Would You Believe?

Would you believe that brunettes have more heart attacks than blondes… tall people benefit from eating more bacon… animal lovers have fewer motor vehicle accidents…and diabetes is not a leading cause of death in the United States?

These are all false, of course. They are examples to demonstrate how what we hear, read, and believe guide our thinking, emotions, and decision-making. And, in keeping with the recent theme of forming and maintaining habits, good or bad, our belief system guides us. If you believe something causes cancer, you might act on it, or teach others about it out of a sense of duty or concern. We do not act on everything we believe in, however. There are not enough hours in the day. But, we are rarely called to action without believing in a philosophy or scientific finding.

Why did it take so many years for people to really believe that cigarette smoking causes cancer? Did Joe Camel and the Virginia Slims models have a hold on us? Early warnings on the side of cigarette boxes had little effect, nor did revised warnings, bigger warnings, or early televised anti-smoking campaigns. By that time, Phillip Morris was winning with sexier ads, sleeker cigarettes to appeal to women, and low tar, low nicotine replacements that were marketed as healthier. And, we bought it. More chemicals, more cancer, yet we believed we were safe because Joe looked great. Yes, belief is key.

So, who do we believe, and what do we do if we have believed something for so long that a change in mindset is difficult, if not seemingly impossible? How many times have you heard an over-eater, smoker or drinker say, “I know it’s bad for me, but it’s too late to change” or “I can’t stop”, or worse – “I don’t do it enough to do any real damage”?

Accurate information delivered by a trusted expert could convince us to change our thinking. Alternatively, information delivered in a powerful way by a charismatic or convincing person such as a salesman or a passionate, well-meaning acquaintance may sound reasonable also, so we are willing to change a belief. And, as we pass our beliefs on to our offspring, we may notice mirroring of unhealthy behaviors or hear our children passing along advice to their peers based on their belief system, accurate or not. The pattern repeats itself, and the rest is history. Fads and trends are fueled in this way.

I happened onto an article in the Daily Herald this morning, after I had decided to write about beliefs. The headline reads “The Fight Against Fake News” by Arek Sarkissian. (We sure do love our “fake news” trend.) But what hit home was a referenced quote by Alexios Mantzarlis: “We like to believe more of what is already in line with what we believe. And we tend to explain away through motivated reasoning, stuff that doesn’t fit into that pattern.” I believe there is a great deal of truth to this, and it is another example of the intricacy of the human brain. If we could understand and harness that power, we may be less likely to self-sabotage when it comes to decisions about family, finance, and health.

Let’s return for a moment to the little fib I told in my opening, so I can provide accurate statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Heart disease and cancer remain the two leading causes of death in the United States, with diabetes sitting in seventh place. Diabetes, though, has been gradually working its way up the list. The question is, how many people tell themselves a story that makes their situation seem less threatening? How many will want to know more? And, how many, once armed with knowledge and acceptance, will be called to action? If you truly believe that small changes in your lifestyle will decrease your chances of living with a chronic illness, you are more likely to adopt healthy behaviors. If you can visualize what a healthy future looks like, and believe that putting out a cigarette or walking away from your doughnut-a-day habit can lead you to that, you will do it. But, because these things don’t usually happen overnight, consider engaging a supportive health practitioner to guide you through that process. Success is just one belief away!