By RACHAEL SHALINI FRANCIS
“Be in the present,” is what people often say, and really, it’s facile advice. “Because when you’re not in the present, you’re not there to know you’re not there,” says Dr Ellen Langer.
A PhD holder in social and clinical psychology and a professor of psychology, Langer is also an artist and author. She has authored 11 books using the lens of her theory of mindfulness, of which Mindfulness (1989) became an international bestseller.
A Harvard professor of psychology since 1981 (the very first woman tenured in that department), she is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and three Distinguished Scientist Awards, the World Congress Award, the NYU Alumni Achievement Award, and the Staats award for Unifying Psychology.
Born in New York, she began her college career as a chemist at New York University. A course on introductory psychology then led her to change her major.
When Langer began her career, there was a prevailing notion that people acted sensibly based on their beliefs. Different ways of thinking were being studied and Langer wondered if at times, we were in fact, not thinking.
In 1981, while she was just starting out at Harvard, Langer and her colleagues sent two groups of elderly men to a monastery, set 22 years earlier, in 1959. One group was asked to pretend for a week that they were 22 years younger, living in the 1950s. The second group, arriving a week later, was told to simply recollect memories of that era.
Two decades ago, Langer hoped to prove through the experiment that fixed ideas, internalised in childhood, have the potential to influence the way we age. “Wherever you put the mind, the body will follow,” she says.
At the end of the study, both groups reported significant changes, with the experimental group looking younger. The men were stronger, more flexible and agile; they could even manage to play touch football with her, and some put away their canes.
“It is not our physical state that limits us,” she explains – it is the way in which we view our limits that ultimately cages us in. Today, she attributes the results of that experiment to mindfulness. “Men who changed their perspective changed their bodies,” she says.
Mindfulness – as I have been studying it for over 30 years – is the remarkably simple process of noticing new things. When you notice new things, what happens is that it puts you in the present, makes you aware of context and perspective. Most important is that it reveals that we don’t know that thing as well as we thought we did.-Langer
Mindfulness is something that comes about without evaluation, meaning there’s no right or wrong; it’s just noticing, and the very action feels good and is engaging.
Langer points out that mindfulness is different from the concept of meditation. She stresses how it’s actually an uncomplicated process.
“It’s the very simple process of noticing new things. It couldn’t be easier. It doesn’t matter if what you notice is smart or silly, as long as it’s new,” she clarifies.
She addresses how some may find it difficult or time-consuming. “(If) you want to have a cookie, actually taste it. I don’t think it takes more time to eat a cookie mindlessly than it does to eat it mindfully.
“People think it takes longer to do it mindfully than it does to do it mindlessly. Very rarely is time of the essence in that way, where milliseconds matter,” she exerts.
Mindfulness naturally is very applicable in organisations. Langer believes that every employee potentially has something to bring to the table and if given the chance, can propel the company forward, benefiting everyone.
In one study, Langer and colleagues attempted to study if people could learn how to regulate their heart rate upon learning how it varies. The study discovered that the most mindful group controlled their heart rate better than the rest.
Langer concluded that actually noticing change can facilitate the learning required to allow physiological response, emotions and behaviours to be within our control.
In order to control something, you need to be in tune with it. Similarly, in the workplace, if we could tune into how we negatively respond to a particular stimulus, we can alter circumstances or omit them altogether.
We become mindless when we do things over and over again and begin to accept it as the way it is meant to be done. We stop looking for ways to do things better or are even unaware that there are alternatives.
“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,” Langer remarks.
That to an extent is a hazard in any organisation. When we mindfully approach our work, we become aware of other ways of approaching something. We are unlikely to miss out on opportunities for growth.
In Langer’s early studies, she had elderly people in nursing homes make simple decisions. These decisions eventually resulted in fewer deaths among the residents.
“In making a decision, you’d have to think about options and you think about different aspects that you hadn’t thought about before.”
“And the interesting thing is that in this noticing, you become engaged in what you’re doing and it becomes literally and figuratively enlivening,” Langer explains.
Langer observes that when people are given experiences of mindfulness, they appear to be more creative, productive and happier. As a result of mindfulness, people become more invested in what they do and end up producing work that is better.
Langer advises to be less evaluative. “Right now, we have a very strong sense of right and wrong, this is the way you do it and this is not the way you do it. And we need to recognise that that’s based on perspective. So, some things look right from one perspective but if you shifted it, it wouldn’t look right,” she remarks.
Truly internalising this has its merits in the workplace. More often than not, colleagues have a different way of doing things and instead of dismissing something out of the norm, mindfulness tells us to take it in.
“Behaviour makes sense from the actor’s perspective, or else the actor wouldn’t do it,” Langer asserts. She also points out that once you are aware that there is another way of seeing things, you cannot possibly go back to the single perspective.
Langer cautions against looking for single solutions. Instead, she advocates looking for five different solutions. More importantly, when it comes to learning, Langer suggests taking it in conditionally instead of as an absolute.
Langer says that to become mindful, we have to be aware that we don’t know the things that we think we do know.
“You notice all of the cultures around the globe seem to have a premium in certainty. You want everybody to know but since everything is changing, you can’t know. So, when you realise you can’t know, you naturally stay in-tuned,” Langer concludes.
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