The Wrong Beliefs Can Kill You, And What You Can Do About That
Two views on stress, the Tetris Effect, and Three Questions You Should Ask Yourself Daily
Hello, good people! It is the end of May and freedom is in the air. Whether you have a connection to schools, or not, there seems to be something ingrained in all of us that says summer is the time for exploration, novelty, and a tad more flexibility. I hope you’ll go with it.
Now to the stuff!
From the Ages
“They can because they think they can.”
—Virgil, The Aeneid
Author, Michael Lewis, on the stories we tell ourselves:
"As I’ve gotten older—I would say starting in my mid-to-late 20s—I could not help but notice the effect on people of the stories they told about themselves. If you listen to people, if you just sit and listen, you’ll find that there are patterns in the way they talk about themselves.
There’s the kind of person who is always the victim in any story that they tell. Always on the receiving end of some injustice. There's the person who’s always kind of the hero of every story they tell. There's the smart person; they delivered the clever put down there.
There are lots of versions of this, and you’ve got to be very careful about how you tell these stories because it starts to become you. You are—in the way you craft your narrative—kind of crafting your character. And so I did at some point decide, “I am going to adopt self-consciously as my narrative, that I’m the happiest person anybody knows.” And it is amazing how happy-inducing it is."
Source: The Tim Ferriss Show #427
When pharmaceutical companies run trials for a new drug, they don’t just compare the results of people who use their drug against those who don’t. They also have to run trials against people who are given placebos—that is, people who believe they are getting a drug treatment, but who are actually only receiving sugar pills, or something comparably inconsequential. Drug companies don’t just have to show that their treatment is more effective than no treatment, they also have to show that their treatment is more effective than a fake treatment. And for good reason. The placebo effect is extremely well documented. Believing you are receiving some treatment is proven to have tremendous healing effects.
The placebo effect isn’t reserved to just drug treatments. It applies to everything from cryotherapy, to cupping, to KT tape, to giving your children band-aids and ice. A large part of the success of any intervention comes from the belief that said intervention is working its magic. But this phenomenon goes even further.
In a scene at the end of the original Space Jam, Michael Jordan gives a halftime speech to his downtrodden Looney Tunes teammates. They are being pummeled by the mighty Mon-stars. Jordan tries to motivate with a heroic call to “fight back,” but the Tune Squad is unmoved. They sit there looking helpless, disinterested, and defeated. Then, Bugs Bunny swoops in and says, “Great speech… but didn’t you forget something? Your secret stuff.” Bugs has taken a blue water bottle (filled with normal water) and written: “Michael’s Secret Stuff” on it. The implication being that Michael’s greatness comes from this magical elixir. The Tunes devour the water and run out of halftime convinced of their expanded powers.
The same idea is conveyed in countless other stories. In My Big Fat Greek Wedding, the father believes Windex fixes everything and so, it does (a bit of confirmation bias here too). In Bull Durham, Kevin Costner’s character explains why the star pitcher should maintain his run of abstinence, saying, “If you believe you're playing well because you're getting laid or because you're not getting laid or because you wear women's underwear, then you are.” This is the power of belief. Belief can heal. Belief can energize. Some beliefs can even lengthen your life.
In a fantastic TED talk, psychologist Kelly McGonigal explains how her own oversimplified view of stress had led her to reinforce a destructive message about stress. She begins by highlighting a study that tracked 30,000 Americans for eight years. At the beginning of the study participants were asked two questions:
"How much stress have you experienced in the last year?"
“Do you believe that stress is harmful for your health?”
Then, after eight years, they found out which participants had died. Those who claimed to have experienced a lot of stress in the previous year were 43% more likely to have died. This confirms the predominant, simple view of stress being harmful. But, as McGonigal found, people who experienced a lot of stress were only more likely to die if they believed that stress was harmful for their health.
Alarms should be going off. Psychologists like McGonigal had been telling everyone (based on the simple reading of the stress research) that stress was bad for your health. But it turns out stress was only bad for your health if you listened to what these psychologists had been telling you and came to believe that it was bad for your health. If you had a lot of stress but didn’t believe that it was harmful you’d be no more likely to die. “In fact,” McGonigal points out, such people “...had the lowest risk of dying of anyone in the study, including people who had relatively little stress.” No wonder all those presidents are living so long. Stress doesn’t kill people. Believing stress is bad kills people. Yet, all the experts have been telling us stress is bad for us.
How often do we make people more brittle, powerless, and unhealthy by implanting negative self-fulfilling prophecies? Parents convince themselves that they need to feed their kids “kids foods” because they won’t like actual food. In schools, we identify SPED students, label them, modify their assignments and meet with them every year, all the while reinforcing the belief that their learning disability limits and defines their intellectual abilities. We tell students that they are fragile to emotional slights, that every obstacle is traumatic, and that people’s disadvantages usually define them. Under the guise of empathy, we ingrain fatalism.
Your beliefs will often determine your reality. In The Happiness Advantage, Shawn Achor identifies a psychological principle known as the Tetris Effect named after a study which found that people who played hours of Tetris each day reported that they began to see the physical world as if it were a game of tetris. Whether staring at their pantry or the skyscrapers of a city, they couldn’t stop themselves from flipping objects around in their head and fitting them together in new ways. I’m sure this made them great at packing luggage into the trunk of a car. More significantly, this shows how our minds can be shaped to filter the world through any lens we reinforce. And there is no neutral here. Our language, the media we consume, and our daily habits all conspire to create the filters we view the world through.
Look around you and identify everything that is a shade of gray…
Now close your eyes and tell me everything you saw…
… that was blue.
You missed most of that didn’t you?
Your mind finds what it sets out to find. So be careful what you focus on. You can train your mind to interrupt unproductive patterns and reinforce very different narratives. Train it to find what will amplify your capacity, your empowerment, and your fulfillment.
Cognitive Behavior Therapy, perhaps the most effective known therapy for combatting depression and a host of mental disorders, works by identifying dysfunctional belief patterns (negative tetris effects) and re-programming them. Some of the most prominent distortions it sets out to short-circuit:
Mental Filtering Toward the Negative (the world conspires against me…)
Emotional Reasoning (the belief that every negative emotion must be true)
Mind Reading (assuming other people’s bad intentions…)
Black and White Thinking (a situation is good or bad; people are good or evil)
Catastrophizing (projecting the most devastating domino effect from every event…)
Over-generalization (one bad date = I’m a bad dater and will never find love)
Fallacy of Fairness (“People who go through life assessing whether something is ‘fair’ or not will often end up feeling resentful, angry, and unhappy because of it.”)
All of these are mental narratives that many people have programmed their minds to fit their experiences into—the opposite of rose-colored glasses. CBT works by teaching people to spot these distorted patterns, write them down, and then work out better interpretations to replace them.
There are so many little habits in my life that I hold dear. Exercise, cold-plunges, mindfulness, etc. But I’m becoming more and more convinced that a frequent gratitude practice/prayer is probably the most mentally transformative thing you can do. Gratitude works by training the mind to notice opportunities and frame events in a positive way.
But a word of caution first. You can’t go into gratitude training by seeking to create any specific feeling. Fighting, fleeing, and seeking feelings is a sure way to induce anxiety and frustration. Instead, make it a practice of showing up and seeking to identify specific things you could be grateful for, with no expectation of any feeling. Set specific times to show up each day and reinforce the sort of thinking you want to ingrain by going through a battery of questions. Here are mine:
Over the past 24 hours, what have I benefited from?
What moments could I be grateful for?
Today is a day of my life that I can never get back. Who do I want to be? What impact do I want to make? How do I want to make people feel?
I give myself a couple minutes to focus on each question. Often, the first thirty seconds are the slowest and then things just fall out. By the end I’m usually surprised at how many awesome things happened that I almost forgot about.
You can turn this into a daily journal practice or fit it in a couple times a day by turning it into a pre-meal prayer where the first two questions are “Thank you God for…” and the last are, “Please help me to…”
Regardless of how you do it, just commit to making gratitude a habit. It will do great things for you, if only you believe it will.
Thanks for reading today. If you, like me, are a bit obsessed with the power and self-fulfilling nature of beliefs, I’ve written a bit more on it here and in my book. Also, if you are like me, this line of thought probably prompted you to think: “But there is no way to make yourself believe something you don’t actually believe. So, does this mean honest skeptics are doomed?” It seems the answer is actually “No.” A great podcast here that goes into the research on open-label placebos. People have had great benefits from taking a placebo that they know to be a placebo, presumably, because it reminds them of the power of their minds to induce healing, energy, and strength. The take home message, everyone needs to get a bottle of Michael’s Secret Stuff.
Life is too short to be normal,