The Placebo Effect

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By Vickie Wilcher

Sometimes humor is the way to attract attention—so here goes:
Two old friends run into on another while shopping; one asks the other, “how is your daughter and her new husband?”

The other replies, “OMG, she is wonderful and he’s a prince. He takes her out to dinner, lets her shop as much as she wants, and treats her like a princess.”

That’s great says the inquiring friend and then asks, “And how about your son and his new wife?”
“OMG, I don’t know how he stands it. She forces him to wine and dine her, she’s constantly shopping-spending his money of course; I swear I believe she wants him to treat her like a queen.”

Surely the punch line here is obvious. But taken in a serious context—that is laughs aside—there is a very important point to make about perceptions and attitudes and the behaviors born from such ill-conceived thoughts. In our joke it’s clear that in spite of the fact that the couples are behaving in the exact same way: the men are doting on their wives; the mother sees the two relationships in polar opposite ways. It’s likely then that based on her thinking she treats her son-in-law with much more love, respect and kindness than she does her daughter-in-law (whom she probably expresses at least some level of resentment toward).

And so it is on a more global scale. In fact, there is considerable research that supports the idea that we are driven by what we think. Some social scientists argue vehemently that our very realities are mere products of what and how we think. And yet we are often flippant about this simple but fundamental building block (our thoughts) in our lives. We often spout off philosophical and spiritually based quotes like, “As a man thinketh, so shall he be,” or “if you don’t like something change it; if you can’t change it, change the way you think about it.” In addition to our intellectual and poetic references to the importance of thoughts, there are thousands, if not tens of thousands of books written on the subject of “thought”.

But even with an abundance of information at our disposal many of us are content to allow ourselves to be governed by negative or even life-threatening thoughts. Proof of this point can be found in the Mayo Clinic’s (and other) research that shows that there is a positive correlation between thought and better health. Specifically, those whose focus is more optimistic have greater resistance to certain illnesses and are more likely to experience better overall well-being than their more negative and anger driven counterparts. Yet, too few of us are ever willing to commit to transforming the way we think. It is understandable that some will view these and other points about the power of thought as the mere rantings of the “new age” pop psychology crew. But there is no shortage of individual testimony or scientific fact to prove the point.

For those who doubt the absolute power of thought, I offer my own testimony:
Even when my life was, or could have been, full of love and happiness I had no idea how to receive those extraordinary blessings—I didn’t even recognize them as gifts the Universe had laid at my feet. That is, until the day they appeared to be gone. That cold, dark, empty moment when nothing or no one was there. I was alone and the pain was so overwhelming that I took a piggy bank to trade the coins for cash, bought a fifth of Jack Daniels and then gathered every pill in my house. The plan was to drive as far out as possible, park at arrest stop, take the pills and drink the Jack. I felt I had been stripped of everything. I had no job, no money, and no hope. Life had been so hard and painful over the two years that led me to that moment that I didn’t even think my chosen poison would actually work. I thought only the worse could/would come to me and that I would fail even at suicide. With that thought it also occurred to me that “if I couldn’t die, I’d have to find a different/better way to live.”

I prayed for help, anything that would move me forward and out of my darkness. And somewhere in my darkest time the thought occurred to me that “it would not be unreasonable to assume that life could go from bad to good just as quickly as it had gone from good to bad. It occurred to me that all that had happened, all the loss, all the pain and the reciprocating anger had been by design. I needed the trauma, it was the only way that I would look for and ultimately find my way back to my True Self. Finally, there was light. And it was abundantly clear that it was in my new thinking that I felt guided to Peace, Love, to God. While my new, True Self was emerging, one thing that stood out was that it was happening in my thoughts and I could choose what I thought—I was the “Thinker behind the Thought.” Sharing my experience is not meant to over simplify the task, because the reality for some, if not many, is that a shift from one way of thinking that has been one’s practice for many years and is deeply rooted one’s belief system, might not be easily done. There will be work. It will take time and commitment. And most importantly, anyone who wants to experience true transformation will need to have a true desire to meet that goal.

Many times I have heard people talk about the responsibility that comes with power or being endowed with certain gifts—“to whom much is given, much is required.” But this and other concepts like it are often reduced to mere platitude; particularly when it comes to acknowledging—or more aptly, not acknowledging—our own power and responsibility. We have the power and the authority to create, to expand, to flourish, because we have the power to control what we think. Yet many of us relinquish that power to our partners, our bosses, our politicians and so on. It may be that on some level we don’t really want the responsibility that comes with it; or it might be that we simply don’t want to do the work involved—one study reports that the average adult has roughly 60,000 thoughts per day—at issue though is the fact that the majority are the same thoughts they’ve had on previous days. So what might happen if we sincerely worked at expanding our thinking? If we took our power of thought and focused it on what was good, right and productive? I submit that we would experience a deep and well deserved transformation.
Again, if personal testimony is not adequate proof, science is, and has been available for many years, that demonstrates the power of thought. An example is found in one experiment in which a group of subjects were given a completely inert capsule—not even the traditional placebo “sugar pill.” They were told that the pill was a new form of chemo-therapy and that they might experience some side effects. Many of the test subjects reported feeling nauseated, having bleeding gums and loss of hair. Because they THOUGHT they were taking a chemo-based drug.

Returning to the mother in our joke, let’s be honest, if she believes/thinks that her daughter-in-law is a selfish gold-digger of sorts, then it would be quite easy for her to mistreat her son’s wife; or at least to harbor ill feelings toward her. And she has clearly chosen to think in this way because she has absolutely no problem with her own daughter enjoying the benefits of a good husband. Now let’s carry that honesty to its more far reaching reality. There are millions and millions of people who, just like the mother in the joke, choose to think and therefore behave in very harmful and hurtful ways. If we are to ever experience a better, more just, loving and peaceful world, we will surely need to choose to think differently. We will need to cast our gaze toward the positive and the good; and like the mother in the joke spread that good news so as to engage others in that line of thinking.
Based on my experience and study, I think that if we adjust our collective thinking, if we call forth the power we are inherently blessed with to redirect our thoughts in such a way that a good society is more than just possible. Think about it.

Henri Matisse said “There are always flowers for those who want to see them.”

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