Laughing and crying, you know it's the same release. Joni Mitchell

Laughing and crying, you know it's the same release. Joni Mitchell

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Mindfulness Matters: Dr. Ellen J. Langer

Dr. Ellen Langer signs copies
of her new book, Counterclockwise
I was told that Dr. Ellen Langer was a powerful speaker, and she didn't disappoint. She was dynamic, funny and engaging. She didn't stand behind the podium and lecture at the audience. Dr. Langer paced back and forth on the stage, regaling us with anecdotes and examples from her lifetime's study of the positive and measurable effect of mindfulness on one's health, happiness and longevity. In fact, Dr. Langer is so dynamic that her life will be portrayed by Jennifer Anniston in an upcoming Hollywood movie! Her study on the effect of mindfulness on elderly men back in the 1980's and the subject of her new book, Counterclockwise, is being made into a BBC television series. Not to mention that her artwork has been accepted by the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Dr. Langer's presentation was part of the 10th Anniversary Celebration for The Healing Garden, a peaceful place offering integrative therapies for women with breast cancer in Harvard, MA. My friend, a breast cancer survivor and volunteer at The Healing Garden, said that the minute she walks through the door she is transformed. I haven't been there, but I plan to go this spring to see for myself.

Mindful Health and The Power of Possibility:
Ellen J. Langer, PhD., Professor of Psychology, Harvard University

Dr. Langer's studies have shown that living in a mindful way actually improves health and well-being. In a nursing home study, residents given a plant to take care of were actually more cheerful, active, alert and healthier than their counterparts. A year and a half later, less than half as many of the residents who took care of the plant had died than those in the control group. The study outlined in Langer's new book, Counterclockwise, showed that elderly men who lived as if it were twenty years earlier had improved vision, improved hearing, improved grip and looked noticeably younger than the control group.

Mindfulness is an active state of mind characterized by novel distinction.

The Psychology of Possibility is what might be rather than a description of what is.

Mindfulness made easy: all you have to do is notice new things - that's it! Noticing things puts you in the present moment. The more you notice, the more you  like something because you are fully engaged. Active noticing is literally enlivening because the neurons are firing. Even if you are unsuccessful, the journey itself is good for your health and well-being because it makes you feel engaged.

I was a little anxious this morning so I decided to notice five things on my way to QiGong class and it did lessen the anxiety. Here are the things I noticed:
  • there were more parking spots than usual - I didn't have to park all the way on the top level
  • birds were chirping - it sounded like Spring
  • the lilacs had blossomed - a beautiful lavender color.
  • less gas, more mileage: when an elderly student asked the QiGong instructor what to take for high blood pressure, he said "nothing." It's about energy (chi) and water. Drink just water one day a week.
  • root stress to the earth: if you stand rooted to the ground with strength in your legs, all the stress will flow out of your neck and shoulders and go into the earth.
Mindlessness keeps you caught in the past, insensitive to context, trapped in a single perspective and governed by routine. Social conventions and conventional wisdom were decisions someone made at a certain point in time that may or may not be relevant for your life today. For instance, someone in the medical community decided that cancer that has been in remission is suddenly cured after five years.Who says that the patients weren't cured all along? Dr. Langer said that women who lived as if they were cured were happier and healthier than those who considered their cancer in remission. Same thing for "chronic" versus "acute." Nothing stays the same, so make use of variability. Dr. Langer gave the example of having a cold, getting better and then catching another cold. It doesn't mean that the first cold has come back, but instead it is a new round of cold symptoms. Applying this concept to my life: if the fibromyalgia symptoms are gone and then comes back, that doesn't mean it's chronic. It's just a new round of fibromyalgia symptoms. Becoming our diseases is not in our best interest.

One plus one isn't always two - if you add a wad of chewing gum to another wad of chewing gum you get one bigger wad. To prevent mindlessness, learn conditionally. What may be true in a certain context might not always be true. Mindfulness is visible in the products of our labor: art, music and the written word. People actually prefer music played mindfully or artwork created with intention.

The Eye Chart: The conventional eye chart has letters going from larger to smaller, which implies that soon you will not be able to see. Dr. Langer reversed the eye chart with letters going from smaller to larger, creating the assumption that soon you can see.  Subjects vision actually improved with the new eye chart!

Great Quotes from Dr. Ellen Langer:
  • We mindlessly accept what we're told. We're taught in an absolute way.
  • When you're mindless, you're not there to know you're not there.
  • Mindfulness is energy begetting not fatiguing.
  • No matter what we're doing, we're doing it either mindlessly or mindfully
  • Most suffering is an direct or indirect result of mindlessness
  • Mindfully created pieces are more fun to create and preferred by others.
  • Mistakes make things we're doing more interesting
  • Mindfulness is no cost with no side effects
  • Behavior makes sense from the actor’s perspective or else he wouldn’t have done it, which leads us to be less evaluative of others and ourselves
  • Put the mind and body back together
  • Solutions are usually right in front of us but we have to look for them.
  • If it doesn't work for you, change it!
  • If we remove our negative mindsets regarding health and presumed limits we may create all sorts of possibilities for ourselves.
For more information about Dr. Ellen Langer and her work check these out:


  1. Thanks for posting this. Very interesting.

  2. Thanks for posting all the quotes of Ellen's here.I saw her at Kripalu last year. She has changed completely how I think about my health.