Ellen Langer, PhD, Professor of Psychology at Harvard University.
She was invited on the show partly because she had been chosen to present an important keynote at the upcoming American Psychological Association conference in Orlando, Florida.
These days we hear and read a lot about mindfulness. Ellen Langer has been called the “mother of mindfulness”.
How do you talk about a 30-year career (studying mindfulness) in 30 minutes? Somehow Langer reached me in that 30 minutes.
Below are Tips on mindfulness, which stood out for me. What you see in double quotes is direct conversation from the program, because Dr. Langer and the callers say it best.
Mindfulness is “simply noticing new things”, not to be confused with thinking about things.
• “Even when you’re thinking, what is stressful is the worry that you’re not going to get the answer right, not the actual playing with the material.”
• “Mindfulness is what you’re doing when you’re at leisure.” Dr. Langer explains that it is like when you are on a vacation. You’re looking for new tourist sites to visit, new and exciting activities to do, new restaurants to try. “Mindfulness is enjoyable rather than taxing.” Even more than that, it’s energizing rather than draining.
→ If a client is anxious and stressed, teach them mindfulness- i.e. to simply notice new things and “play” with discovering those new things (or noticings) about their anxiety.
.Oh, look how my anxiety really intensified when I got near that person.
.My breathing and heart beats are really increased right now.
Right now I’m really busy and have to keep functioning at work. I’ll set aside 5 minutes in an hour’s time to let myself really be anxious, but not right now.
Mindfulness supports the idea of living in a state of novelty all the time, being in the moment. This reaps physical, mental, social and spiritual benefits.
• “Many of the things that stop us are things that we’ve learned that we don’t question. We just assume that they’re true.”
• “Many years ago, I was at this horse event. And this man asked if I’d watch his horse for him because he wanted to get his horse a hot dog. Well, I’m Harvard-Yale all the way through. So I snicker to myself: What is he, kidding? Horses don’t eat meat. He brought back the hot dog, and the horse gobbled it up. I like being wrong. You can actually learn something.”
→ Remember when you started a new job, questioning your competence? Am I doing the right thing? The more you stressed about achieving the right outcome, the less you were present in the moment to actually notice what you were doing. The result?
Getting tangled up, more anxious, only proving to yourself your level of incompetence. As a practice, Mindfulness changes your view of a mistake- it’s a new discovery, not something to beat yourself up with.
You have learned something about yourself; that learning guides you to do something differently next time. So stay present and notice in the moment what you are doing or thinking. Make new discoveries!
You may have a client stressed about obsessive thoughts or ruminating about his/her fears. Help him just notice what is going on. Teach her to observe what she can learn about herself without trying to fix it now, or trying to do the ‘right’ things to get rid of the uncomfortable symptoms.
Be mindful of the words you use to describe what you do or what a condition is. Reframing your outlook can promote well-being and health.
Dr. Langer once worked with a group of hotel maids.
“Just by doing their jobs, each got more than the recommended amount of daily exercise (she told them) but they didn’t think of (their job) as exercise. Once Langer told them that it was – ‘yes, what you’re doing is comparable to working out’- they lost weight and reduced both body mass index and blood pressure without changes in their diet or their practices.”
How their job was framed to them changed their outlook and their health.
Here is some wisdom from a listener who contributed an e-mail:
“It’s such a simple thing, but whenever I have something distasteful to do, like say clean the toilet or some such, instead of saying I have to go clean the toilet, I say I get to clean the toilet, that is I am in good health, and I am able to do this task. And it sounds – you know, it sounds, well, simple. But, Ellen Langer, words matter.”
Langer also researched words used in the medical world- words related to health and disease.
“Yes, words matter enormously….. I looked at chronic versus acute illness, and I couldn’t find a definition for chronic. You know, did you need to have the symptoms 24/7, three hours a month? There was no definition.
But (words) matter enormously because when people see that they have a chronic illness, they believe that there’s nothing they can do about it. And so then we set out to study this in various ways, not the least of which is once you start paying attention to when you have the symptoms and when you don’t, three things happen:
1. The first is you see you don’t have it all the time, so it’s not quite as bad as you thought. You know, people are depressed, they think they’re depressed all the time. No one is anything all the time. People who are dyslexic, it turns out that most words, over 90 percent of the words they’re reading they tend to read correctly, yet they define themselves by their illness. So what happens is first you see you’re not as bad as you thought you were.
2. Second, by seeing that sometimes it’s better, sometimes it’s worse leads you to ask the question, well, why, and you may well come up with a solution.
3. And the third, even if you don’t, that whole process is mindful, and the 35-or-so years of research we’ve done shows that that kind of noticing new things leads to health and longevity.”
It isn’t just about the words clinicians use about clients. Equally important are the words clients speak about themselves and their condition. Helping them reframe their outlook will promote wellness and recovery.
Making choices is the essence of mindfulness and it is empowering and life-giving.
• A psychologist caller reminded Dr. Langer of a study she had done in a nursing home. Residents of the nursing home were given choices about apparently inconsequential things:
Do you want a plant in your room? Would you like to just water a plant? Do you want a plant you can take care of yourself? What the study found was that those people given these choices actually lived longer. How can such a simple thing lead to such monumental, positive consequences?
Dr. Langer sees choice as an exercise in mindfulness. When we are given choices about things we regard as ‘no big deal’, we don’t fret about making the right choice, or doing the right thing. We actually don’t even think of this choice as a choice. However we have choices all the time.
LANGER: “I can be talking now or not talking, but until I said that (just now), it didn’t occur to me that I had a lively choice (to talk or not to talk right now).”
LANGER: Making choices is empowering. Making choices is the essence of mindfulness. So it goes beyond just feeling more powerful: The neurons are firing, and life becomes more exciting.
Copyright 2012 – David Mee-Lee, M.D. | 5221 Sigstrom Drive | Carson City | NV | 89706