PUBLIC HEALTH
October 5, 2018

Self-Transcendence and the Path to Health

When we think of healthy behaviors in terms of those people and ideals we care about, it's easier to follow through with them.

Want some good health advice? Of course you don't. Adopting healthier lifestyle habits can be tough. You get bombarded with a lot of messages you know are true and good for you, but you really don’t want to hear them. Eat more vegetables! Get off the couch and get moving!

Hearing reminders about unhealthy behaviors you know you should change can make you defensive, and can actually prevent or delay your progress. But what if you focused on a bigger picture?

The positive feelings this kind of thinking brings up can make people open to following previously ignored and unwelcome health advice.

People were more likely to follow the advice they'd been given if they were focused on values and people beyond themselves — also known as self-transcendence — before receiving the public health messages, a new study finds.

“One of the things that gets in the way of people changing their behavior is defensiveness,” senior author, Emily Falk, said in a statement. For example, when people are reminded to park their car further away from their office to walk more, they often come up with reasons why this behavior is relevant for others, but not for them.

To counteract this defensive attitude, Falk and her team asked 220 sedentary adults, who were either overweight or obese, to complete one of two self-transcendence tasks. They compared the responses of the self-transcendence groups to those of a third control group.

The self-transcendence tasks got people thinking about values they felt were important or loved ones they cared about. They did so while undergoing magnetic resonance imaging, so researchers could see their brain function in real time.

The first self-transcendence group was asked to think about the people and things that mattered most to them. The second group was asked to make positive wishes for loved ones and for strangers. The control group was asked to think about their least important values.

All study participants then viewed health messages that encouraged them to be more active or told them their behavior put them at risk. For example, “Being more active will strengthen your muscles. Stronger muscles will make it easier for you to get around and do the things you enjoy for longer.” Or, “The American Heart Association says sedentary people like you are at serious risk for heart disease. This means more pills and higher risk of sickness or death.”

Over the next month, participants received daily text messages that asked them to think either self-transcendent thoughts or neutral thoughts prior to viewing health messages. They also wore fitness trackers to monitor physical activity.

“The idea of self-transcendence, or caring for others beyond one’s own self interest, is a potentially powerful source of change.”

The researchers found participants who completed one of the two self-transcendence tasks were significantly more active during that month versus the control group. They also found those in the self-transcendence groups had more activity than those in the control group in the brain regions associated with reward and positive valuation.

Many people say focusing on the people and things they care about — self-transcendence — is rewarding in and of itself, Yoona Kang, lead author of the study, told TheDoctor. It makes us feel good, and the positive feelings this kind of thinking brings up can make people open to following previously ignored and unwelcome health advice.

People will do things for their loved ones they would probably never do for themselves. “The idea of self-transcendence, or caring for others beyond one’s own self interest, is a potentially powerful source of change,” she said.

Kang, a postdoctoral fellow at the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania, and the researchers are developing an app that pairs self-transcendence messages with health messages and will deliver them to your phone every day. The app, called Live Active!, can be downloaded from the iTunes store.

The study is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

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