Overview: It probably isn’t news to you, but what you believe about a topic influences how you feel about it and the decisions/choices you make in relation to it. Science is increasingly looking at our beliefs about particular topics (mindsets) and what role those mindsets play in terms of our performance and health. In this blog post, I cover a bit about mindsets and encourage you to consider your beliefs about study. Reading time ~ 8 minutes
I just finished listening to a podcast interview with Andrew Huberman speaking to Dr Alia Crum on the science of mindsets for health & performance.
Mindsets are collections of beliefs, assumptions and expectations we hold about different topics. Given the complexity of the world we live in, mindsets are intended to help us navigate, in an efficient way, the different challenges and situations we face on a regular basis.
You have mindsets relating to all sorts of topics: health, nutrition, stress, relationships, work, study and more. Your mindset about a topic influences what you expect, what you notice, the decisions you make, how you feel and even how your body responds.
Researchers have been exploring certain mindsets because of their potential relationships to performance and health. For example, Dweck and colleagues have studied people’s mindsets about intelligence and abilities. That research gave rise to the ‘growth vs fixed’ mindset concept you might have encountered before.
In that research, individuals with a growth mindset about intelligence/ability tend to assume that intelligence and ability are malleable. They tend to pursue growth, respond better to setbacks, see failure as opportunity and ultimately show greater improvement in ability over time. Individuals with a fixed mindset about intelligence/ability tend to assume that intelligence and ability are not malleable. They tend to stick to what they know, respond more negatively to setbacks and show less growth over time.
Thus what we believe about a topic influences how we navigate that area of our lives.
Another example might be the area of relationships. You can imagine that a person who believes in the idea of a ‘soulmate’ (i.e. the one right person for me) may approach relationships in a different way to someone who believes it possible they could love many different people.
In the interview, Alia talks a lot about stress mindset, the beliefs/expectations/assumptions we hold about stress and its impact on us. She suggests that years of public health marketing efforts have led many to adopt a ‘stress as debilitating’ mindset. We view stress as something bad or dangerous that must be addressed/managed. This isn’t without reason, given years of research demonstrating the negative impacts of chronic stress.
However, Alia argues that the research also supports the ‘stress as enhancing’ mindset. That stress, when leveraged appropriately, can help us focus our psychological and physical resources to make progress in the areas of life that are most important to us.
The stress mindset we hold not only influences how we respond to stress but also what level of positive or negative impact that stress has on our health and performance. That is because it appears that our mindsets (deeply held beliefs) influence not only our thoughts and how we feel, but also our physiology. Stress-related illness or symptomatology can be reduced on the basis of our beliefs about stress.
So what is your stress mindset?
Accessing our mindset on any given topic is a process of self-reflection and observation. Noticing what kinds of thoughts and feelings show up when the topic is raised (i.e. how do you feel reading about the topic of stress?). Noticing how we talk about a topic. Noticing what our actions and behaviours are in relation to a topic.
For example, I imagine that for many of us we:
- Feel stressed when we think about stress
- Contemplate what actions will make us less stressed
- Worry that stress is making us ill
- Worry that we aren’t coping with stress as well as we should
These suggest that we view stress as a bad thing, that is dangerous and needs to be controlled.
Once we have a handle on our stress mindset (our stress beliefs), we can do a couple of things. First, we can extrapolate what will happen if we maintain that particular mindset. In the case above, I can imagine becoming obsessed about reducing stress, and that obsession interfering with me engaging in those things that are important to me.
The second thing we can do is educate ourselves on alternative perspectives on the topic. For example, we could do some reading on the benefits of stress. The podcast interview itself is a good starting point in that regard.
We may not completely shift our mindset, but we might make it more nuanced over time. In fact, the goal isn’t really to find the ‘correct mindset’. It is about finding a mindset that leads to observable and measurable improvements in the quality of our life. As I’ve learned more about stress, I can see there are benefits of short-term stress states (e.g. improved focus, improved energy), but that it is also important to put things in place to buffer against chronic stress.
Kick off 2022 with a consideration of your study mindset
As you kick off the 2022 study year, what are your beliefs and expectations about studying this year? Is study a chore? Is it exciting? How do you expect you will manage the workload? Is study building you a better future, or maybe just a way of passing the time?
Notice what thoughts and feelings show up when thinking about studying this year.
As those thoughts and feelings emerge, ask yourself what role they might play in the choices you will make this year, like how much time you allocate to study, how you will access the course materials, how involved you will get in lectures and tutorials.
And what would constitute ‘academic success’ to you? How would you know if you’ve had a successful study year?
Once you think you have a grasp on your study mindset, entertain what it would mean to hold a different view. For example, you can read this previous blog post on what constitutes academic success (beyond grades/GPA). Or chat to other people about their views on study. Do you think you’d have a better year (study wise) if you were to adopt a different perspective on study?
If you’ve got questions or comments, throw them in the chat below.