Ellen Langer on Mindfulness and Health

30 Mar

Ellen Langer is a professor of psychology at Harvard University. Her research covers topics such as the illusion of control, aging, decision-making and mindfulness theory. Her books written for general and academic readers include Mindfulness, The Power of Mindful Learning, On Becoming An Artist, and Counterclockwise. Her lab’s current work in progress is concerned with the interaction of mindfulness and health, business, and education.

In Counterclockwise, Professor Langer discusses how mindful living can affect our health. She talks about an immensely fascinating experiment she did with a group of elderly people. In the experiment, the elders were taken into a setting where they were instructed to live as if they are in 1959. After a week, she discovered that this group of people were acting significantly younger. Their hearing improved, they have stronger grip and more joint flexibility. In Professor Langer’s words:

Mindful health is not about how we should eat right, exercise, or follow medical recommendations, nor is it about abandoning these things… It is about the need to free ourselves from constricting mindsets and the limits they place on our health and well-being, and to appreciate the importance of becoming the guardians of our own health.

Professor Langer talks about many interesting ideas in her book. One is reverse Zeno’s Paradox. In an example of Zeno’s Paradox, if you always cover half of the distance between your current position and your destination, you will never get there. During the experiment with the group of elderly, Professor Langer told the participants that each of them was responsible for carrying their own belongs to their room when they arrived at the retreat location. Many of them were uncomfortable with this idea. After all, they probably have not done that by themselves for a long time. Professor Langer told them that if they could not carry it directly to their room, they can do it slowly, moving a small distance at a time, or even carrying their belongings piece by piece. Despite their initial discomfort, all of them managed to move in by themselves in the end. It was an empowering experience for them. In Professor Langer’s words, this is the power of the reverse Zeno’s Paradox:

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” In Reverse Zeno’s Strategy, the single step is defined differently – halfway between where we are and where we want to be.

In her book, Professor Langer also writes about how mindfulness can affect our health in general. For example, we might mindlessly accept a piece of information as true because it comes from the doctors, when we ourselves know more about our health. This does not mean we should disregard the doctor’s advice completely, it just means that we need to be mindful that what the doctors conclude is based on information they have seen. It might not be the complete picture and it is not a fixed picture. What we can do is to help the doctors get a more complete picture by providing them with more information and help them to know our health as well as we do. Sometimes being a patient is harder than being a doctor!

Professor Langer thinks that paying attention to our assumptions might take us beyond the limit of what we think we are capable of. It allows for new possibilities. If we do not take for granted that worsened eyesight, memory loss  or weakened bodies comes with aging, we might see ourselves doing and challenging ourselves more in everyday activities.

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