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A fascinating new study suggests that the power of our imagination may have a far more powerful effect over our wellbeing than was previously understood. It seems that what we choose to imagine can bring about significant physiological changes.

Studies among basketball players have shown that merely visualising oneself practicing a given shot can bring about an improvement that’s almost as great as physically practicing that shot.

A fascinating new study takes the idea a step further. It suggests that choosing to imagine ourselves in a given state has a significant impact on the way we subsequently act. This could have an important effect on the way in which we make life-style choices.

Janina Steinmertz and her team from Utrecht University, Mental Simulations of Visceral States Affects Preferences and Behaviour, recruited 111 participants for the study in which they were asked to imagine themselves feeling either hungry or full. The study showed that there was a significant difference in subsequent food real-world choices that participants made, with those who imagined themselves full, being less inclined to choose higher calorie energy-dense foods. It could be that, along with exercise and diet, the simple power of our imagination is an underrated tool in bringing about positive lifestyle change.

Another recent study also reinforces the idea that what we choose to think about affects our wellbeing. This study by Mauricio Delgado and Megan Speer at Rutgers University, suggests that we can become more resilient and reduce stress in the workplace by bringing happy memories to the forefront of our minds.

We have known for some time that workplaces stresses and confrontations lead to a spike in cortisol, known as the stress hormone. We need cortisol to prepare us for fight or flight in conflict situations, but heightened cortisol can lead to health problems associated with stress and anxiety, such as an inhibited immune system.

The researchers sought to heighten participants’ cortisol levels and then test whether – and how rapidly – these could be reduced, by asking the participant to bring certain thoughts to mind.

One way to heighten cortisol is to put people in a simulated stress situation, for example, by requiring them to hold their hand in icy water until the experience becomes stressful and discomforting. Once there was a measurable increase in cortisol as a response to the iced water, the researchers then sought to measure the ways in which choosing one’s thoughts lowers cortisol. It seems that one of the most powerful ways to reduce cortisol is to reminisce about happy times.

Having a rough day at work? Take a moment to bring to mind a specific happy memory. It is likely to reduce your stress, and so help your productivity and creativity.