Shoba Narayan is the author of five books. As a journalist and columnist, she writes about health, relationships, travel, food and culture for global publications, winning a James Beard award and Pulitzer Fellowship. She has taught and lectured at universities in India (IIM-B and IISc) and abroad. She is the host and anchor of Bird Podcast: about birds and nature. She enjoys wine, studies Jung and is a gadget geek. Her lifelong mission is to get fit without exercising and lose weight without dieting.
Imagine this scenario. Say you are in your early 60s and agree to participate in a psychology experiment. A group of you-10 men and 10 women- are taken to a monastery. The minute you enter inside, the whole scene is like a movie set that resembles life in your 20s. Songs from the Binaca Geet Mala play continuously. You have to wear clothes that were in fashion when you were young—bell bottoms and so on. Your room has toothpaste and soap that were famous brands when you were young—Hamam soap, Vicco Vajradanti, you get the picture.
The instructions given to you are simply this: imagine you are in your 20s. Act as if you are 20. Your daily routine includes games that you played as a college student. It is as if you have been returned to your youth. Except that you are 60 years old.
A week later the experiment ends. As agreed upon, your medical parameters are all checked. The results shock even the researchers. After just a week of acting as if you are 20, your body has changed. Your vision has improved. Joint pains have disappeared. Blood parameters have improved. Most flabbergasting of all, you have regained some of your hearing— something that is unheard of. Behaving like a 20-year-old for a week has tricked your body into acting as if it was in its 20s. It is a startling example of the adage: fake it till you make it.
This experiment was in fact conducted by Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer in 1981. It epitomises a growing body of research that links the power of the mind over the body. I’ve provided links to some of this research in the end. In the recent book, Cured, a medical doctor examines how to create an environment that sets the stage for healing. Dr Andrew Weil and Dr Deepak Chopra have written extensively on the mind-body connection in order for “spontaneous healing” to happen. A recent blockbuster book, The Body Keeps the Score, talks about how the mental traumas we have inherited manifest in our bodies. All of these studies basically say two things: how we think influences how our bodies behave. Second, context matters. Changing the context of your surroundings will change not just your attitude but also, it seems, your body chemistry. Now context is a rich many-layered word, but here, in this context (there it is again), it means surroundings. Change your surroundings and you can change your mindset, which in turn changes your health.
But first a caveat. Physiology and genetics matter. So, while I am making a case here for an optimistic and take-charge mindset, it is not a cure-all. That said, we all underestimate the power of the mind in physical health.
As we get older, there are two things that we give away: agency and power. Our children get older and start making decisions for us. When we go to the bank with younger nieces or nephews, we let them speak for us because we assume they are more “with it.”
I have three words for you: don’t do this. Stay independent as long as possible. Carry that suitcase up the stairs instead of letting the younger folks do this. Speak up in mixed groups. When a kindly child or younger colleague says, “Sir (or Madam), let me take care of this for you,” think about whether you want them to do your work, particularly if it involves technology, decisions, and choices: three things that we can’t keep up with as we age.
It is not just about ageing. It is also about expectations and context, both of which dictate how we, and therefore our bodies behave. Think about it. Why are we stressed out at family functions (because of accompanying drama) but relaxed at catch-up parties with our college buddies? It is all about the surroundings and the roles—dutiful son, diligent daughter—that are imposed on us by our elders and by society. It is natural for most humans to act according to expectations, hence the phrase: act your age. The world expects us to become weaker and feeble as we age. What if we confound those expectations by basically—not acting our age? Learn to dance, start a business, be that cool uncle in biker’s leather and a helmet, be that badass aunt who speaks her mind and hikes the Himalayas. All of these can ward off, or even reverse decline. Health and illness are linked to the mind and mindset in more ways than we can imagine.
In one interview, Dr. Langer said, “Baldness is a cue for old age,” she says. “Therefore, men who go bald early in life may perceive themselves as older and may consequently be expected to age more quickly.”
When 84 hotel chambermaids complained that they didn’t get much exercise and were therefore overweight, Langer’s group did a nifty thing. They told half the group that cleaning rooms was a fairly serious exercise, more than what the doctor recommended. Once their expectations were shifted, these maids lost weight, improved their body-mass index, waist-to-hip ratio, and general health. They did the same work but now they thought of it as exercise. Their bodies responded.
When we fight, my husband says something that annoys me. He says, “Change your mind and you can change our world.” Much as I hate to admit this, it seems that he is right.