Langer in her garden

Ellen Langer has described her work on the illusion of control, aging, decision-making, and mindfulness theory in over 200 research articles and six academic books.

Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard file photo

Campus & Community

One thing to change: Embrace mindfulness

3 min read

Ellen Langer talks about using its techniques to see the world as it actually is

This is part of a series called Focal Point, in which we ask a range of Harvard faculty members to answer the same question.

Focal Point

Ellen Langer

Question: What is one thing wrong with the world that you would change, and why?

Every day our rules, attitudes, and prejudices teach us to seek certainty in a world where everything is always changing and looks different from different perspectives. More simply, we’re taught absolutes and thus are taught to look past differences. When we think we know something, we stop paying attention to it, but what do we gain from certainty? Our absolute negative judgments of others are rampant, leading to unnecessary personal and intergroup conflict and strife.

If I were to teach the world one thing, it would be to understand that a given behavior makes sense from the actor’s perspective, or else she wouldn’t do it. With this approach, we would see others as trusting, not gullible; spontaneous, not impulsive; flexible, not inconsistent. For every negative judgment we make, there is an equally potent positive alternative.

Perhaps not surprisingly, then, my answer is that people need to be taught to be mindful. If we were more mindful, we would come to see that our evaluations of others are imposed on them, not gleaned from them. Similarly, stress is a function of our views and thus can be ameliorated.

“[W]hat do we gain from certainty?”

Using this approach, we’d recognize that science yields probabilities, not absolute truths, which paves the way for greater possibility. I’m fond of repeating a breakthrough experience I had years ago. I was at an event and a man asked me if I’d watch his horse while he went to get the horse a hot dog. I’m Harvard and Yale through and through, so I knew this was ridiculous; horses are herbivorous, they don’t eat meat. Then he returned with the hot dog and the horse ate it. Science yields probabilities, not absolute facts like “horses don’t eat meat.”

Certainty is mindless. Using mindfulness, we’re more aware of subtle changes in our health and could use this information to address many of the symptoms of chronic illnesses. We too often only notice symptoms when they are acute. What might happen if instead we noticed subtle improvements and asked why they occurred? We’re testing this with several chronic diseases — like Parkinson’s, mild cognitive impairment, diabetes — and already have data for several disorders like chronic pain, arthritis, and multiple sclerosis. We are finding that mindful attention to symptom variability may be a key to health.

In our work, mindfulness is the simple process of noticing new things about the familiar. When we notice actively, we become sensitive to perspective and change. Forty years of research have taught me that exploiting the power of uncertainty results in well-being and health.

— Ellen Langer
Professor of Psychology

Next week: I. Glenn Cohen suggests we scrutinize what is and then ponder what should be.