You know you should put on sunscreen. You know you need to get off the couch and go for a walk. You know it’s a good idea to snack on a cucumber instead of a heaping bowl of Doritos. But what triggers us to make these changes, instead of perceiving health messages as nag, nag, nag? According to new research, the difference can be mindfulness.
According to Yoona Kang, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow researcher at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School of Communication’s Neuroscience Lab, mindfulness is usually defined as having awareness of the present moment and has been shown in previous studies to reduce negative reactions to emotionally charged situations. Since health messaging like “get your flu shot!” tends to have people react in negative ways, Yang and her fellow researchers examined whether using mindfulness could get people to be more receptive.
To test this, they assembled a group of participants who didn’t exercise very often, and exposed them to a bunch of health messages. They gauged their reactions and then, whether or not the study participants changed their behavior. They also asked how mindful each person was using a Mindful Attention Awareness Scale. It’s comprised of 15 scenarios, like “I tend to forget a person’s name as soon as I hear it,” or “I walk quickly to get where I’m going without paying attention to what’s around me.” The higher a person’s score, the more mindful they are considered to be.
The study showed that the less mindful people were, the less likely they were to make a positive change in their behavior after they’d been exposed to the health messaging. Perhaps they weren’t as inspired. Or maybe they feel bad about themselves. People who are more mindful, however, react less negatively and are more likely to change their behavior to be healthier.
The research team suggests that if we’re facing health information that is good for us, but that feels a bit threatening, we’d do well to cultivate mindful attention at that moment. So wear sunscreen … Ommm.