Our language, the words we use and the way in which we speak (and write) them, can have a lasting impact on our current and future behavior. Not only the words we say to others, but more important, our own self-talk can predict our success. Consider the two following sentences:
- “I choose to eat better because I want to feel energetic and live a long, healthy life.”
- “I should stop eating chocolate at night. It just ends up on my belly as a muffin top.”
Which one is more likely ultimately result in healthy living?
How Words Shape Your Health
Our language not only tells a story about our choice of words—the style and tone in which they were used in our childhood—but it can predict if you are going to be wealthy, or fit. In fact, linguists have long studied how our language determines our personal worldview.
Infusing our language with “should” (or even “could have”) can seep its way into your daily activities, creating a world of hopes for yourself that you may never accomplish. Just thinking the word “should” can manifest itself into your facial expression(s), your posture and your general outlook on your life.
“Should” places you in a situation where the outside influence (wine, bread, skipping workouts, friends, family, whatever) has power over you. “Choose” places the accountability and control upon you. “Should” puts the desired task into some nebulous future place. “Choose” places you in the driver’s seat and compels your mind to address it now, not in some distant future. “Should” tells you what you need to do, with whom, how, when, etc. “Choose” sends all of those pronouns to you—the person responsible for your healthy behavior.
The difference between “should” and “do” may be in how you talk to yourself. [Photo credit: Adrien Cotton]
Turn Trying Into Doing
In my almost 50-years on this beautiful Earth, I’ve been fascinated with the words people use in stressful situations. “When we say ‘should,’ we’ve immediately sidestepped ownership of our own motivation. ‘Should’ declares that outside influences are more important than our own desires,” says Mark Sisson, author of The Primal Blueprint.
How often do you say that you’ll try? How committed are you to the action you have undertaken? “Try” insinuates an attempt. It distances you from the commitment of “doing.” Saying that you’ll try allows you to give only some of what you’ve got today, because you don’t think you can do it.
Perhaps, an alternative is “Ok, let’s do this,” or “I’ve never done that. Today is a great day to start.” Even, “Wow, that seems challenging. I will feel accomplished with one rep of _____ (exercise).” These alternatives, and many others, use your own language to affirm and commit. As Sisson poignantly says, “Our words can determine the real mindset we bring to our goals.”
Fitness and health are not only physical states; they are states of mind. That state of mind carries with us our physical self, but also challenges us to bring that same virtue of health to our relationships, stress management, and self love.
Language Tense and Behavior
Dr. Keith Chen, behavioral economist at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management published a study1 testing if languages that grammatically associate the future and the present foster future-oriented behavior. Dr. Chen accounted for factors like income, education level, age, religious affiliation, a countries’ legal systems, and cultural values. He found the effect of language was a huge indicator of success. It greatly affects an individual’s ability to save money, practice safe sex, and maintain a healthy body weight:
“A German speaker predicting rain can naturally do so in the present tense, saying ‘morgen regnet es’ which translates to ‘it rains tomorrow’. In contrast, English would require the use of the future marker like ‘It will rain tomorrow’. In this way, English requires speakers to encode a distinction between present and future, which German does not. The obligatory future markers of the English language permeate our brains and put the task desired in the distant future.”
Having a larger proportion of people speaking languages that do not have obligatory future markers makes national savings rates higher. And, guess what the savings rate in Germany is? High. Chen was studying economic behavior, true. Yet his work included health behavior as well.
Although English is a language that distances the future from the present, in most cases, researchers of this phenomenon all agree: making the future feel closer to the present might improve future-oriented behavior—like your fitness.
Another study2 presented one group of participants with a digital representation of their current selves in a virtual mirror, while another group saw an age-morphed version of their future selves. Those participants who saw the age-morphed version of their future selves allocated more money toward a hypothetical savings account. The intervention brought people’s future to the present, and as a result they saved more for the future.
Choose Your Future
What if you imagine your future self as a beautiful, content, and in the best health you can possibly imagine? What if you started to use the language of “choose” not “should?” And what if you actually started living in the present, finding joy in the little things, and feeling empowered by choosing to be fit and healthy? You would probably view the world a little differently, with a glass half full.
Find concrete actions to enable improvement:
1. Chen, M. Keith. “The effect of language on economic behavior: Evidence from savings rates, health behaviors, and retirement assets.” The American Economic Review 103, no. 2 (2013): 690-731.
2. Hershfield, Hal E., Daniel G. Goldstein, William F. Sharpe, Jesse Fox, Leo Yeykelis, Laura L. Carstensen, and Jeremy N. Bailenson. “Increasing saving behavior through age-progressed renderings of the future self.” Journal of Marketing Research 48, no. SPL (2011): S23-S37.