The Mindful Body with Dr. Ellen Langer

March 19, 2024
James Whittaker

Check out this episode on the Win the Day Podcast

Once you make a decision, the universe conspires to make it happen.”

— Ralph Waldo Emerson

Dr. Ellen Langer is widely known as the mother of mindfulness. As a Harvard psychologist, she is the author of 200+ research articles on human behavior and its consequences, and has reached millions around the world through her inspirational talks. 

Dr. Langer has written 13 books including Mindfulness, On Becoming An Artist, and Counterclockwise, which have been translated into 15+ languages and made appearances in pop culture such as The Simpsons.

Dr. Langer’s research with people in businesses, schools, and nursing homes, as well as other everyday scenarios, has significantly advanced the literature on positive psychology, health, and human performance. Her new book The Mindful Body: Thinking Our Way to Chronic Health has just been released. 

In this episode:

  • How labels, positive or negative, can alter your destiny;
  • Proven psychological tips to upgrade your daily routine;
  • How to adjust the behavior of someone important to you;
  • Thinking your way out of chronic stress and anxiety; and
  • How to harness the power of your own mind to dramatically increase your health, happiness, and performance.

Before we begin, the right bit of inspiration can completely change the trajectory of someone’s life, so if there’s a friend or loved one who needs to hear this episode or could use some help to Win the Day, share it with them right now.

Let’s WIN THE DAY with Dr. Ellen Langer!

James Whittaker:
Ellen, great to see you! Thanks so much for coming on the show.

Ellen Langer:
Thank you for the nice introduction!

To kick things off, who was the very first person to believe in you, and how did that change the path you were on?

Oh, gosh. I think it was my parents, my mother in particular. She would've had me laminated if she could have. It was sad to me, she died young and it was right before I got tenure at Harvard. That was a long time ago. I remember her telling me to learn how to type because that's the career I might end up having! It was too bad she didn't see where this all led to.

Do you want to give us just a little bit of an overview of what it means to be ‘mindful’ versus ‘mindless’ to set the tone for our conversation today?

It's a great place to start, because people, when they hear the word mindful, they tend to think of meditation. Meditation is fine. It's just not what I'm talking about. 

This is a process that is so simple, it almost defies belief. All you need to do is notice new things. Now, the problem is that everything we're taught, we think we know. A way of understanding being mindless is frequently in error, but rarely in doubt. So when you know, you don't pay any attention, but you don't know because everything is changing, everything looks different from different perspectives.

It's also the case that meditation is a practice. Mindfulness, as I study it, is just the way of being. Once you recognize that you don't know anything and you're not alone in that, nobody really knows anything for sure, you naturally sit up and pay attention.

Everybody knows they don't know. The problem is they think they should know, they think the person they're talking to knows so they opt out, pretend or whatever, so I'm here to free everybody to be comfortable with not knowing. You become more mindful in one of two ways: either you recognize everything is changing, you don't know, and if you can do that, then everything is new; or you think of the things that are new, or old to you and notice new things about it. You can go home and notice three new things about the person you live with, same thing at work and so on, and all of a sudden they become new and alive and they feel seen. 

Just this noticing, what do we find? First, we have several investigations that when you engage in this act of noticing, you live longer. When you engage in this act of noticing you're going to be healthier. When you are engaged in this mindful pursuit, people find you more attractive, relationships are better, your memory is better.

When you know, you don't pay any attention. But you don't know because everything is changing and everything looks different from a different perspective.

When you perform something mindfully, it leaves its imprint on what you're doing. Okay, so you are better people. You are better and what you do is better. There's no reason why people shouldn't do this all the time. But when I say to people, you should be mindful all the time, they shudder because they confuse mindfulness with thinking. Now, thinking has gotten a bad rap, but for most people, oh my gosh, the thought of thinking all the time is exhausting. Thinking is fun, being mindful is fun. 

What's not fun are the mindless evaluations we impose on ourselves. When you're working on something, worrying that you're not going to be able to come up with something good or solve the problem. But when you're having fun, you're being mindful. You can't have fun unless you're mindful. You don't have to practice.

Let's say, James, you were going to come visit me in Boston, Cambridge, you wouldn't have to do anything. You'd walk into my house, it'd be brand new for you, you haven't been there before. And you'd see the books... Did she do that painting that's on the wall? What is that silly thing she has? Look at how many dogs she has. It would all be new. Essentially, this act of noticing is the essence of engagement and it's literally and figuratively enlivening. 

I guess you want me to stop and let you say something, because I can just keep going!

I can see how creativity is a big benefit, as well as avoiding a state of complacency.

Initially, I thought of calling it mundane everyday creativity, but the problem with that is that people have mindless notions about creativity, where emphasis is on the product. In this conception, emphasis is on the process. Now, when you engage the process mindfully, the product is usually better. But if I just copied somebody and you didn't know that it was a copy, you'd have what you thought was a creative product without the creative process.

Special forces operators talk about complacency being so dangerous, the more you've been in the situation where you then think you know everything, that can literally get you killed or your friends killed.

Oh, without question, but it goes far beyond that. Virtually everything you think you know is wrong on occasion.

I'm fond of doing this. I've probably overdone it already, so everybody already knows the answer. The thing everybody thinks they know, how much is one plus one?

Two.

Two, okay. Now, it's not always two, if you add one pile of laundry plus one pile of laundry, one plus one is one. You add one cloud plus one cloud, one plus one is one. In the real world, one plus one probably doesn't equal two, as often as it does.

Virtually everything you think you know is wrong on occasion.

When you think that this thing that you are most certain of is wrong, some of the time, surely it was spread to everything else you know. For me, I'm at this horse event, now I was an A+ student, so I knew, I memorized, I had all of these facts. This man asked me if I could watch his horse for him because he wanted to get his horse a hot dog. I'm trying to be sweet, but still in my mind thinking, was he crazy, horses don't eat meat? 

He comes back with the hot dog and the horse ate it. It was at that moment that I realized everything I thought I knew could be wrong. Now, some people might be scared by that, I found it exciting because it meant that all those things you're told you can't do, they don't know. That's been the essence of my work for the last 45 years.


You’re reading an excerpt of this interview. To access the full Win the Day episode with Dr. Ellen Langer, including bonus content that doesn’t appear here, check out the YouTube or podcast version. 🚀


You are a teacher. How do you teach if you are teaching people that everything that they know and learn is wrong?

Well, let's go back to how much is one plus one. If after we speak today, somebody asked you, unlikely, but you never know. James, how much is one plus one? You're not going to mindlessly say two any longer. You're going to look at the context, think about it for a moment and then say it's often two, that could be two. You can give the facts, but the facts have to be understood as probabilities, not absolute.

Facts have to be understood as probabilities, not absolute.

When you know something, maybe you're not dissuaded from doing what doesn't work, where if you're told it can't be, then you're not going to waste your time.

We mentioned your teaching career there. Are there any transformations or moments that you've had with your students or that you've inspired your students to go on and take that really stands out to you?

Well, I remember way back when I first started teaching, I wanted to do this research on memory. I don't know if I can remember exactly what it was with elderly people. 

The student I was working with, I won't use her name, just kept insisting, it's not going to work. It's not going to work. I thought it would work, but how could I be sure? If I knew for sure it was going to work, why bother testing her? Anyway... I'll never forget her excitement, Dr. Langer, Dr. Langer! And she showed me that we got the effects we expected. That was a longevity effect by making people more mindful. Now, you could work backwards and see who she was, but it doesn't matter, too much work.

Out of all the research studies you've done, is there one in particular that's changed the way that you approach how you look at life every single day?

It's interesting, I can't tell you how many times I've been asked that question. You would think being asked it over and over again, I would just develop an answer. But the fact of the matter is that most of my research comes from my experience. I will see something and then wonder, is it just true for me? Is it even true for me, or is it more generally true? And then I do the study.

When the study works, I start off thinking that it's true. It's not, oh my gosh. But I think the extent of the findings can be, I don't know, enlightening, exciting, and perhaps the Counterclockwise study is most like that. 

Most people buy into a mind-body dualism. The problem with that is that they have to deal with the question, how do you get from this thing, a fuzzy thought to something material called the body? There had not been a great deal of research on how the mind is affecting the body, and so I spent time thinking about this.

In a very early study, we gave elderly people choices to make. That was before I was dealing with this mindfulness concept, but all it really was was making them mindful and they lived longer, and so how could it be? How could you think something? And then I realized that well, maybe the key is to take the mind and body and put them back together. They're just words, and that if you put them back together, then it's one thing. That means wherever you put one, you're necessarily putting the other. The Counterclockwise study was the first test of this. We were going to take old men, put their minds back in time and see the effects on the body.

We were going to take old men, put their minds back in time and see the effects on the body.

We first did this in 1979, a long time ago, but what we did was retrofitted a retreat so that it was 20 years earlier, in old ways that we could accomplish. It wasn't Hollywood, so surely it could have been improved, and had old men come. Now, they were probably late seventies and eighties, but that was a long time ago, and so it would be equivalent to being in nineties and a hundred now. They were old. I mean when they came to be in the study, first they had to be tested. I remember, I'm in my office here, they're walking down the hall typically with their adult daughter, and I'm saying, what am I doing? I'm not sure they're going to live through the day, yet I'm going to take them away for a week and be responsible for them. They were not your athletic types. 

They are at the retreat now, with the instruction that everything they say has to be in the present tense. They're describing, they're watching movies, they're talking about current events, but they're not current, they're from 20 years ago, but they're talking about them as if they're just unfolding. The mere fact of being at the retreat was novel and important for them.

What we found in a week, their vision improved, their hearing improved, their memory improved, their strength, and they looked noticeably younger. Now, I don't know about you, but I don't think I had ever heard of an elderly person's hearing improving without any medical intervention. I've heard plenty who get hearing aids, and wait a second, this thing isn't working, so that was very exciting and started a series of studies that I've been doing up to the present to test this strange idea that mind and body are just one thing. This started when I was working on The Mindful Body. It started off as a memoir, and so there were a lot of personal stories in it, and then it became what it is now, which is similar to the Mindfulness book, but with more personal stories.

I will reveal, I was married when I was very, very young. I mean, almost embarrassed. I was 18 or 19 and we went to Paris on our honeymoon. We're in Paris, we're at a restaurant, I order a mixed grill. On the grill, on the plate is pancreas, so my then husband was more sophisticated than I, and I said, gee, which is the pancreas? That one. I have to eat it because this is the way I show that I'm sophisticated now.

I eat everything else, now comes the moment of truth. I start to eat the pancreas and I literally get sick. He starts laughing. I say, why are you laughing? He says, because that's chicken, you ate the pancreas a while ago. I made myself sick, and that's what my research has been about from then on, about how to really make ourselves well, but in either direction shows the amount of influence we have.

I have another pancreas story, which is really what determined my research life. My mother had breast cancer that had metastasized to her pancreas. Let me interrupt myself. You tell me how many people you know have two pancreas stories! That's the end game. The hospital, the doctors treated her as if the game was over. They didn't exercise her limbs or anything because she was going to die, and then it was totally gone. Now, I think that these spontaneous remissions are not as rare as the medical world does. We can talk about that later, but how do you explain it? The mind body unity explains it, and so that set my course for the next 40 years.

With what you have learned in your career, do you have a process in terms of manifestation? Do you have a process for setting and achieving goals, or anything like that?

No, not really. I mean, it's probably surprising.

I didn't think you would actually!

I get an idea and I do it, and then I'm up against bureaucracy. It's not so easy to run these studies, and often costs money that we don't have and so on, but essentially, when I set up a study... I realized this from the very early nursing home study where we had people live longer. That was back in the early seventies, nobody had done that. This was before mind-body medicine. 

By having a study where you have the ultimate dependent measure, people died or they didn't. You can't argue with that, right? They're dead. Now, we can argue about why they're dead, but the fact... Okay, so the measures became very important to me because of that, and so with any study, the first thing that I want to do is make sure that if I get this, will people be surprised? Will it add anything to the body of knowledge that already exists?

What's the problem that you wanted to solve with the new book, and who do you want someone to be once they're finished reading it?

It's the same thing with each book that I've written. I feel I was very fortunate. My parents were not intellectuals, they were not wealthy, but they were so loving. I had an upbringing where I was totally supported, which I think set the stage for me to be happy. 

From the very beginning, every study I do is, look, you can have it too and make some headway. There's been possibly an evolution in consciousness in the world now that I might have been part of. But the idea is that I think the kind of life that people seem to want is available to them if they only recognize it. There's a lot of this book, a lot of it, and we should talk later about these mind-body unity studies because they're very surprising and really show the extent of the control we have.

I had an upbringing where I was totally supported, which I think set the stage for me to be happy. 

But there's another part of the book that deals with psychological constructs where you have people who have problems and then you have professionals who get them over here. They start off and now they're better. But there's a whole other world that's so much better than that, better, that I want to take people to. We take a simple thing, and there's a lot of language in the book.

Let's take trying. Trying is good, right? If you take somebody who gives up, you say no, you've got to try. Okay, that's getting them to the next place. But trying has built into it the expectation for failure. Now, we did these little studies and somebody told me that Yoda said this, which I didn't know. These are the Yoda studies, but essentially all you need to think of, if I gave you an ice cream cone, you wouldn't try to eat it, you would just eat it. We do some studies where we get one group is trying, the other group we tell do it, and the doing surpasses the trying.

You say that in the book about getting a coffee, right? 

That was a different one. The coffee is about hope. I mean, there's so many of these words where we think these are good things and I say, well, they're good, but they're not great. Here's how to make them great. 

Yeah, the coffee example was that when I go to the kitchen to have coffee in the morning, I don't hope that the coffee is going to be there, I just assume it will be there. The word hope also has built into it an expectation for failure. What people need to realize is that our expectations tend to be fulfilled. It's not just a simple thing. We need to assume everything is going to be fine and go forward, and most of the time I will be able to create that reality for ourselves.

Our expectations tend to be fulfilled.

Many years ago I was asked to give a sermon at one of the Harvard churches. I'm not religious, and if I were to be religious, I'd be Jewish. I don't spend much time in churches, but I tend to say yes to everything. Sure. Now God, what am I going to talk about? It occurs to me, well, forgiveness sounds something religious like, it's not a matter of religion if you are going to think deeply about it, but I could get away with it. I start thinking about forgiveness and what I come up with is actually sacrilegious. Okay, if you ask 10 people, is forgiveness good or bad, what are they going to tell you?

Good.

It's good. If you ask 10 people is blame good or bad, what are they going to tell you?

Bad.

It's bad, but you have to forgive. You have to blame before you forgive. Forgivers are blamers. Now, do you blame people for good things or bad things? You blame people for bad things. Okay, so what do we have here? We have people who see the world negatively, who blame, then possibly forgive. It doesn't seem to me to be divine, and that there's a better way. If you blame, you're certainly better off. Just like, if you give up, you're better off trying. If you blame, you're better off forgiving, but the better than better way is to understand why the person did it in the first place.

Now, you asked me before about what study I did that was most important to me. This concept, it's bizarre to me in some way. I have many studies where people are living longer, lives are changed in very meaningful ways, yet this is the most important thing to me that I came to in all of my work, which is, behavior makes sense from the actor's perspective or else he or she wouldn't have done it. What that means is, every time you're being judgmental of yourself or somebody else, you're misunderstanding the situation.

Behavior makes sense from the actor's perspective or else he or she wouldn't have done it.

If, let's say you see me as gullible, and you could persuade me that I'm gullible, I don't want you to forgive me for being gullible. I don't want to forgive myself for being gullible. I want to understand why I am gullible. Well, the reason I appear gullible is because I value being trusting, and if you're trusting, at some point you're going to be vulnerable. You might value the fact that you're flexible, but dammit, it seems that you're so inconsistent.

All right, the point is, for every negative understanding, there's an equally strong positive alternative. No one gets up in the morning and says, today I am going to be obnoxious, bigoted, and stupid. When you're calling people by these names, what are they intending? This goes for all sorts of problems people have. You don't try to change a heavy drinker, get them to stop drinking, by having them attend to what they're doing to the liver. Nobody is drinking because of a desire to hurt your liver, so you're not going to stop drinking, right?

One of the big questions I wanted to ask you actually is, how would you turn something negative that you do like a bad habit into a good habit and then a follow-up after that is how you can do that. Say, if there's a spouse who does something where you know they need to change, how can you possibly do that?

Well, no, that's the problem. Let's say you and I are together, it'd be an odd match, I'm too old for you!

But what I'm saying is, everything about you, before I heard Ellen Langer and read her work, that I think I need to change in you to make you better, good enough for me to enjoy our interactions is mindless on my part. What I need to do is understand the positive version of what you're doing. Now when I understand that, a new perspective appears.

Let's use the example I gave about you being inconsistent. It's very hard to know what you are going to say nex.? Are you going to remember what I asked you to bring home? All of these things, you're so inconsistent. Now that I realize that being inconsistent is the essence of your being flexible, I don't want you to change, but if I do want you to change, the way for me to get you to change is for you to stop valuing being flexible. Your desire implicitly to be flexible is what's leading you to be inconsistent.

Let me give you an example of the study we did a long time ago to make this clearer. We give people 300 negative behavior descriptions and they check off those things that you keep trying to change about yourself and you can't change them. For me, impulsive, gullible, I won't reveal the others! And then you turn the sheet of paper over and in a mixed up order, other positive versions of each of these. Now the statement to the instructions are, check off those things that you really value about yourself. My spontaneity, am I being trusting? As long as I value those, I'm not going to be able to give up the other.

Where does this idea of being grateful for what you have and essentially settling for what you have... Settling might not be the right word.

Yeah, I don't want anyone to ever settle.

Exactly, versus say becoming the best you can be?

See, the world thinks you should. Every time people tell you to compromise, isn't compromise good? Well, compromise is better than whatever arguments are going on, but it's not as good as it can be. Compromise is just an agreement for everybody to lose, just lose less than we would if one or the other of us met. There's almost always a win-win solution.

For sure. Where does mindful meet high performance? Or in your view is high performance not an ideal focus in terms of some of the stress and pressure that that can bring?

I think that if you choose what it is you want to do, and it could be anything, it could be random, if you engage it mindfully, you're going to enjoy doing it and you're going to do it well. I remember saying to you that when I talked about mindfulness a moment before and I said you should always be mindful.

What people don't understand is that it's energy begetting rather than consuming. It's what you're doing when you're having fun. Imagine you're doing some work, but you don't see it as work. In fact, nobody should see work as work. I don't know who decided work has to be stressful and unpleasant. If you approach your work that way, then of course you're going to need time away from it. I'm always thinking about, gee, why is this happening and how might this be improved, or whatever, just my general profession, no matter what I'm doing?

Of course, if you're doing it more, you're likely to end up doing it better, as long as you're doing it mindfully, because if you're doing it mindlessly like a robot, you sealed your level of performance and it's going to be the same throughout.

What about for someone who might be doing more negative behaviors, such as consuming sugar when they might be susceptible to tumor growth, or how drinking alcohol impacts their relationship?

Yeah, let's just take drinking, for argument's sake. As I said before, nobody drinks in order to hurt their liver, to embarrass their spouse, to lose their job, right? Showing them the consequences is not going to change the behavior. If we turned it around, even heavy drinking, there's a good reason for it. 

Now, if I said to you, Joe is very anxious, but when Joe does X, he's fine. You'd probably say, well, he should do X. All right? The drinking initially is not irrational, and so if Joe then knows that he did this for some positive reason, he doesn't have to come down on himself, then he's going to be stronger to find alternatives to reach the same end.

In the book I talk about a way of dealing with chronic illness when we have remarkable findings, of course, big things like Parkinson's, multiple sclerosis, and I'll go through that later, but it's the same approach, attention to variability, which is a fancy way of saying being mindful, notice change, can help a drinker or the sugar consumer, whatever.

If you just kept a little diary, and you are going to mock down at various times across the day, okay, so it's two o'clock, do you want a drink? Yes or no? Did you have a drink? Yes or no? You're going to find at the end of a day, and certainly at the end of the week, there were many times you wanted a drink and you didn't have it. You wanted a cigarette. If I wanted a cigarette right now, I can't have it. There were times you didn't want it, but you had it. All of a sudden realizing, wait a second, I have some choices here, I'm not helpless, with response to the substance, which goes against lots of people's beliefs.

For someone who isn't aware of how their behaviors are damaging others or perhaps they're not ready for change, and I know you're not a relationship counselor or a marriage expert or anything like that, but is there a question or anything else that you believe would help someone to get another person, whether a friend or a spouse to recognize that change needs to occur, or to start initiating the process that you just mentioned?

Well, the first thing you want to do before you rush in to help somebody is, don't presume because the culture has said this behavior is wrong, that it's necessarily wrong, you can be looking at it mindlessly in the way I've already suggested, there are cross-cultural differences. There are some cultures where people seem pushy, but they're assertive. Now you can call it aggressive and it's bad or assertive and then it's good. 

Okay, so you're pretty sure that this is something the person should want to change, and the first thing is, does the person want to change it? Okay, well if not, you're not going to be successful. But the first thing to do, I believe, is probably to understand why the person is doing it in the first place, from this positive perspective, and then the more mindful people are, the more choices they have. We are taught from the beginning and certainly all through school to look for single answers to questions, and so we come to think that, you asked me a question, how much is one plus one? I say two, that's it.

Rather than, well, there's so many other ways of looking at all of this, and if we open up our minds and we see that there are so many ways of achieving whatever this thing is you want, you don't have to do it this way, that's driving your spouse crazy, for example.

Something I love about your work in the new book is talking about the role in the world of medicine and the way doctors talk to patients. In the book, you mentioned how “scary labels often lead to negative outcomes.” Should trusted advisors and medical professionals ever use false labels framed in the positive if it would lead to a much better result, and what would be the ethical implications of that?

I don't think that if you realize that something is negative, that you should ever do it, but you shouldn't be so sure it's negative, maybe there's one way of dealing with it. Most people don't realize that many doctors are giving out placebos a lot of the time. Well, placebos are false information, right? But I have something to say about placebos, I don't know where to start with this. 

One of the things that people need to understand is that medical science, like all science, only gives us probabilities, maybes, so if we were to do the study again exactly the same way, which we can't, we're likely to get this finding. These probabilities are given to us in books by our parents, on media as absolutes, as with the horses don't eat meat.

One and one is two, well, no, not always, okay? When the medical world is giving you this absolute information, you think you should follow it. When it's a maybe, then you have a chance to insert yourself in the thing that's going to involve you more than anybody else and make your own decisions and perhaps deviate from some of that information.

The medical world tells us that there are diseases that are uncontrollable. Well, you can never prove that anything is uncontrollable.

Even when we have diagnoses, that diagnosis itself is a probability. We're saying, yeah, well a lot of people who have this thing, we're going to call it cancer, and then you have the next part, well, when you have this thing called cancer, that was some arbitrary news, that you are going to behave or experience A, B and C. Well, no, not everybody experiences. My mother's cancer disappeared, all right? That's very exciting. I get lots of calls from people asking for help, and I tell them this story that she was supposed to die and she didn't.

The information that you're given, I was given by well-meaning, smart people. I don't mean to demean anybody in the medical profession, but as we started off, nobody knows for sure. When you don't know for sure, then you take care of yourself in different ways. One of the things in the medical world tells us that there are diseases that are uncontrollable. Well, you can never prove that anything is uncontrollable. All you can prove is that the ways you've tried to control it have failed. 

If I told you there's no way in hell you could ski down that slope, you're not going to try to ski down. If I say it doesn't look good, but who knows, then you may do it and then we'd all learn something because all we know is what's considered impossible today will become commonplace tomorrow.

Also, the right guidance and getting the right reps in makes a big difference. When someone is in their most vulnerable state and a trusted professional tells them something, it can be extremely damaging. 

I know young people who have passed away from cancer, and they talk about the stress that came in after the diagnosis that was never really addressed. The doctors addressed the physical but not the mental.

Stress is the major killer. Stress is psychological. Events don't cause stress. What causes stress are the views you take of events, so if you are mindful, you're opening up a way of understanding whatever it is, in so many ways, and you can choose which you want to focus on.

For example, if you believe something negative is going to happen, how could you not be stressed? But as I said, things themselves are not positive or negative, they just are, and then we evaluate them. Let's say you take this negative thing and you see all the ways it could actually be good for you, you're going to immediately be less stressed. I have a couple of one-liners with stress that friends of mine seem to put them on the refrigerator. One is, we should ask ourselves, is it a tragedy or an inconvenience?

Stress relies on a prediction that something terrible is going to happen, and it turns out prediction is an illusion.

Because most of the time we're getting crazed, “I didn't get the job done in time” or “I got in a little accident and the car is bruised” are not tragedies, and so then you breathe and go forward. But essentially if you experience stress, stress relies on a prediction, that something terrible is going to happen, and it turns out prediction is an illusion. It's very easy, after the fact to say, you should have known. But going forward, who knows what's going to happen next.

Next time you're stressed, the first thing to do is to remember the last time you worried about something and what ended up happening. Most of the things that we worry about never happen. Second, they're not as terrible as you thought they were going to be, and even when they're terrible, somehow we get through it. Okay, so you review all of that.


You’re reading an excerpt of this interview. To access the full Win the Day episode with Dr. Ellen Langer, including bonus content that doesn’t appear here, check out the YouTube or podcast version. 🚀


Yeah, so I don't have to worry so much about this. Then you say to yourself, okay, this thing may happen. Give yourself three to five reasons why it won't happen. Now, first you went from, it's definitely going to happen to, maybe it will, maybe it won't, to calm down again. Now here's a kicker. Imagine it does happen, how is that actually a good thing? If you do this often enough, your whole life will change. 

I very rarely have ever experienced stress. If right now something, the camera stopped, all right, so what? We've gotten to know each other, I have other things to do. It's not really going to have a major impact on my life. It's wonderful we're together, it's wonderful if we're not. It's very hard to live with me, in that you can decide where we're going to eat, if we're going to eat out, what movie or play we're going... I'm going to have a good time no matter what! It's a nice comfortable place to be. 

The medical world used to believe that psychology, well, it's always nice to be happy, but psychology was irrelevant. The only way you were going to get sick was the introduction of a pathogen and antigen. Now, people recognize psychology matters. I'm trying to move everybody all the way over to recognize that it's probably more important than anything else.

Which seems so simple and basic, like you mentioned earlier.

What is it about the human mind that we put so much stock in a prescription, or a person of authority, or even a pill that could be a placebo?

We have been taught from an early age, if you're sick, you take a pill and you get better. If you're sick, you take a pill and you get better. At some point, the pill has this magic quality, but people need to recognize, not everybody knows this, but they need to bring it front and center, that when you're taking this nothing, you're getting better. Who's making you better? You're making yourself better. All of my work has been basically trying to get us to leave out that make believe part of it and just make ourselves better. 

The thing that I came up with, that I alluded to, that I have all the research ascribed in The Mindful Body, is attention to symptom variability. When you are given one of these dread diagnoses – you have a stroke, you have multiple sclerosis, whatever –  the common belief is that your symptoms will get worse, stay the same or get worse. That's what people assume will happen. What happens? Nothing ever moves in one direction. If it's going up, it doesn't go in a straight line, it goes up, it goes down a little, it goes up or down. We can make either direction, but the point is, there are blips. When you're feeling better, why are you feeling better? Well, you don't even know you're feeling better because you're not expecting that. 

What we do is call people at random times in the course of a day and ask them very simply, how are you? Is it better or worse than the last time we spoke, and why? But when you do that, four things happen. First thing is, you feel you're in control, which reduces stress and is good for your health, in and of itself. Second, by seeing that there are moments when you're feeling better, you start to feel better and worry less about it. Third, most important, when you start looking for why now, is it better or worse? That instigates a mindful search, and that itself, even if you don't figure it out, is good for your health. Fourth is that I believe you're much more likely to find a solution if you're looking for one.

You're much more likely to find a solution if you're looking for one. 

But if you were reading this, you might say, well, how is this like a placebo? Because what I wanted to do was to have people do it for themselves rather than take this sugar pill, but you can do this for yourself. Almost everybody has a smartphone, some of them not so smart, but still, you set it to ring in an hour, it rings and you ask yourself, how am I now? Is it better or worse than before, and why? And then set it for two hours and 10 minutes. The times don't matter, just vary them. Now, we have, as I said, found very positive results with chronic pain, with arthritis, with Parkinson's, and it even works with relationships.

Let's take stress. People who are stressed think they're stressed all the time. Now again, nobody is anything all the time, but when you're not stressed, you're just being, so you're not thinking about the stress. You go, stressed, not stressed, not thinking about it, stressed again, you forget that intervening time. If you do this where you ask yourself periodically, bell goes off, how do you feel now and why, you might find when you're maximally stressed when you're talking to Ellen Langer! Okay, so then the cure is easy, right? Either change the way you talk to me or don't talk to me. 

Solutions are not always difficult once we figure them out.

It sounds like a lot of the stuff you're talking about too is taking it away from someone else and putting the ownership back on yourself for the result, which should be enormously empowering.

Yeah. Well, the other thing, you said something before that, reminded me of this. I'm glad I'm reminded again that even when we're talking about uncontrollable diseases, there's always, in my view, and I don't have data for this, it just seems like a thought experiment. There are always things you can do. 

When I was teaching something about Covid or whatever, I have a slide of this woman athlete and she's leaping over hurdles, or a couch potato where she's just stuffing her face, and to my mind, if these two women were both exposed to Covid, I'd put my money on the Olympic athlete as having a shorter time with it if she gets it at all. What does that mean? That means you can make the rest of you, whichever part is ailing, you can make the rest of you stronger.

How do you feel about instant gratification for someone who does want to perform at their best and live an extraordinary life?

There’s a wonderful video about piano stairs with people in Sweden. In subways all over the world, you have an escalator and stairs, and almost everybody is on the escalator, no one is taking the stairs. 

What they did was to lay down piano keys on the stairs, so as you go up, it actually makes noise, and in almost no time, everybody left the escalator and is taking the stairs because it's fun. When I teach this, I tell my students, why are you waiting for somebody else to put down the piano keys for you? You can make music as you're going along. I personally make almost everything fun. When you're making it fun, you're not delaying. 

I don't think we should delay gratification. That is a mindless notion that there are activities that can't be enjoyed or even interesting and you have to get through them. I think that it's only when you're doing that activity mindlessly, that's the way it's understood.

I don't have to delay gratification because I'm having a good time. Am I working now or am I playing?

As long as you know what phase you are in. For example, if you've got a big performance or a big speech, it's not like you're going to be at Sizzler crushing this buffet for two hours beforehand because you can have a full stomach when you go on stage!

Well, there's knowing and the fear that if I get it wrong, my life's going to fall apart. Whenever we feel that way, and it's often in relationships, relationships aren't quite good, and then you get scared, the person is going to leave. What you're not realizing is that, in that case, a relationship requires two people. If the other person isn't there, you're not in a relationship, and so it'd be a blessing for the person to actually leave at those moments.

Is there anything that you believe to be true that hasn't yet been verified through research or perhaps the discovery just over the horizon?

Oh, sure. Oh no, all the time. I had this experience. When I was starting to write the book, I had a chapter that was called the woo-woo chapter. I took most of it out.

Send it to me afterwards!

There's still stuff there. This had happened to me forever ago. We had just gotten back from Japan and we were trying to figure out where to go next, and we're thinking, well, we just spent all that money, which is itself odd because somebody is always paying for it, but nevertheless, should we go? Shouldn't we go? Maybe we can't afford it. 

We want to go to Kuala Lumpur. We can't remember the name, then we remember the name, then I say, maybe I could get the Harvard Club to pay for it. Now, this was the most bizarre thing in the world. I had never been to a Harvard Club. I knew nothing about a Harvard Club. I also knew nothing about Kuala Lumpur. The next day I get a letter inviting me to lecture to the Harvard Club in Kuala Lumpur. Now, I didn't know was that I was picking up information or was I putting it out there? I can't tell you how many statisticians have walked away from me at parties because of what's going on here. There's that sort of thing that is always lurking. 

To me, the way I keep my mind open, I think more than many scientists, is by recognizing all we don't know about the things we think we know. When you realize you don't really know the things you think you know, then it's easier to say, well, I don't know this either, maybe there's some way that it might be true. 

Remember I have lots of this research, I have to tell people about it soon. Lots of this research where our imagination leads to incredible things. Now we have one study going on, we haven't finished it yet. I'm told that these young girls in Asia are watching, we'll call them Muks, I may have this wrong, but what they have are videos of just people eating. That's people eating pizza. So we've used these. 

One group is told to imagine eating that pizza, smelling it, chewing it, and the cheese is described, get into it as fully as if you're actually eating it. The other group is counting the number of times the person chews, just to ensure that they're both watching the same thing with the same intensity. The question is, will these people who are imagining eating it gain weight, lose weight, or what the prevailing thought would be is there'd be no change? I believe there will be a change. 

Now, if it's the case that you gain weight without actually consuming, we're going to have to change all our physics.

Yes, it's a foundational law.

Exactly. Except that when we recognize that the foundation of everything is a concatenated probability, it's almost like a house of cards, that we act as if it's more firm than it actually is. 

It's hard to take something apart if you see it as solid. I recognize most of these solid things are not so solid.

The Ralph Waldo Emerson quote that I mentioned earlier after seeing it in your book: “Once you make a decision, the universe conspires to make it happen.” The decision puts wheels in motion where opportunity finds its way to you.

Yeah, I use the quote for another way in addition to that, which is, for people to understand that decision making doesn't unfold. 

Okay, we have now. People make decisions, they think they should be doing something other than what they're doing. They should be doing cost benefit analysis. They shouldn't be doing cost benefit analysis. It makes no sense to do a cost benefit analysis because every cost is also a benefit, so if you add them all up, all possible ways that each can be understood, it's not going to tell you what to do. 

When you're gathering information, there's no end to the amount of information you can take in, and each new piece could change the sense of the decision. Now all decisions are between things that are psychologically the same or different. If they're the same, it doesn't matter. Do you want A or B? I don't know, give me whatever you want. Or they're different, do you want a hundred dollars or you want a thousand dollars? There's no cost benefit. Right? The choice follows mechanically, once you articulate the options, so in the first case, it doesn't matter, you get information, so okay, I'll take this one.

Rather than worry about making the right decision, we should make the decision right.

Also, and this is too much, but hopefully I'll be teasing people and they'll read it written and can think about it some more, that when you recognize that you can't predict, even though we think you can. You can't predict the individual case, right? If you said, is Michael Jordan going to get every shot in that he makes? No, you know he's not. Can you predict which one he is going to miss? No. All right, we can't predict the individual case, that when you're making a decision, the sense of the decision relies on you being able to predict, right? Do you want to go here or there?

Well, you have to predict that here is going to be the same experience you had the last time, or that there is. Here or there is not getting us to either here or there. The bottom line to all of this, and which is similar to the quote is, I feel very strongly, then rather than worry about making the right decision, we should make the decision right. It doesn't matter which choice. 

You can never know. Once you make a decision, the game is entirely different. You can't go back and say what the other alternative would've been. It could have been worse, in which case this was fine. But it itself is not going to be good or bad, it depends on what you do with it, and we can always make it a fantastic engaging experience.

I know people in the Counterclockwise book, I ended it with a discussion with a friend, Doty Powell, she was in her late eighties, early nineties, who said, “Ellen, I'm not afraid of dying, but living is sure fun.” It's hard when you're younger to have that feeling of, I'm not afraid of dying. But I think that many older people feel it was very nice and now it's time, my friends are all dead, I have achieved what I wanted to achieve and I see my kids are married and happy, whatever is important to you. 

All we have are moments, and if you make the moment matter, it all matters. 

At that point, there's nothing to accept, it just is. I think that that's the way it is with most decisions that people don't understand that you're making a decision should you retire or not, should you get married or not? Should you have children or not? There's no way you can do that rationally. Your life will be very different if you have children, you don't have children, you can't do both. Okay, well I had children, not so good, I'm going to give them away and now live the life without children.

Whichever life you end up choosing or randomly end up in, there's no reason why it can't be satisfying. To be happy, all you really need to do, and this sounds like a Hallmark card, which makes it sound unimportant, but I don't think there's anything more important, is that all we have are moments, and if you make the moment matter, it all matters. That's a nice way to reduce some of the stress people experience as well.

That's so good.

On your best day, what's an affirmation that you would write on a flashcard that you could show yourself on your worst day?

I don't. My days are not like that. Good days, bad. On occasion, I have a bad hair day and then I say, okay, well I don't even know what the style is now, so maybe what seems bad is actually good!

Now, when you get a little older, you hopefully look at some of the things that drove you crazy when you were younger in a new way. I wrote a piece about this a long time ago. When you are four years old and you fall and you scream, oh my God, and you are screaming bloody murder, the world is ending, and then you're six or seven and Johnny or Janie didn't send you a Valentine, oh my god. And then you're 18 and you've got pimple, oh my God. Then at some point, it just doesn't matter in the same way, and you wish you didn't waste your time worrying about all of these things. In fact, that's also a motivator.

I deal this with my students. Why do people wait? We already know that most of the things people are worried about either don't happen or are not worth all the time. For me, I don't have... it doesn't mean at the end of the day if you call me and say, how are you? I say, I've had experiences, but I don't obsess with them.

Final question – what's one thing you do to Win the Day?

Wake up.

Ellen, thanks so much for coming on the show.

My pleasure, this was fun, James.


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