what the placebo effect can teach us about creating the outcomes we want everyday


Making a positive mindset shift to change not only how you see the world, but the outcomes you create. 

You may have heard of the Placebo Effect before. Where patients in a study receiving a placebo have the same successful results of those receiving the actual treatment. How? Well its really all in your head. 

We have talked a lot about mindset and positive thinking, and how these can actually change not only your perception of the world around you, but also the outcome. 

"The placebo effect is more than positive thinking — believing a treatment or procedure will work. It's about creating a stronger connection between the brain and body and how they work together," says Professor Ted Kaptchuk of Harvard-affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center - from a recent article in Harvard Health.

So lets take a look at a few of my favorite studies that demonstrate this Placebo Effect: 

"Doctors in Texas are conducting a study of arthroscopic knee surgery that uses general anesthesia in which patients with sore, worn knees are assigned to one of three operations -- scraping out the knee joint, washing out the joint or doing nothing. In the ''nothing'' operation, doctors anesthetize the patient, make three little cuts in the knee as if to insert the usual instruments and then pretend to operate. Two years after surgery, patients who underwent the sham surgery reported the same amount of relief from pain and swelling as those who had had the real operations." (From a 1998 article in NY Times)

This is really quite amazing. Patients were able to lower pain and swelling - actual physical symptoms - by thinking that they were in fact receiving treatment. 

Now lets look at a study that shows more of a reverse effect: 

"While placebos can act globally on the body, they can also have extremely specific effects. For example, a study was carried out in Japan on 13 people who were extremely allergic to poison ivy. Each was rubbed on one arm with a harmless leaf but were told it was poison ivy and touched on the other arm with poison ivy and told it was harmless. All 13 broke out in rash where the harmless leaf contacted their skin. Only two reacted to the poison leaves." (From a 1998 article in NY Times)

This study with poison ivy really hit me. We think of something like reacting to poison ivy to be completely involuntary and uncontrollable. But how can you explain the results of this study? 

So the idea of the Placebo Effect is that we not only shift our mindset to that of a positive outcome, but we in fact increase the connections between our body and mind. In short, we are actually able to heal our bodies through our shift in mindset - or cause a reaction. 

So what does this have to do with happiness in our daily lives? 

The science backing the Placebo Effect all leads back to mindset. The idea that we in fact have the power to shift our reality, by simply shifting our thinking

This is something I continually struggle with. And lets be honest, it is much easier said than done. Making a conscious effort to shift our thinking takes time and energy. We may not even realize the thoughts we are having subconsciously. 

So why is it so hard to shift our thinking? One of the big reasons, is that we already construct outcomes in our mind, based on what we think will happen. Essentially, our brain reacts to what it expects is going to happen - also referred to as the Expectancy Theory by psychologists. 

"In other words, the expectation of an event causes the same complex set of neurons to fire as though the event were actually taking place, triggering a cascade of events in the nervous system that leads to a whole host of real physical consequences." - Shawn Achor, The Happiness Advantage

In short, anticipating a certain outcome is a surefire way to guarantee that it will in fact happen. 

In the Happiness Advantage, Shawn Achor talks about a study done by Ali Crum and Ellen Langer. This study worked with the cleaning staff of seven different hotels. They told half of the workers about how much exercise they were getting each day through their work - how it was similar to a cardio workout. While the other half was told nothing. After several weeks, those who were told about the physical activity, had actually lost weight - and dropped their cholesterol.

They had not changed their eating habits, nor had they exercised more. They simply shifted the way they looked at their work. 

"The mental construction of our daily activities, more than the activity itself, defines our reality." - Shawn Achor, The Happiness Advantage

Our mental interpretation, or expectations about the things we do day to day, actually has a greater effect on the outcome of these activities, than the activity itself. 

By simply shifting the way we look at our day to day lives - or shifting what we think may happen - can in fact change what happens around us. 

Find just one or two things to focus on this week. Maybe it is getting better results from your workout. Or receiving more positive feedback at work.

Expect the results you want - and see what happens. 

how positivity cultivates resilience



I was reading Positivity the other day, by Positive Psychologist from UNC Chapel Hill, Barbara Fredrickson. Barbara has dedicated her life's work to the study of positivity. For so long, psychology was dominated by the study of negativity. Seeking to find cause and cure to the ever increasing depression that plagues our society. 

Not long ago, Barbara and other brilliant psychologists decided to turn the tables not his idea, and start studying the other side of the spectrum: positivity. Positive Psychology was born. 

In her book Positivity, Barbara talks about how cultivating more positivity can make us more resilient. It is proven that naturally positive people carry higher resilience than their not so positive counterparts. 

Resilience helps us to better react and recover from tough life situations that may come our way. Positive people are better suited to handle themselves in tough situations and bounce back after an event much quicker. 

A section of her book really hit me...

"...resilient people are highly attuned to the ever-changing circumstances in which they find themselves. They are emotionally nimble. They react to what is happening now, not to what-ifs. They don't spend time worrying about the future. Instead, perhaps appreciating that they can cope with whatever comes their way, they adopt a wait-and-see attitude. They're also quick to tell the difference between good and bad - they don't overgeneralize or overreact. They minimize their angst by cutting out advanced worry and afterglow obsessions, focusing instead on reality of the present moment." 

I feel like this is something so many of us struggle with. It is so easy to get wrapped up in the what-ifs of tomorrow. Spending hours ruminating about what could happen or should happen. But we really have minimal control over events that cross our path. We simply can control our thoughts and reactions to those moments. 

How different would things be if you too adopted this wait-and-see attitude? Choosing to live life in a much more intuitive, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants kind of mindset. How refreshing would it be to just focus on now, and not worry about tomorrow? 

There are times where thinking about the future is very beneficial. When we are visualizing our goals and dreams. This visualization can help us work through our thoughts, and form a clear vision and path moving forward. 

But when we start thinking through the negatives. the what-ifs of what could happen or what could go wrong, this visualization is no longer beneficial, but rather severely detrimental. A good question to ask yourself is simply: 

Is this useful? 

A certain amount of worry can be good, to safeguard us against danger, and to keep us alert, and in the here and now. But once you pass the point of a thought serving a purpose or bringing useful, it is better to discard the notion. 

Worry less about things out of your control. Think less about possible outcomes that do not match up with reality. Wait and see what happens before sending out the bat signal of despair. 

This week, try out being emotionally nimble. Let things roll off your shoulder. If you feel something getting under your skin, take a breath.

Know that a thought is simply a thought. And by increasing our positive outlook on life, we are setting ourselves up for greater resilience to safeguard against whatever life may throw our way.