By Prema Jayabalan and Lily Cheah
The way to become more charismatic, trustworthy and creative is to be mindful, says Dr Ellen Langer, psychology professor at Harvard University at an interview with The Leaderonomics Show.
A PhD holder in social and clinical psychology from Yale University, Langer was the first woman to be tenured in psychology at Harvard University in 1981.
She is also a recipient of the Guggenheim Fellowship and has published more than 200 research journals and numerous books, one of which has been made into a movie starring Jennifer Aniston (Counter Clockwise), who plays Langer in the film.
Langer specialises in the theory of mindfulness, having done in-depth studies on topics like the illusion of control, perceived control, successful aging and decision-making.
“We’re more mindless than we think,” says Langer. “A lot of the time, we’re not there.” The phenomenon of driving and arriving at a destination wondering how we got there, is only a small indication of this.
Mindlessness isn’t ignorance, and isn’t the same as a habit. “Mindlessness comes about by default, not by design. It’s when you assume you know, and believe there is no reason to pay attention,” she explains.
“But things are constantly changing, and they are different from different perspectives. As a result, we are frequently in error but rarely in doubt.”
The cure for mindlessness is mindfulness. It’s remarkably simple, Langer shares. Yet many of us spend most of our lives “without being there”. She terms it being “trapped in an unlived life”. We don’t stop to think about things we perceive as “norms”.
Mindfulness is the very simple process of noticing new things, no matter how small or silly. “It makes you sensitive to context and perspective,” she continues. “In this noticing, you become engaged in what you are doing. It becomes literally and figuratively enlivening.”
It’s a misconception that being mindful is tiring, explains Langer. “Thinking itself has gotten a bad name,” she offers. “What is tiring is when you begin worrying that you’re not thinking the right way.”
Studies show that you will live longer, become more productive, healthier, and more creative if you live mindfully. As a result of being more engaged, there will also be fewer accidents, and fewer occurrences of burnout.
Langer shares the outcome of a study she conducted in a nursing home. She divided residents into two groups. One group was left to their own devices, but the other group was actively engaged in decision-making, forcing them to think about different factors and take ownership of consequences.
“A year and a half into the study, twice as many people in the mindless group had died than in the mindful group,” she comments.
“I know that it’s hard to accept, but all you need to do is notice new things. To notice new things, you have to be aware that you don’t know the things that you think you do know.”
“As you notice, more neurons fire. It indirectly improves your health. It’s the essence of being alive.” Langer uses the example of someone mindlessly riding a horse. The rider is fixed on avoiding branches, but vigilance is not the same as mindfulness, she argues.
While vigilance is pure focus on one thing, mindfulness takes into account the whole scene. The rider who concentrates on the branches, omits to notice the big boulder that the horse eventually trips over.
Mindfulness naturally has its implications in organisations. We do everything either mindlessly or mindfully. “Everything can be improved by doing it mindfully. In organisations, we have ways of doing things, but people never question why we are doing them this way. What you do may be based on decisions taken in an earlier time that may not be relevant any longer. If you are mindful, you’ll constantly keep updating. If not, you’ll just accept that that’s the way it should be done.”
“When you take ordinary people and give them these experiences of mindfulness, they are evaluated as being more charismatic, more genuine, more trustworthy. People notice when you’re mindful. When you’re there, you feel alive, and all the products you produce are just better,” she beams.
BE mindful all the time
Langer’s advice is to be authentic. When you are authentically doing what you are doing, you’ll care about it and do it better.
“People are often afraid to be authentic because they feel that the rules set are permanent. They fail to realise that these rules were actually set by people from another time and might not be applicable in the current era,” says Langer.
Once you recognise that there is no certainty about anything, and that often norms are socially constructed and possibly decided by people of a different time, you’ll be able to move with greater confidence and more freedom to do things your own way. When you do things your own way, you’ll enjoy it more.
Langer shares that the first step to being mindful is to avoid looking for single answers. “Be aware of what you don’t know, and when considering something, try to look for five different solutions,” she advises.
“When learning something, learn it conditionally.” Recognise that it is from one perspective.”
“When you are more mindful, you become more creative, productive and happier. It prevents accidents from happening and it actually helps one live longer,” explains Langer.
Langer believes that CEOs in organisations should recognise that the way things are being done may not be the right way. They should realise that each employee has something to offer, thus should be given the opportunity to do so.
“Behaviour makes sense from the actor’s perspective, or else the actor wouldn’t do it”. It is crucial to try to understand them and recognise the behaviour from their perspective before taking any action.
This will work towards steering the organisation to greater heights and towards creating a more mindful establishment.