Stop Focusing Only on Your Own Health – It’s Backfiring


EATING WELL, MOVING your body adequately, getting proper sleep and managing stress – all are healthy behaviors, no doubt, but pursuing them can also mean sacrificing other important people or activities in your life. At least, that’s what many people think.

But it turns out that attending to others doesn’t have to come at the expense of your health. In fact, just the opposite appears to be true. I’ve worked with plenty of athletes whose exclusive focus on personal gains and accomplishments was, ironically, a disruption. Many of them had at some point parted ways with significant others or dropped extracurricular hobbies, claiming those “distractions” were getting in the way of making progress in their sport. But it was only when they looked beyond just their own experiences and onto something greater – their family, teammates, faith, community – that they made the gains they’d always been working toward.


Psychology research supports this experience: Self-transcendence, or essentially thinking beyond yourself, actually can improve health and otherwise help you achieve your personal goals. Here’s why – and how to use the concept for your (and your loved ones’) benefit:

1. It can inspire healthy behavior change.

A new study from the University of Pennsylvania found that when physically inactive people thought about people they love or their own spirituality, their brains were more open to receiving health messages. Not only that, but the messages actually worked, inspiring them to become more physically active in the weeks that followed.

This makes sense because often, health advice is met with defensiveness, senior author Emily Falk said in a press release. But when people “first ‘zoom out’ and think about the things and people that matter most to them, [they]see that their self-concept and self-worth aren’t tied to this particular behavior – in this case, their lack of physical activity,” she said. And this realization that there’s more to them than just their inactivity is both rewarding – and can make them open to change.


2. It can boost performance.

The concept of connectedness or relatedness spawns from self-determination theory, which was originally developed by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan at the University of Rochester. It suggests that to be truly fulfilled in whatever we’re doing, we must feel like we’re a part of a supportive and caring group, be it a family, team or work cohort.

One reason there’s such benefit to being connected is that we’re capable of doing things for our loved ones that we’d probably never do for ourselves – like getting into shape, quitting smoking or changing our diet. But another reason is that it takes the excessive attention off ourselves and onto someone or something else, expanding our identities and freshening our perspectives.

Now-retired Australian tennis star Casey Dellacqua experienced this acutely. Becoming a mother, she told the New York Times when she was still playing in 2015, actually improved her game. “As a tennis player, we’re pretty selfish. It’s all about me, it’s all about what I need to do,” she said. “But suddenly our world changed where it became all about [my son], and it became about what was best for him. I think that only helped my tennis, because from that moment on my priorities definitely changed..”

3. It enhances motivation to exercise.

Recent findings from a University of Michigan study show that both active and inactive women report thr same key ingredient for feeling happy and successful in life: connecting with and helping others be happy and successful. Too often, the study suggests, sedentary women have an inaccurate perception of what exercise should be: uncomfortably intense, solitary and for the sole purpose of gaining health or losing weight.

To increase motivation to be physically active, “we need to help women to want to exercise instead of feeling like they should do it” by linking exercise with this key ingredient,” lead researcher Michelle Segar said in a press release. Re-educating women (and all of us having difficulty sticking with a workout routine, for that matter) that physical activity can (and should) feel good and be a way to connect with others can make a huge difference in their adherence to daily movement. Try, for example, to exercise with or even just alongside others, listen to music or a podcast while working out that you can later discuss with a friend, or simply consider how your improved mood or increased energy post-workout may benefit your loved ones.


4. It can help you tackle obstacles.

We experience “awe” when exposed to something larger than ourselves, like practicing a faith or walking on a trail. Even just watching a stunning nature video can make our own personal obstacles seem insignificant and surmountable. This benefit, however, is only true for people who tend to self-distance – that is, those who are able to detach themselves from emotional situations, research suggests. Those who take the opposite approach, however, tend to view themselves as insignificant after watching the same video, and so may not feel like pursuing health goals is worth it or even possible. All the more reason to take a step back from yourself: doing so will help you put your challenges in perspective – and feel empowered to conquer them