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Self-Fulfilling Prophecy: How Perceptions of Aging Affect Our Later Years

“Whether you think you can,
or you think you can’t—you’re right.”

– Henry Ford

Perceptions of aging, or attitudes toward one’s own aging, have important implications for the health and well-being of older adults. Throughout the life span, people encounter many positive and negative stereotypes of older adults and the aging process. Some stereotypes portray common age-related changes, whereas others promote misconceptions about aging. As people grow older, age stereotypes become increasingly self-relevant; these stereotypes are reflected inward and they become incorporated into older adults’ self perceptions of aging.

THE PERCEPTIONS OF AGING LENS

Perceptions of aging can be thought of as a lens that shapes how older adults interpret their daily experiences and establish cause-and-effect explanations for events. For instance, older adulthood can be viewed as a time of continued development and learning (positive perception of aging) or as a time of physical and mental decline (negative perception of aging). Self-perceptions of aging tend to influence thoughts and behaviors without people being consciously aware that this is happening.

Imagine that two older adults, Diane and Nora, slipped on an icy sidewalk and they each sprained an ankle. Throughout her recovery, Diane diligently completed physical therapy, eager to return to full strength and resume her normal daily activities. Her mobility was limited for a while, but Diane took this opportunity to catch up on some books that she wanted to read and she learned new ways to keep in touch with family and friends on her tablet. When Nora fell, she knew that life was just going to get worse from there. Nora didn’t really see the point of the rehabilitation exercises, because she didn’t believe that a full recovery was possible. It was difficult to get around, so Nora started to keep to herself more and she stopped taking her regular walks even after her ankle was healed. Diane made a full recovery, but Nora’s physical health continued to decline because she never returned to the same level of activity. Despite experiencing the same injury, Diane’s and Nora’s perceptions of aging influenced how they responded to the injury and led to a very different chain of events.

OUTCOMES RELATED TO PERCEPTIONS OF AGING

The story above illustrates how self-perceptions of aging can create self fulfilling prophecies leading to long-term consequences for the well-being of older adults. Researchers have found Self-perceptions of aging tend to influence thoughts and behaviors without people being consciously aware that this is happening.

Negative perceptions of aging have harmful consequences for older adults’ bodies, minds, and healthy behaviors, as outlined below:

Longevity. In a 23-year study, older adults who reported more positive self-perceptions of aging lived 7.5 years longer than older adults with more negative self-perceptions of aging . Additional research supports this connection between perceptions of aging and longevity, leading the researchers to conclude that “…those who develop positive perceptions of aging over the life course enter late life with a distinct advantage that may be protective against negative consequences of health change”.

Illness. In a study of 1,286 people (average age of 57 at baseline), participants who indicated that aging is a time of continued learning and development reported decreases (or slower increases) in physical illnesses six years later . In contrast, participants in the same study who believed that aging is a time of physical loss displayed increases in physical illness over six years.

Functional Health. Older adults with more positive perceptions of aging report better future functional health, such as the ability to do household chores and climb stairs, compared to older adults with more negative perceptions of aging. Consistent with these findings, older adults with more negative perceptions of aging displayed greater limitations in activities of daily living (e.g., feeding, bathing) and instrumental activities of daily living (e.g., shopping, managing finances) three years later. None of those participants reported any limitations at the beginning of the study (ages 65 to 70).

Brain Health. Compared to people with more positive views of aging, people who endorsed more negative age stereotypes displayed greater signs of risk factors for Alzheimer’s Disease when their brains were examined decades later. The hippocampus, an area of the brain related to memory, decreased in size at a faster rate and there was an increased presence of amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles.

Psychological Well-Being. Older adults with more negative perceptions of aging reported greater increases in depressive symptoms three years later, but high levels of optimism helped protect against this effect. The researchers concluded that positive emotions and optimism may help buffer the harmful effects of negative perceptions of aging. In another study, positive perceptions of aging contributed to better self-reported health and life satisfaction six years later, even for participants who reported a serious health event.

Healthy Behaviors. Older adults with more positive perceptions of aging tend to engage in more preventive health behaviors and physical activity compared to older adults with more negative perceptions of aging. For example, older adults with positive self-perceptions of aging reported engaging in more preventive health behaviors over 20 years. Evidence also links negative perceptions of aging with declines in walking speed two years later. Furthermore, older adults with more positive views of aging reported more frequent walking and sporting activities.

Overall, these findings support the conclusion that perceptions of aging create self-fulfilling prophecies. Older adults who associate aging with ongoing growth and pursuit of meaningful activities are more likely to engage in behaviors and view experiences in adaptive ways. As a result, these beneficial thought and behavior patterns further reinforce older adults’ positive perceptions of aging.

Older adults with positive self-perceptions of aging
reported engaging in more preventive health behaviors
over 20 years.

 

CHANGING PERCEPTIONS OF AGING

Changing perceptions of aging is a challenging issue, because it involves both individual perceptions of aging as well as age stereotypes that are conveyed at societal and cultural levels. Kotter-Grühn (2015) identified several strategies that could be effective at improving perceptions of aging. For example, at a societal level, increasing the presence of older adults in the media and reducing the use of age stereotypes could improve perceptions of aging. In addition, creating more opportunities for intergenerational interactions could help people develop more realistic expectations of aging. Finally, older adults could develop more positive perceptions of aging by learning more about the aging process—correcting misconceptions and increasing awareness of positive age-related changes.

Changing older adults’ expectations related to aging can lead to important behavioral changes. Here are two examples of research studies that increased physical activity in older adults through an intervention designed to improve their perceptions of aging:

  • Example 1. Older adults completed a four-week course designed to change their expectations that people become less active with age. Instructors taught that sedentariness is not a natural part of aging and there are things that the participants can do to control their physical activity levels. Participants also attended an exercise class after each meeting. Three weeks after the last session, participants reported more positive expectations about aging and they also walked approximately 2.5 miles more each week (compared to before the course). In addition, participants reported decreases in limitations to activities of daily living and increases in mental health.
  • Example 2. This study expanded upon a typical physical activity intervention by adding in two behavior change techniques aimed at changing perceptions of aging research-based information on common misconceptions about aging and the connection between positive perceptions of aging and health outcomes; and guidance on how to recognize and counter negative automatic thoughts. Participants who completed this intervention displayed more positive views of aging (e.g., greater satisfaction and optimism related to aging) and increases in physical activity compared to other participants who completed a standard physical activity intervention or who spent time volunteering (the control condition).

If negative perceptions of aging are preventing people from enrolling in programs, positive aging messages may need to be conveyed in recruitment materials or earlier.

CHANGING PERCEPTIONS IN YOUR COMMUNITY

When developing or implementing a program to encourage healthy behaviors, it is important to consider how older adults’ perceptions of aging may influence their thoughts and behaviors. Based on the research described above, here are four recommendations for how to promote more positive perceptions of aging during programs for older adults:

  1.   Identify older adults’ age-related expectations about their ability to complete or benefit from the program. How do the expectations of people with positive perceptions of aging differ from people with more negative views? Keep an eye out for differences in feelings of control and beliefs about the possibility of change.
  2.   Develop communications to counter negative perceptions of aging. Start by focusing on the gap between the positive and negative expectations. Is accurate information needed? Do you need to encourage different patterns of thought? Keep the message targeted to information relevant to the specific healthy behavior that is being promoted.
  3.   Incorporate the message into your program. If negative perceptions of aging are preventing people from enrolling in programs, positive aging messages may need to be conveyed in recruitment materials or earlier.
  4.   Measure the effectiveness of the message. If possible, assess key program outcomes before and after introducing the positive aging messages. Depending on the program, outcomes could include enrollment rates, completion rates, behavior change, attitude change, knowledge attained, and satisfaction levels.

People are often unaware of the extent to which their views of aging shape their expectations and actions. Creating more positive perceptions of aging can motivate people to engage in healthy behaviors. The benefits gained as a result of these healthy behaviors further reinforces positive perceptions of aging and encourages people along the path to wellness.

 

REFERENCES
Kotter-Grühn, D. (2015). Changing negative views of aging:Implications for intervention and translational research.
Annual Review of Gerontology & Geriatrics, 35, 167-186. 
Levy, B. (2009). Stereotype embodiment: A psychosocial approach to aging. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 18, 332-336.
Self-Fulfilling Prophecy: How Perceptions of Aging Affect Our Later Years Levy, B. R., Ferrucci, L., Zonderman, A. B., Slade, M. D., Troncoso, J., & Resnick, S. M. (2016). A culture–brain link: Negative age stereotypes predict Alzheimer’s Disease biomarkers. Psychology and Aging, 31, 82- 88.
Levy, B. R., & Myers, L. M. (2004). Preventive health behaviors influenced by self-perceptions of aging. Preventive Medicine, 39, 625-629.
Levy, B. R., Slade, M. D., & Kasl, S. V. (2002). Longitudinal benefit of positive self-perceptions of aging on functional health. Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences, 57B, 409-417. Levy, B. R., Slade, M. R., Kunkel, S. R., & Kasl, S. V. (2002).
Longevity increased by positive self-perceptions of aging. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83, 261-270.
Moser, C., Spagnoli, J., & Santos-Eggimann, B. (2011). Self-perception of aging and vulnerability to adverse outcomes at the age of 65-70 years.
The Journals of Gerontology, Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, 6, 675-680.
Robertson, D. A., Savva, G. M., King-Kallimanis, B. L., & Kenny, R. A. (2015). Negative perceptions of aging and decline in walking speed: A self-fulfilling prophecy. PLoS ONE, 10, e0123260. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0123260
Sargent-Cox, K. A., Anstey, K. J., & Luszcz, M. A. (2014). Longitudinal change of self-perceptions of aging and mortality. Journals of Gerontology, Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, 69, 168-173.
Sarkisian, C. A., Prohaska, T. R., Davis, C., & Weiner, B. (2007). Pilot test of an attribution retraining intervention to raise walking levels in sedentary older adults. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, 55, 1842-1846. Wolff, J. K., Warner, L. M., Ziegelmann, J. P., & Wurm, S. (2014).
What do targeting positive views on ageing add to a physical activity intervention in older adults? Results from a randomised controlled trial.
Psychology & Health, 29, 915-932. Wurm, S., & Benyamini, Y. (2014). Optimism buffers the detrimental effect of negative self-perceptions of ageing on physical and mental health. Psychology & Health, 29, 832-848. Wurm, S., Tesch-Römer, C., & Tomasik, M. J. (2007). Longitudinal findings on aging-related cognitions, control beliefs, and health in later life. Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences, 62B, 156-164.
Self-Fulfilling Prophecy: How Perceptions of Aging Affect Our Later Years Wurm, S., Tomasik, M. J., & Tesch-Römer, C. (2008). Serious health events and their impact on changes in subjective health and life satisfaction: The role of age and a positive view on aging. European
Journal of Ageing, 5, 117-127. Wurm, S., Tomasik, M. J., & Tesch-Römer, C. (2010). On the importance of a positive view on ageing for physical exercise among middle-aged and older adults: Cross-sectional and longitudinal findings. Psychology and Health, 25, 25-42.

 

By Jennifer L. Smith, PhD, Senior Research Manager    Mather LifeWays Institute on Aging
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How to Get What You Really Want

If you are like most people, you want to win the lottery, but you probably don’t buy tickets very often. You don’t need a psychologist to tell you the reason: You don’t expect to win. Given the odds of winning the lottery, that might seem like a reasonable conclusion. What is important to take away from this is that you take action based on what you expect, not what you want. What you want and what you expect are completely different.

An expectation is a belief about whether or not you are going to get what you want.

As a psychologist who studies how people create their futures, one of the things I’ve learned is that having an expectation that differs from what you want isn’t just the reason you don’t buy lottery tickets. It is the reason there are lots of things you want, but you can’t quite seem to attain them—losing that last five to 10 pounds, going for that dream job or relationship. It is the number one reason you stay stuck in life, because:

Expectation + Action = Creation of your life experiences.

I was working with a client recently—I’ll call her Amy. She was a gorgeous and successful woman, but she was also sort of shy, very self-deprecating—and she had a history of picking the wrong men.

Amy had recently gotten out of a bad marriage, worked on herself, and was ready to meet someone new, so she decided to try online dating. But she was having one bad date after the next. The men didn’t look like their pictures, they would forget their wallets, some of them didn’t show up at all…

One day, Amy came in and immediately burst into tears. “I had the most awful date of my life.”

How bad was he?

“He was amazing,” she said, “absolutely everything I’ve been looking for.”

But then she said, “I completely blew it, I was so certain that this was going to be another bad date and a waste of my time that I told him to meet me for coffee after my yoga class. I didn’t have time to shower so I showed up in my gym clothes, hot and sweaty, no make-up…and there he was…Mr. Immaculately Groomed, Tall, and Handsome, with a perfect smile.

“I was so mortified and self-conscious, I couldn’t even make eye contact. I just sat there staring at the floor and laughing nervously, until I told him I had to put more money in the parking meter—and then Ieft—without even saying good-bye.”

Amy acted on what she expected—another bad date—not what she wanted, which was to meet a great guy.

I wish I could say this kind of behavior was uncommon, but having been in practice for more than 12 years, one of the most common things I hear from people is: I want to change my life—but I don’t really believe that I can. I’ve seen people give up on marriages, health, and careers—give up on their entire lives—because they didn’t believe they could get what they wanted and so they weren’t willing to try.

There is probably something you want in your life right now but you are holding back because you don’t think you can attain it.

When you don’t act on what you expect, you take yourself out of the game. Buying the lottery ticket doesn’t guarantee winning, but not buying it guarantees losing.

You might wonder: Why do we do this?

Our brains work on the principle of anticipation.1 We constantly predict what we think is likely to happen before it ever occurs. If you are walking in a park and you hear a dog barking behind you and then turn around to see Bigfoot, you are going to be very surprised. As soon as you start to anticipate an event, you start to act and feel in ways that help you prepare for what you think is going to occur. If anyone has ever said to you, “We need to talk,” then you know exactly what I mean. When you prepare for something that hasn’t even happened yet, you participate in creating the outcome. In other words, you create the self-fulfilling prophecy.

Because Amy was feeling anxious and ambivalent before her date, she acted on what she expected, not what she wanted. So she got what she expected—another bad date.

One of the reasons our expectations keep us so stuck is that we have the automatic tendency to use the past to predict the future. If you failed once you are likely to think that you might fail again. When you think of the past,2 the same parts of the brain activate as when you think of the future.

However, just because you use the past to make predictions doesn’t mean that your past is what is holding you back.

What was holding Amy back wasn’t her past. It was that she didn’t believe her future was going to be better than the past; and without that belief, she wasn’t able to create something better, even though an opportunity presented itself right in front of her.

expectations

If you’re aware of your expectations about a situation, then you have the ability to use your conscious mind to override automatic thinking and plan for a different outcome.

If Amy had planned for her date to go well, things may have turned out differently.

Your expectations about your ability to get what you want have a profound impact on your emotional well-being. A large part of our brain is dedicated to anticipating rewards.3

Rewards, to put it simply, are all the things you want, that make life worth living.

As J.R.R. Tolkien said: “A single dream is more powerful than a thousand realities.”

When you expect to get a reward, you feel positive emotions like happiness and joy. When you don’t think you are going to get what want, you feel disappointment, sadness, maybe even depression.

The larger the gap between what you expect and what you want,
the more distress you feel.

So, what do you do when what you want doesn’t match up with what you expect? There are only two ways to feel good in this situation:

You can give up wanting what you want—you can convince yourself that it isn’t worth the effort, that you didn’t really want it anyway.

Or, you can change your expectations to match up with what you want so that you can take consistent actions.

How do you do this? There are three steps that can help you begin to shift those expectations. Pause for a moment and imagine a future event that is coming up for you—it can be a goal you are trying to achieve, a work presentation, a holiday get together with your family…now:

  1.  Ask yourself: How is what I am expecting making me feel? If you are expecting something positive to happen, you will be feeling good about it and you can stop there. No need to fix positive emotions. But if you are expecting something you don’t want, then you are going to feel a negative emotion such as anxiety, fear, dread, or overwhelm. Those are signs you have some negative expectations about the situation.
  2.  Ask yourself: What would I like to have happen instead? This question identifies what you do want in the situation. What you want is often the very thing that you’re not expecting. Remember, you want to win the lottery, but you don’t expect to.
  3.  Ask yourself: What do I need to do to make what I want happen? When you are feeling a negative emotion about a situation in the future, it’s because you’re focused on what could go wrong and why it’s not going to turn out the way you want it to. You’re not generating thoughts or ideas about how to make it go right.

When you have a plan in front of you for how to get what you want, your assessment of the situation changes. You begin to see the possibility. This is where the shift happens: Every successful action you take towards that plan starts to change your expectations.

Some of you may be thinking, “I don’t expect this to work for me.”

Several years ago, I may not have believed that a simple process could make a difference in people’s lives either. But I was treating a very depressed patient, who I had been seeing for about six months. No matter what we tried, he made very little progress. One day, I asked him: “Where is the light at the end of the tunnel?” He looked at me with the blankest stare I had ever seen.

After that day I started to ask all of my patients this question and I was startled to find that most of them gave me the exact same look. They didn’t dare to dream about how their life could be different, because they didn’t think it was possible.

So I began focusing all of my work on helping my patients change their expectations so that they could find that light at the end of the tunnel.

Five years of research shows that changing your expectations can significantly improve your life,4,5 and I have witnessed some awe-inspiring transformations. The patient I mentioned earlier within a year had quit his dead-end job and started his own successful company. When you motivated yourself by what you want, change is possible.

In the words of Henry Ford, “Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you are right.”

Your past isn’t what defines who you are or where you are going. It’s your expectations of the future that limit you most. But here’s the good news: You can choose. You can choose to take action based on what you want. And when you do that, you give yourself the opportunity to step out of the past and create the life that you truly want to live.

This article is transcribed from my 2015 TEDx Peachtree talk in Atlanta. 

References
Bar, Moshe. Predictions of the Brain. 2011.Oxford University Press, USA.
Schacter, D and Addis, D. 2007. The cognitive neuroscience of constructive memory: remembering the past and imagining the future. Philosophical transactions – Royal Society. Biological sciences, 362 (1481), p. 773-786.
Sescousse, G., Caldú, X., Segura, B., and Dreher, J. 2013. Processing of primary and secondary rewards: A quantitative meta-analysis and review of human functional neuroimaging studies. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 37 (4), p. 681–696.
Vilhauer, J., et al. 2012. Treating Major Depression by Creating Positive Expectations for the Future: A pilot study for the effectiveness of Future Directed Therapy (FDT) on Symptom Severity and Quality of Life. CNS Neuroscience and Therapeutics. p. 1-8.
Vilhauer, J.S., et al. 2013. Improving quality of life for patients with major depressive disorder by increasing hope and positive expectations with future directed therapy (FDT). Innovations in clinical neuroscience, 10 (3): p. 12.
Dr. Jennice Vilhauer is the director of the Outpatient Psychotherapy Treatment Program at Emory Healthcare, the developer of Future Directed Therapy, and the author of Think Forward to Thrive: How to Use the Mind’s Power of Anticipation to Transcend Your Past and Transform Your Life.

by Jennice Vilhauer Ph.D.
Living Forward
How to Get What You Really Want
Changing your outlook and overcoming self-fulfilling prophecies.

Jennice Vilhauer, Ph.D., is the director of Emory Healthcare’s Outpatient Psychotherapy Program and an assistant professor in the School of Medicine at Emory University. She was formerly the director of psychology training at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and an assistant clinical professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. She completed her undergraduate training in psychology at UCLA and her graduate training at Fordham University, followed by postdoctoral training at Columbia University. She is the developer of Future Directed Therapy and the author of Think Forward to Thrive: How to Use the Mind’s Power of Anticipation to Transcend Your Past and Transform Your Life.

Dec 18, 2015


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The One False Belief Holding You Back

Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.

This summer I was in one of those tourist traps that sell insipid signs like, “I’m on Lake Time” or “Love You More.”  They also had one I’ve never seen before, and it has stuck with me ever since. It said, “Life Begins at the End of Your Comfort Zone.”

Damn right.

The one false belief holding you back is that you think that your past determines who you are. If that were true, no one would ever overcome adversity, benefit from a second chance, or improve themselves through education, self-discipline, or perseverance.

Your past actions, good and bad, can be judged by you and by others. You can learn from your errors as well as your successes. Others can think what they will, but neither your reflections on your past nor others’ opinions of you determine who you are now or in the future.

comfortzone

Believing that your past defines who you are is a toxic fallacy. Consider a circus elephant chained by one leg to a stake in the ground: Why doesn’t the elephant just pull the stake loose and wander away? Because it couldn’t do so when it was young. And so the adult elephant is still restrained—not by the chain, but by its past, or rather, the learned associations from its past (Chain around leg means “can’t walk”).

Cognitive dissonance is the culprit that motivates us to maintain the belief that what we were in the past is all that we ever will be. Leon Festinger originated the concept back in the 1950s. He also proposed the principle of cognitive consistency—that is, that we seek to maintain mental and emotional balance by thinking and acting in compliance with who we think we are. And who do we think we are? The same person we have always been. And so when we attempt to think and act differently, cognitive dissonance sets in.

Here’s the trick— metacognition. That simply means being able to observe one’s own thinking and feelings objectively and unemotionally, so that one can assess what may be “pushing our buttons.” If you want to change but experience cognitive dissonance in the process, metacognition can help you identify dissonance as a normal but unhelpful reaction. With effort you can then master the dissonance and proceed with the changes you want to make, until those changes become the new normal.

Are you chained to the past? If so, that chain exists only in your mind. You can remember and reflect on the past without being defined and limited by it.

What’s stopping you? Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.

Dale Hartley Ph.D., MBA     Machiavellians: Gulling the Rubes     Aug 08, 2016
 


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This One Shift Will Change The Way You See Yourself (& Others!)

  • The Challenge: We often assume our abilities and behaviors cannot (or are too hard to) be changed.
  • The Science: You are, indeed, capable of change! It’s all about the way we look at it!
  • The Solution: Cultivating a growth mindset can create positive change and new opportunities in your life!

We are often taught from a young age and through a variety of influences that ability is fixed. Either we’re smart or we’re not.  We’re athletic or we’re not. We’re artistic or we’re not. And certainly, we all differ to some extent in the types of things that seem to come more naturally to us.

Sometimes we’re standing in our own way

The problem is, this way of thinking can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. For example, if a young child does poorly on a math test and thinks “I failed this test because I’m not good at math,” she is less likely to study as much for the next test (thinking it’s not worth the effort, since she’s not good at math).  Consequently, she also does poorly on the next test, which reinforces the belief in her lack of mathematical ability.

However, if this same child, after doing poorly on the first math test thinks instead, “I must have failed this test because I didn’t study enough, or didn’t have the right kind of help” then she is more likely to seek out the help she needs the next time, and spend more time studying – thus increasing her chances of doing better on the next test.

What is your type of mindset?

This example illustrates the difference between what Carol Dweck calls a “fixed” mindset and a “growth” mindset. People who have a fixed mindset tend to believe that abilities and talents are fixed traits, and that that they are stable over time. In other words, people are born a certain way and don’t change.

People who have a growth mindset, on the other hand, tend to believe that with dedication and intentional practice, we can improve our abilities and learn new skills and behaviors.  In other words, people can change.

Believe you can develop new skills

What seems like a simple and perhaps inconsequential distinction has big implications for what we can achieve. Research shows that students who believe (or are taught) that intellectual abilities can be developed (as opposed to being characteristics that are fixed) are more likely to succeed in challenging classes, and show high achievement through challenging transitions. In sum, if you believe that your abilities can be developed, you’re more likely to develop them.

Your mindset in the workplace

Not only does a fixed or growth mindset influence our personal behavior, but it also influences the way we see and treat others. A 2008 study of managers found that those who assumed personal qualities to be fixed traits (i.e. a fixed mindset) were less likely to recognize positive changes in the performance of their staff. They were also less likely to coach their employees about how to improve performance. However, managers who received an intervention designed to cultivate a growth mindset subsequently provided more useful coaching to their employees, and more accurate performance appraisals.

growth-mindset

 

How our mindset also affects our relationships

Mindset affects our friendships and romantic relationships as well. A 2012 study of romantic couples revealed that people who do not think their partner is capable of changing (a fixed mindset) are much less likely to notice their partner’s genuine efforts to improve the relationship when these efforts do happen. People who believe their partner can change (a growth mindset) and recognize that s/he is making efforts to improve (even small efforts) are more likely to feel happy and secure in their relationship.

These kind of interactions happen every day. For example, think of that friend of yours who never follows through on what he promises. If you have a fixed mindset, then you likely believe this person will never change (i.e. “that’s just the way he is”).  Because of this mindset, the research shows that you are less likely to engage with him, to give him feedback that might be useful, or to help him find strategies that might make follow-through easier. Perhaps most importantly, you are much less likely to notice any improvements in this person’s behavior if he makes them.  In other words, because you think he can’t change, you’re not able to see changes when they happen, even if they’re right in front of your face.

What you can do:

1) Don’t write yourself off! Catch yourself making blanket statements about your own abilities, and try to reframe them.

  • Instead of saying, “I’m not athletic,” reframe by saying “I haven’t spent a lot of time playing sports.”
  • Or try adding the word “yet” onto the end of those blanket statements, and open the door of possibility. For example, “I’m not a good artist…yet” or “I can’t speak well in front of people…yet.”

2) Notice change and effort. Be on the lookout for positive changes in others’ abilities and behavior, no matter how small these improvements may be. Point them out and show appreciation and encouragement for people’s effort; noticing and appreciating the changes people are striving to make will strengthen your relationships.

3)Cultivate a growth mindset. Believe that we all can further develop our abilities and skills with dedication and practice. We can learn new things if we work at it!

The moral of the story?

Adopting a growth mindset has the potential to open up new opportunities in your own life. It will also allow you to see other people differently (and often in a more positive light), and open up possibilities for new and improved relationships. Start noticing your mindset today!

Katie Conlon, M.A., MAPP is a Trainer, Coach, and Consultant. She works with the Center for Leadership and Organizational Change at the University of Maryland and runs her own private practice, The Phoenix Nest. She is an Assistant Instructor in the Masters of Applied Positive Psychology program at the University of Pennsylvania, and a member of the faculty of the Flourishing Center’s Certificate in Applied Positive Psychology. Katie also develops curriculum for George Mason University’s Center for the Advancement of Well-Being. She earned a master’s degree in applied positive psychology from the University of Pennsylvania and a master’s degree in counseling and personnel services from the University of Maryland.

By Katie Conlon             July 1, 2014

 


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How to Get What You Really Want

Changing your outlook and overcoming self-fulfilling prophecies.

 

If you are like most people, you want to win the lottery, but you probably don’t buy tickets very often. You don’t need a psychologist to tell you the reason: You don’t expect to win. Given the odds of winning the lottery, that might seem like a reasonable conclusion. What is important to take away from this is that you take action based on what you expect, not what you want. What you want and what you expect are completely different.

An expectation is a belief about whether or not you are going to get what you want.

As a psychologist who studies how people create their futures, one of the things I’ve learned is that having an expectation that differs from what you want isn’t just the reason you don’t buy lottery tickets. It is the reason there are lots of things you want, but you can’t quite seem to attain them—losing that last five to 10 pounds, going for that dream job or relationship. It is the number one reason you stay stuck in life, because:

Expectation + Action = Creation of your life experiences.

I was working with a client recently—I’ll call her Amy. She was a gorgeous and successful woman, but she was also sort of shy, very self-deprecating—and she had a history of picking the wrong men.

Amy had recently gotten out of a bad marriage, worked on herself, and was ready to meet someone new, so she decided to try online dating. But she was having one bad date after the next. The men didn’t look like their pictures, they would forget their wallets, some of them didn’t show up at all…

One day, Amy came in and immediately burst into tears. “I had the most awful date of my life.”

How bad was he?

“He was amazing,” she said, “absolutely everything I’ve been looking for.”

But then she said, “I completely blew it, I was so certain that this was going to be another bad date and a waste of my time that I told him to meet me for coffee after my yoga class. I didn’t have time to shower so I showed up in my gym clothes, hot and sweaty, no make-up…and there he was…Mr. Immaculately Groomed, Tall, and Handsome, with a perfect smile.

“I was so mortified and self-conscious, I couldn’t even make eye contact. I just sat there staring at the floor and laughing nervously, until I told him I had to put more money in the parking meter—and then left—without even saying good-bye.”

Amy acted on what she expected—another bad date—not what she wanted, which was to meet a great guy.

I wish I could say this kind of behavior was uncommon, but having been in practice for more than 12 years, one of the most common things I hear from people is: I want to change my life—but I don’t really believe that I can. I’ve seen people give up on marriages, health, and careers—give up on their entire lives—because they didn’t believe they could get what they wanted and so they weren’t willing to try.

There is probably something you want in your life right now but you are holding back because you don’t think you can attain it.

When you don’t act on what you expect, you take yourself out of the game. Buying the lottery ticket doesn’t guarantee winning, but not buying it guarantees losing.

You might wonder: Why do we do this?

Our brains work on the principle of anticipation.1 We constantly predict what we think is likely to happen before it ever occurs. If you are walking in a park and you hear a dog barking behind you and then turn around to see Bigfoot, you are going to be very surprised. As soon as you start to anticipate an event, you start to act and feel in ways that help you prepare for what you think is going to occur. If anyone has ever said to you, “We need to talk,” then you know exactly what I mean. When you prepare for something that hasn’t even happened yet, you participate in creating the outcome. In other words, you create the self-fulfilling prophecy.

believe

Because Amy was feeling anxious and ambivalent before her date, she acted on what she expected, not what she wanted. So she got what she expected—another bad date.

One of the reasons our expectations keep us so stuck is that we have the automatic tendency to use the past to predict the future. If you failed once you are likely to think that you might fail again. When you think of the past,2 the same parts of the brain activate as when you think of the future.

Daniel Schacter PhD

However, just because you use the past to make predictions doesn’t mean that your past is what is holding you back.

What was holding Amy back wasn’t her past. It was that she didn’t believe her future was going to be better than the past; and without that belief, she wasn’t able to create something better, even though an opportunity presented itself right in front of her.

If you’re aware of your expectations about a situation, then you have the ability to use your conscious mind to override automatic thinking and plan for a different outcome.

If Amy had planned for her date to go well, things may have turned out differently.

Your expectations about your ability to get what you want have a profound impact on your emotional well-being. A large part of our brain is dedicated to anticipating rewards.3

Rewards, to put it simply, are all the things you want, that make life worth living.

As J.R.R. Tolkien said: “A single dream is more powerful than a thousand realities.”

When you expect to get a reward, you feel positive emotions like happiness and joy. When you don’t think you are going to get what want, you feel disappointment, sadness, maybe even depression.

The larger the gap between what you expect and what you want, the more distress you feel.

So, what do you do when what you want doesn’t match up with what you expect? There are only two ways to feel good in this situation:

You can give up wanting what you want—you can convince yourself that it isn’t worth the effort, that you didn’t really want it anyway.

Or, you can change your expectations to match up with what you want so that you can take consistent actions.

How do you do this? There are three steps that can help you begin to shift those expectations. Pause for a moment and imagine a future event that is coming up for you—it can be a goal you are trying to achieve, a work presentation, a holiday get together with your family…now:

1. Ask yourself: How is what I am expecting making me feel? If you are expecting something positive to happen, you will be feeling good about it and you can stop there. No need to fix positive emotions. But if you are expecting something you don’t want, then you are going to feel a negative emotion such as anxiety, fear, dread, or overwhelm. Those are signs you have some negative expectations about the situation.

2. Ask yourself: What would I like to have happen instead? This question identifies what you do want in the situation. What you want is often the very thing that you’re not expecting. Remember, you want to win the lottery, but you don’t expect to.

3. Ask yourself: What do I need to do to make what I want happen? When you are feeling a negative emotion about a situation in the future, it’s because you’re focused on what could go wrong and why it’s not going to turn out the way you want it to. You’re not generating thoughts or ideas about how to make it go right.

When you have a plan in front of you for how to get what you want, your assessment of the situation changes. You begin to see the possibility. This is where the shift happens: Every successful action you take towards that plan starts to change your expectations.

Some of you may be thinking, “I don’t expect this to work for me.”

Several years ago, I may not have believed that a simple process could make a difference in people’s lives either. But I was treating a very depressed patient, who I had been seeing for about six months. No matter what we tried, he made very little progress. One day, I asked him: “Where is the light at the end of the tunnel?” He looked at me with the blankest stare I had ever seen.

After that day I started to ask all of my patients this question and I was startled to find that most of them gave me the exact same look. They didn’t dare to dream about how their life could be different, because they didn’t think it was possible.

So I began focusing all of my work on helping my patients change their expectations so that they could find that light at the end of the tunnel.

Five years of research shows that changing your expectations can significantly improve your life,4,5 and I have witnessed some awe-inspiring transformations. The patient I mentioned earlier within a year had quit his dead-end job and started his own successful company. When you motivated yourself by what you want, change is possible.

In the words of Henry Ford, “Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you are right.”

Your past isn’t what defines who you are or where you are going. It’s your expectations of the future that limit you most. But here’s the good news: You can choose. You can choose to take action based on what you want. And when you do that, you give yourself the opportunity to step out of the past and create the life that you truly want to live.

References

  1. Bar, Moshe. Predictions of the Brain. 2011.Oxford University Press, USA.
  2. Schacter, D and Addis, D. 2007. The cognitive neuroscience of constructive memory: remembering the past and imagining the future. Philosophical transactions – Royal Society. Biological sciences, 362 (1481), p. 773-786.
  3. Sescousse, G., Caldú, X., Segura, B., and Dreher, J. 2013. Processing of primary and secondary rewards: A quantitative meta-analysis and review of human functional neuroimaging studies. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 37 (4), p. 681–696.
  4. Vilhauer, J., et al. 2012. Treating Major Depression by Creating Positive Expectations for the Future: A pilot study for the effectiveness of Future Directed Therapy (FDT) on Symptom Severity and Quality of Life. CNS Neuroscience and Therapeutics. p. 1-8.
  5. Vilhauer, J.S., et al. 2013. Improving quality of life for patients with major depressive disorder by increasing hope and positive expectations with future directed therapy (FDT). Innovations in clinical neuroscience, 10 (3): p. 12.
  6. Dr. Jennice Vilhauer is the director of the Outpatient Psychotherapy Treatment Program at Emory Healthcare, the developer of Future Directed Therapy, and the author of Think Forward to Thrive: How to Use the Mind’s Power of Anticipation to Transcend Your Past and Transform Your Life.
Dec 18, 2015   Jennice Vilhauer Ph.D. 
transcribed from my 2015 TEDx Peachtree talk in Atlanta.
To see the talk, click here.

source: www.psychologytoday.com