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10 Powerful Life Lessons of the Placebo Effect

Source: Masters of Mind Control

The relationship between our minds and our bodies is exceedingly complex, and often functions in ways that we simply haven't yet found a way to understand or explain in purely scientific terms. For decades, studies on the placebo effect have shown that patients who believed they were getting a treatment responded in ways that were similar or the same to those who were actually getting a treatment, showcasing an unexpected level of power of the brain over the body.

While the placebo effect itself is a fascinating topic of study, there are a lot of very practical and perhaps even inspirational lessons that can be taken away from this phenomenon and applied to everyday life. Here are just a few that we think are especially powerful that offer insights into motivation, mindfulness, and even happiness that we can all stand to benefit from.

Belief is often more powerful than reality.

When researchers study the placebo effect, they often find that those who aren't given a particular treatment improve in many of the same ways as those that are, simply because they believe that they are being treated, not because they're getting any real medical help. While believing things, even very strongly, doesn't always cause them to be true, it can have a marked impact on how we see and experience the world, often much more so than things that are regarded as fact. Belief can, in many ways, be a much more powerful force than reality, coloring our perceptions, pushing us forward, and changing what we feel is possible to accomplish.

Life is all about perception.

The placebo effect is all about perception, as people respond to an outside stimulus in a way that isn't congruent with the effect the stimulus should actually have on the body (in many cases, there should be no effect at all). This reaction isn't exclusive to issues of healthcare, however, as a number of studies have shown. People perceive a wine to taste better when they believe it's expensive, and they get a greater health benefit from doing something if they believe it qualifies as exercise. How we think about something can entirely change how we react and how it affects us, whether it's something as simple as enjoying wine or something much more complex like getting along with a boss, caring for an aging parent, or coping with the stresses of everyday life. The placebo effect teaches us that we can choose how things, whether bad or good, in the outside world affect us. That's an incredibly powerful piece of knowledge to have.

Sometimes you get in your own way.

Belief is a powerful force, but sometimes the power it wields over us can actually hold us back and keep us from meeting our goals. The placebo effect can work in two ways: one that motivates, heals, and helps, and the other that can induce self-doubt, destructive thoughts, and keep success at bay (sometimes called the nocebo effect). If you believe you can't accomplish something because you're not smart enough, good enough, or fast enough, these beliefs may become a self-fulfilling prophecy and you may fail not because you truly can't do something, but because the doubt and uncertainty caused by your beliefs trips you up or makes you overly cautious. Take a child who is struggling with learning as an example. If he or she is told they will never grasp a concept, are stupid, and should just give up, eventually this message will sink in and the child will give up, regardless of his or her actual abilities.

There truly is power in positive thinking.

If the placebo effect teaches us anything, it's that there is something to be said for positive thinking. It may not bring you unlimited riches or the perfect life, but it can have an effect on your happiness, relationships, and, of course, your health. Studies have shown that positive thinking can help you control stress, lower rates of depression, and may even result in a longer life span. So believing in the best outcome may just be what you need to get your life on track.

Anything is possible, if you put your mind to it.

As cliché and saccharine as it may be, there is truth in this old adage. Many things seem impossible until someone really puts effort into showing how they can be done. Take runner Roger Bannister as an example. Roger decided he would set the world record for running a mile, with the goal of a time that was under 4 minutes. People told him it wasn't possible; after all, no one had ever done it before. In 1954, Bannister completed a mile run in 3 minutes and 59 seconds. Within a year of breaking this previously unheard of barrier, more than 30 other runners had also run with similar times. All it took was someone changing the beliefs surrounding the achievement to make others see it as a possibility, something we can all take note of in our own lives.

We often become reliant on outside factors to empower ourselves.

As the placebo effect shows, we often believe we need some form of outside input, a medicine or surgery say, to feel better. In reality, it may be enough to believe that we'll get better, allow ourselves to heal, and let time take its course than looking for an outside solution to a problem. While help and support from others can be great, real motivation has to come from within. You have to want something for yourself or believe that it will happen to really make any progress.
Humans aren't always rational.

Like the half-human, half-Vulcan Spock in the classic Star Trek series, humans are constantly battling against their emotional side when trying to make logical, rational decisions. Often — perhaps too often — emotions win out, influencing our decisions on everything from business to buying a car. The way we react and the things we choose are rarely entirely rational or easily explicable to others. Our brains work in mysterious ways, as the placebo effect clearly demonstrates, so never forget to account for the effects of our ever powerful emotions in any situation, both in our own reactions and those of others. It may just give you a deeper understanding of a situation, temper your actions, and help you prepare for the unexpected.

You can choose your level of happiness in life.

You can choose to believe a medication will work or believe it will do nothing at all, but as the placebo effect shows us, sometimes hoping for the best will actually increase the likelihood that these things will come to pass. You can choose your beliefs and in turn, choose the ways in which things affect you in your everyday life. If you believe that being stuck in a traffic jam is the worst thing in the world, it will be, raising your levels of stress and making you angry. But if you choose to believe that any delay can be an opportunity, you'll be less stressed, more happy, and may use that extra time on the road to think, learn a language, tackle a book on tape, or just enjoy some music. Being happy isn't just something that happens, it's something you can choose.

What you think is just as important as what you do.

Thoughts, even if we don't act on them, have a big impact on our outlook on the world, what we do end up doing, and our overall level of happiness. They are incredibly powerful, often more so than we're willing to readily admit. One lesson you can take away from the placebo effect is that your thoughts are just as important as your actions. After all, in placebo studies, doing an essentially empty task (taking a sugar pill) can have the same effect as actually doing something, because of a particular line of thinking. You can apply this to other areas of life as well, making sure careful and purposeful thoughts always precede any actions you take.

Life's obstacles are rarely as insurmountable as they seem.

If people can see a change in their health, or at least their perception of it, from doing nothing at all except thinking that they should feel better, than there really isn't much in life that can't be conquered (or at least managed) by changing the way you think. Think you'll never complete a task? That you can't get ahead in your career? That you'll never get over a breakup? While we might all feel this way from time to time, framing your thoughts with respect to the bigger, overall picture of your life can change how you see your ability to push through. And, as we've already discussed, it doesn't hurt to truly believe that you can do these things either.

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