2020 has put physical and mental health at the forefront of an international conversation. The results of the 2020 presidential election are settling in, accompanied by the COVID-19 pandemic, protests in pursuit of social justice, record levels of unemployment and political unrest. This social and emotional cocktail has strained even the most centered and steadfast among us.
In the wake of these complicated and unstable concerns, people have found themselves searching for mental and physical wellness.
Pursuit of personal wellness is necessary, and it is the fuel for a $4.2 trillion global wellness industry. Yoga, mindfulness and CBD bubble baths are pervasive in the modern landscape. Prioritizing personal wellness might be at an all-time high.
In this pursuit, people are adopting strategies dispensed by a record number of “experts” sharing advice via social media. Often, these strategies fall into the category of self-improvement, self-help and other abstract notions of salvation.
While some of those voices are valid and dispense sound strategies with genuine intent, others should be met with skepticism. In benign cases, habits adopted from online “gurus” can be ineffective. In the worst cases, popular social media messaging can lead people down a path that undercuts their purpose, exacerbating health issues while promoting stress, anxiety and depression.
One glaring concern is the glamorization of sleep deprivation. Famous and assumedly well-intended speakers often make heroes of those who are inclined to give up sleep and mock those who understand the value of rest. In one of the internet’s most famous motivational videos, “How Bad Do You Want It? (Success),” narrated by motivational speaker Eric Thomas, nearly 47 million people have tuned in to learn that “if you’re going to be successful, you’ve got to be willing to give up sleep … If you really want to be successful, some days you’re going to have to stay up three days in a row, because if you go to sleep, you might miss the opportunity to be successful.” It is a dangerous message.
Following Thomas’ curriculum of sleep deprivation for the sake of success would lead to trouble concentrating, greater emotional reactivity and increased errors in one’s work. In other words, the opposite of success. It only takes a night or two of sleep deprivation to realize that this self-destructive habit is not the best path to success. So why do people still follow this advice?
People follow Eric Thomas because he is a master motivator. His fantastic ability to speak and inspire is how he gets his ideas in the door of one’s mind. It is important to note that the minds he enters are often unlocked, belonging to those who are interested in improving and willing to try new methods.
The ideas stick because of a psychological concept called illusory truth. Illusory truth occurs when an idea that sounds simple — sounds like it might have a chance to be correct — is repeated so often that the listener records it in their minds as truth. A 2015 article in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, co-authored by Lisa Fazio and colleagues, identified that “repetition makes statements easier to process … leading people to the (sometimes) false conclusion that they are more truthful.”
When people hear about the value of the grind and how they must sacrifice personal wellness for the sake of their goals, they begin to accept that as truth, even if it contradicts logic. According to the study by Fazio and colleagues, this effect has the power to override pre-existing truths. Even when participants know better, they often experience a “failure to rely on stored knowledge” in the presence of simple ideas that sound believable, especially when they are delivered repeatedly and with confidence.
It is a concept that has become familiar to consumer psychologists and mastered by marketers all over the world. Politicians understand the power of illusory truth. So did snake-oil salesmen, once upon a time.
By all means, be disciplined. Work hard toward your goals and maintain a mindset that will allow you to push through a day even when you do not get enough sleep. But don’t build a life around that standard.
This is especially important in a remote-learning setting. As winter in New Haven approaches, recognize that there will be moments when discipline and toughness will be necessary. Your ability to maintain deadlines, conduct research and create projects will depend on it. Keep in mind that your ability to maintain discipline during those times will hinge on your personal wellness. Do not delude yourself into thinking that waking up at 3 a.m. is the only way to be successful, no matter what your favorite social media influencer might say.
Work to be well. Be cautious of illusory truths. It will be a challenge at times, but it will certainly be worth it.
JIM DAVIS is a graduate of the Yale Writers Conference and has a graduate degree in Human Development & Psychology with a focus on Cognitive Neuroscience from Harvard University. He is the director of the nonprofit organization Good Athlete Project and the director of Staff & Student Wellness at a Chicago-area school. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.