How Healthy People Think

Back in 2003 when I got my first job out of college I worked with this girl named Deb.

Deb seemed to think her job description included telling everyone who would listen how miserable her life was on a daily basis. She complained about everything: her family, her friends, her boyfriend, her body, her job, her car, her cat.

So one day we’re out to lunch with a few co-workers and Deb starts going off about something … don’t remember what exactly.

I do, however, remember what this one guy Todd said in response to Deb’s little tirade.

Todd [sarcastic, mocking tone]: “Wow, your life sure does suck.”

Now we’re all sitting at the table with our mouths open waiting to see what will happen next.

It was one of those situations where you knew something bad was about to go down … but you don’t dare look away.

After a good 10 seconds of awkward silence, Deb got up, launched into an expletive-filled tirade that drew attention from everyone in the restaurant, and stormed out.

It was epic.

But what happened next may surprise you.

From that day forward, something changed for Deb. She complained less. She smiled more. She was actually fun to be around for the first time.

You see, Deb was used to receiving assurances and sympathy from others. She fed off it. But Todd’s highly inappropriate yet impeccably-timed comment must have triggered something in her.

It caused a shift in her mindset.

Henry Ford famously said, “Whether you think that you can or you can’t, you’re usually right.”

Turns out Mr. Ford was right.

The Science of Self-belief

Legendary psychologist Albert Bandura coined the term “self efficacy” back in 1977 in his landmark research paper, Self-efficacy: Toward a Unifying Theory of Behavioral Change.

According to Bandura’s theory, people with high self-efficacy—those who believe in themselves—are more likely to:

  • Take on tougher challenges
  • Persevere longer
  • Exhibit more resiliency in the face of failure
  • Recover quickly from setbacks and disappointments

People with a weak sense of self-efficacy, on the other hand:

  • Avoid challenges
  • Think difficult tasks and situations are beyond their capabilities
  • Continue to focus on their failures
  • Lose confidence in their personal abilities

The extent to which you believe in yourself has massive implications on almost everything you do.

Especially your health.

How Self-efficacy Affects Your Health

Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck says there are types of mindsets: fixed and growth-oriented.

People with a fixed mindset believe talent alone creates success. They think “either you’re born with it or you’re not.”

People with a growth mindset think you can create your own success by working hard, practicing, and learning. They take on challenges even at the risk of failing. They embrace failure because they know they’ll learn valuable lessons from it.

Here’s a good summary of the differences between the two:

self efficacy

The link between your mindset and your health is well supported by empirical evidence.

1. In a study published in the journal Psychological Science, one hotel cleaning crew was told that the work they do is good exercise and satisfies the Surgeon General’s recommendations for an active lifestyle. A second cleaning crew was not given this information. When researchers compared the two groups four weeks later, they found the first group showed a decrease in weight, blood pressure, body fat, waist-to-hip ratio, and body mass index.

Mindset alone caused physiological changes in their body.

2. In another study, researchers found that optimists are generally healthier and are more likely to take proactive measures to protect their health. The study authors concluded: “optimism is related to indicators of better physical health.”

3. The book Predicting Health Behaviour details how choices affecting your health, such as smoking, exercise, dieting, etc. are highly dependent on your level of self-efficacy.

The authors state:

Self-efficacy beliefs are cognitions that determine whether health behavior change will be initiated, how much effort will be expended, and how long it will be sustained in the face of obstacles and failures. Self-efficacy influences how high people set their health goals (e.g., “I intend to reduce my smoking,” or “I intend to quit smoking altogether”).

4. Finally, in Bandura’s book, Self-Efficacy in Changing Societies, he says:

The successful, venturesome, the sociable, the nonanxious, the nondepressed, the social reformers, and the innovators take an optimistic view of their personal capabilities to exercise influence over events that affect their lives. If not unrealistically exaggerated, such personal beliefs foster positive well-being and human accomplishments.

Clearly the way we think matters much more than we might have imagined.

How to Boost Your Self Efficacy for Better Health

Now comes the cool part: self-efficacy is not a fixed state. You can change it.

This is how.

Learn from your past … but don’t dwell on it.

Most of us have had up and downs when it comes to our health. Reflect on those moments and ask yourself:

  • What did I achieve or fail to achieve?
  • What did I learn?
  • What did I do well?
  • Where can I improve this time?

Learn from the past, then move on and focus on what you can do now to create positive change in your life. I like this quote from Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment:

Life is now. There was never a time when your life was not now, nor will there ever be.

Start small.

Take things one step at a time. If you’re trying to lose weight, for example, start with just a couple minutes of exercise every day. Small steps are what lead to big successes.

Have a plan.

“Action planning” is a proven strategy to increase your level of self-efficacy when you’re trying to change an unhealthy behavior into a healthy one. Here’s a simple technique I use: every night before I go to bed, I write down the things I want to accomplish the next day. In the morning, I review my list and start checking things off. Here’s an example of some things you may want to put in your “healthy” action plan:

  • Cook a healthy breakfast.
  • Exercise for at least 10 minutes.
  • Take a 5-minute stretching or walking break every hour.
  • Read one inspirational article today.
  • Record what I eat in my food diary.
  • Look for healthy recipe for dinner.

This strategy will help you manage your time better and increase your self-confidence and healthy habits over time.

Get support.

Friends and family can help encourage you, increase your accountability, and help you cope with setbacks. That’s why social support is a key ingredient to self-efficacy, persistence and ultimately success. Find a friend or family member who lives a healthy lifestyle, and have the courage to ask for their help. You’ll be happy you did.

Track your progress.

Tracking your results is another key to getting healthier. And, it’s a great way to see your progress and show you tangible results … which helps boost your self-confidence.

Visualize your results.

Visualization adds value to everything. A big thinker always visualizes what can be done in the future.

The Magic of Thinking Big

Visualization is a powerful tool that can drastically enhance your level of self-efficacy. In the book The Social Animal, author David Brooks says your subconscious mind processes up to 200,000 times more information than your conscious mind. Spend 5 minutes each day visualizing both the journey and the end result you seek. Forming a mental picture of yourself taking the steps required to reach your goal creates a lasting image in your brain that your subconscious will bring to reality.

Do things that make you laugh and smile every day.

Create experiences every day that make you happy. Visit funny websites. Spend more time with people you love. Keep an uplifting book by your bedside for words of encouragement before you go to sleep or when you first wake up. Take a walk outside with your significant other. These things work. Experiences are infinitely more valuable than “things”.

Wrap-up/Nexst Steps

Understand that there will be setbacks along the road to better health. You’ll question yourself. You’ll want to give up. You’ll wonder why you ever started. These thoughts are normal. Accept them. Expect them.

Don’t get so caught up in your problems that you fail to see the solutions that may be right in front of you.

You already hold the key to long-term health and wellness: it’s your own mind.

The more you believe in yourself, the greater your chance will be of achieving your goals.

I’ll leave you with this:

The minute you understand that you can poke life and actually something will…pop out the other side, that you can change it, you can mold it, that’s maybe the most important thing. Once you learn to do that, you’ll never be the same again.

-Steve Jobs


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