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Study Hall: How good intentions can improve your wellbeing

For Study Hall each week, we sort through the deluge of new medical studies and wordy white papers to bring you one that deserves your attention—in plain, healthy English.

woman giving a giftIt turns out “It’s the thought that counts” is not just something people say to comfort those who have just received seriously misguided gifts.

According to a new study in Social Psychological & Personality Science (published on January 17, 2012), the thought may actually matter more than the gift itself.

The study: Researchers at the University of Maryland conducted three experiments to test whether good intentions can change the way an individual experiences stimuli. They tested whether the perceived pain of a shock, the pleasure of a massage, and the sweetness of candy improved if a person felt it was being administered with good intentions.

The results: When the subjects perceived good intentions, the shocks hurt less, the massages felt better, and the candy was even more delicious.

What it means: You can stop worrying if the sweater you bought your sister was the right color, or if your boyfriend really likes your cooking. If the action is fueled by good intentions, it will probably make them happy either way. Also, start surrounding yourself with well-intentioned people—from your friends to your doctors. —Lisa Elaine Held