not for the reasons you suspect. It wasn’t their training or their environment. The main variable identified was their emotional response. The majority of the wounded military personnel felt relieved that their injury was a belly wound. Of all the possible injuries one could expect in the line of military duty, this definitely was low on the scale of severity. Meanwhile, the civilian group had an entirely different emotional response – it definitely was not relief! Not surprisingly, they felt that this injury was catastrophic – the worst thing that could have happened. Their immune system responded accordingly. The civilian healing rate was measurably slower. Same event, different emotional perspective, different outcome. How we view things can make a difference.
Let me elaborate.
There are three parameters to defining health and/or age.
The first is chronological – clock time is undeniable as it arbitrarily records the steady passage of linear time. Little can be done about this. (Although in a future article I will speak to the difference between ‘clock’ time and ‘event’ time.)
The second measurement of health is physiological – here we can have more of an influence. We may advance or retard the aging process of our body through various considerations: nutritional, physical movement, habitual patterns, quality of home or work environment and choice of geography or climate.
The last level is where we can exercise the greatest control : psychological – here I’m referring to one’s perspective. This in turn is affected by how we choose to see things. Your perspective reveals how you interpret the world around you. The attitudes and perceptions we cultivate are also influenced by the social expectations of our community.
Take aging: in some cultures, the elderly are revered for the wisdom and experience they contribute. In our culture, we often use an arbitrary age to remove someone from their livelihood. The message here is that our most experienced and knowledgeable members of our work force are not to be revered. They are to be retired. Instead, younger, inexperienced and less wise replacements are treated as more valuable contributors.
Another common social expectation about aging is that we will become ill and incompetent. Which seemed true for one group of elderly research subjects until they were put in an environment that reflected life 20 years earlier. Within a week not only had their health scores changed – even their physical appearance.
“When the study participants — elderly men who at first appeared to be frail and dependent — lived in this environment for a week, the results were nothing short of amazing. Their height, weight, gait, posture, hearing, memory, appetite, dexterity, arthritis, blood pressure and general well being improved in those mere seven days. “We even took photographs of them at the beginning, and at the end of the week,” Langer says. “People who knew nothing about the study evaluated the photos. And according to these unbiased witnesses, they [the elderly men] even looked younger. The ‘magic’ lies in being aware of the ways we mindlessly react to social and cultural cues.”
This study was conducted by Ellen Langer (www.ellenlanger.com) and described in her new book ‘Counterclockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility’. She argues that when people are conditioned to believe there are certain limits to what they can do, that becomes true for them—and vice versa, when told they are capable, they are often able to do something, even if the medical data says they can’t.
What excites me most about Ellen Langer’s work is that she posits that the key to unravelling our perceptions and expectations is profoundly simple: mindfulness. Mindfulness plays an important role in my own work with clients and students.
The act of paying attention, of noticing something new, changes our perspective which then changes the choices we make, the quality of our health, even of our lives. Furthermore, Langer suggests that mindfulness allows us to be more optimistic because we are open and attentive to possibilities, and that this in turn facilitates recovery from illness or addiction.
‘When people are taught to be mindful in a fashion very different from meditation, they become more creative, healthier, and happier. They show improvements in memory, attention, and productivity, a decrease in judgment of self and others, and a decrease in burnout. Most dramatically, the research has found an increase in longevity, an improvement in vision, and a decrease in weight, all as a result of people changing their minds.’
There is a vast difference between the arbitrary view of ‘this is how it is and there is nothing we can do about it’ and the view of ‘this is how I see it at this time. How may I see it differently?’
One world constricts and restrains and is fraught with limitations; the other liberates and is ripe with possibilities. Which world do you choose?