Researchers have found that people who often complain about being old or fat have more health problems than others of the same age or weight. And when older people leave their usual environment and go somewhere that they associate with youth and physical activity, their health improves. For example, blood pressure might be significantly lower after spending a few weeks at a hotel in the mountains, surrounded by hiking trails and furnished with dated décor reminiscent of one’s younger years.
When articles describing these studies appear on news websites, readers often post skeptical comments downplaying the effects of attitude. People complain more because they’re in worse health, not the other way around, the commenters suggest. And they argue that when someone’s health improves during a vacation, it has nothing to do with feeling younger—it’s simply because of a better diet and more exercise.
Some readers gripe that the scientists are being unethical by conducting studies that have the effect of encouraging people to lie to themselves. After all, if someone is old or fat, that’s the truth. It’s nonsensical to pretend otherwise, they say; and it gives people false hope that magical thinking will cure serious medical problems.
My take on it is that categories like “old” and “fat” are chiefly matters of opinion. Their boundaries can and do change as our cultural expectations shift over time. A century ago, when the average lifespan was much shorter than it is today, people thought of themselves as growing old earlier in their lives. And before the modern era, when food was much harder to get, a substantial waistline often was thought desirable—both because it was a sign of prosperity and because it improved survival odds in times of famine.
We also differ in how we sort ourselves into categories based on our life experiences. For instance, I would call myself middle-aged because both of my children are grown and are close to getting their university degrees. To my mind, it wouldn’t make any sense to describe myself as a young adult when my kids are now young adults. But nowadays, because of second marriages and fertility treatments, there are plenty of people my age who started their families just recently. They are likely to spend much of their time associating with young parents of toddlers and, as a result, to think of themselves as being nowhere near middle age.
Another factor in how we classify ourselves, which is even more individual, has to do with the connotations that we attach to the words. One person might despair upon approaching middle age, believing that it means the best part of life is over. A more optimistic person might view it as having many more years of a long and happy life remaining. Although they’re both using the same term to describe themselves, what they mean by it is totally different.
As to the health effects of what we say about ourselves, I believe the skeptics have a valid point that there’s more to it than positive or negative thinking. When someone is in better health after a vacation, it probably has to do with being more active than usual. The person isn’t just sitting around the whole time repeating affirmations, visualizing a younger and healthier self, and so forth.
That said, however, it’s all interrelated. When we think of ourselves as healthy people in the prime of our lives, we’re likely to act accordingly, getting regular exercise and taking better care of ourselves. To a large extent, humans are creatures of habit. What we say about ourselves is a strong factor influencing what habits we form, which in turn goes a long way toward shaping our circumstances.