Herald columnist and Radio Hauraki breakfast host Matt Heath is taking on a new role as Happiness Editor for our Great Minds mental health project. He will share his own insights in his search for wellbeing as well as interviews with international experts in the field.
Last week I shared the first half of a lengthy Zoom chat I had with award-winning British science writer Dave Robson about his new book The Expectation Effect: How Your Mindset Can Transform Your Life. In the book, he discusses ways to create mental conditions that help your physical health. In this, from the second part of our chat, we discuss how expectations affect exercise, mental wellbeing and ageing.
Q: Take happiness, if we expect a day to go badly, is there a physiological response to that mindset?
A: It's likely a feedback loop. If you have negative expectations of the day and already feel anxious and in a bad mood, you're more likely to see threats around you, to notice people who are frowning/looking angry, and assume their hostility is directed towards you. This will raise baseline levels of cortisol, the stress hormone.
The more stressed you feel, the more likely you are to see further threats, so it could become a spiral of negative thinking. If you then have a challenge at work - you may have a more extreme physiological response - a racing heart, even greater fluctuations in cortisol etc. Your performance will suffer and the physiological changes will be slower to dissipate, so you'll continue to feel stressed long after the event.
Q: And is the reverse true with positive expectations?
A: Yeah, you'll be less likely to see threats around you - and find it easier to spot signs of joy. Your levels of cortisol will be lower and you could see greater spikes of neurotransmitters associated with reward.
When you come to give that work presentation, you might feel more confident in your own resources and ability to deal with the challenge - so although you will experience a stress response - it is natural and helpful to feel a little nervous - it'll be muted and won't linger as long.
Q: So just force a smile and everything will be sweet as?
A: It's no use trying to "force" yourself to be cheerful. But there are ways to break the negative cycle of thinking. One small step is to recognise your bias towards seeing threats in your environment and to try to make an effort to shift your attention to positive elements. If you think that someone's scowling at you, you could remember that, because of your mood, your perception is skewed, and look around for someone smiling instead - a face you might have missed because of your current negative mindset.
More importantly, I think it's useful to articulate why you're feeling negative. Putting negative emotions into words can help to "defang" them - and to then ask if you can reframe them.
If you are feeling nervous about a work presentation, for example, you can remind yourself that it's natural to feel anxious about something that matters to you - and that this challenge is also an opportunity for growth.
You could also remember that a certain level of anxiety is helpful since it keeps you alert and energised.
This kind of thinking feels more emotionally authentic than vague optimism, such as telling yourself "everything's going to be okay", and it can have a direct influence on our physiology - ensuring that the rise in cortisol is more muted, while also encouraging the expression of "anabolic" hormones that are associated with the growth and maintenance of the body.
Q: In the book you talk about the danger of piling on to already negative thoughts.
A: Yeah, it's important to avoid "catastrophic thinking" - where you start to imagine all the worst-case scenarios: "If I feel this bad I'm just going to fail, and then I'll be sacked". Simply taking a moment to ask whether any of those assumptions are really true and objective - or whether you might be exaggerating the risks - can go a long way to putting you on the right track.
Q: Is it my expectation that it will suck stopping me from exercising?
A: A lot of discomfort comes from the way we're framing our exercise. We might hold negative assumptions from our past. We're not cut out for exercise, we don't have the right genes.
The research shows that our expectations can be as important as our genes in determining how we respond to exercise.
Your negative assumptions might not be based on fact, it could be that you're basing it on bad experiences in gym classes when you were a kid. You're an adult now, you're a different person. There is no reason to carry that forward.
You can either see the aches and pains, racing heart and being out of breath as signs you're lacking fitness or signs you're benefiting your body. These are good signs you're pushing it to a level you need to see improvement.
Reframing the discomfort can make the experience a lot more pleasurable, which means you are more likely to keep exercising. These mindsets can also change the physiological response to the exercise itself in things like gas exchange in the lungs. So it can be incredibly powerful.
Q: Can you actually fight ageing with the right mindset?
A: This research blew my mind and it's one of the reasons I wrote the book. When I saw how much research there was and how profound it is.
It shows very clearly that our beliefs about ageing shape our longevity. Some people see ageing as a purely negative process and I think our culture encourages that mindset. You focus on the disability, vulnerability and cognitive decline; you expect your thinking to become less sharp.
You start worrying about your memory, getting worse, and you worry about dementia. All of those things create a negative mindset that has been shown to reduce lifespan by seven and a half years. It increases the risk of Alzheimer's and cardiovascular disease.
It sounds crazy, how could that possibly be the case? Well, you may exercise less if you see it as dangerous. If you see your body as becoming more frail all the time, you may cocoon and protect it.
So there's a behavioural component, but equally profoundly, there's a direct physiological route. If you start to feel vulnerable, going to the post office or supermarket becomes more stressful. That raises the level of cortisol.
After 60, suffering chronic stress leads to excessive inflammation in the body, which causes bodily wear and tear.
We can even see this in the cells. The epigenetics, the gene expression, those signatures of ageing start to look older in people with this mindset. It's a faster-ticking cellular clock.
Other people see ageing as a time of growth. They recognise that there are ups and downs, but lots of cognitive abilities actually get better as you age.
Wise reasoning improves as you get older, and your general knowledge and your vocabulary actually peaks at 70.
There's a lot to look forward to and people who accept these positive elements don't have that stress response.
You see their cortisol levels declining as they get older, they're settling into old age and having a good time, and they have lower levels of inflammation and a lower risk of all of these diseases. The molecular clocks within their cells are ticking slower. They're actually biologically ageing more slowly.
• I've run out of space to cover all the interesting stuff Dave Robson shared on that wonderful late-night Zoom chat two Fridays ago. For example, there's no room here for the great New Zealand nocebo panic of 2017 or the surprising medical gains you can achieve by ordering marked placebo tablets, assigning them to a problem yourself and then taking them knowing they're sugar pills.
To pass on everything interesting we chatted about, I'd need to write another two columns. I'm not going to do that, but you can easily go to the source and read the book. I've been using a bunch of its practical suggestions in my everyday life - it's a good time.