The Stunning Science of Mind-Body Unity | Ellen Langer

Ellen Langer

Have you ever heard that self-help platitude, “your thoughts and beliefs determine your reality” and kind of rolled your eyes at it? Yep, me too. Except, it turns out, science it making a bit of a fool of my skepticism, in the best of ways.

More than four decades of research now proves that how you think, feel, believe and expect is just as important, if not even moreso, than what you do, especially when it comes to things like your body, health, pain, disease, wellbeing, healing, immunity, even weight and strength, and so much more. 

It’s not even that your mind and body are connected, as today’s guest reminded me, it’s that they’re literally one and the same. Unified. And once we understand this, it gives us access to stunning new insights, tools, and practices that can transform our bodies, relationships, well-being and lives, simply through the way we direct our minds.

My guest today is Ellen Langer, a legendary psychologist, researcher, and author of the new book The Mindful Body: Thinking Our Way to Chronic Health. Ellen is known worldwide as the “mother of mindfulness” for her groundbreaking research showing how our thoughts, perceptions and mindset directly impact our physical and mental health.

In our conversation, she shares insights from over 45 years studying the powerful relationship between mind and body. The studies she shares literally melted my mind, and truly opened me to a new way of thinking about my attention and thought-process and how powerfully they impact my physiology, in both amazing, and also potentially devastating ways. 

Ellen also shares a powerful and necessary reframe around the notion of mindfulness, that is critical in understanding how to harness its power to both cultivate health, and improve nearly all parts of life to live more fulfilling lives filled with happiness and vitality. In today’s conversation, Ellen offers simple tips that anyone can use to unlock the potential of mindbody unity and start reclaiming the richness life has to offer.

You can find Ellen at: Website | Instagram | Episode Transcript

If you LOVED this episode:

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photo credit: Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

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Episode Transcript:

Ellen Langer: [00:00:00] People believe that we have a mind and we have a body, and that they are, since Descartes, two distinct things. And we all know that there’s a relationship and people talk about mind, body connection. I’m not talking about connection. I’m talking about mind-body unity. It’s one thing wherever we put the mind, we’re putting the body. And if we put them back together, the mind and the body, then wherever you’re putting the mind, you’re necessarily putting the body. And I’ve been testing this for over 25 years with very exciting results. But what it tells us, the bigger picture is our health and happiness is just a thought away. So for me, it’s very important for people to see the control they actually have over their health and well-being. Okay, so have you ever heard that self-help platitude?

 

Jonathan Fields: [00:00:50] Your thoughts and beliefs determine your reality and kind of roll your eyes at it? Yes. Me too. Except it turns out science is making a bit of a fool of my skepticism in the best of ways. More than four decades of research now prove that how you think, how you feel, how you believe and expect is just as important, if not more so, than what we do, especially when it comes to things like our body, our health, our pain, disease, well-being, healing immunity, even weight and strength and so much more. It’s not even that your mind and body are connected, as today’s guest reminded me. It’s that they are literally one in the same unified to use her language. And once we understand this, it gives us access to stunning new insights and tools and practices that can transform our bodies, our relationships, well-being, and lives simply through the way we direct our minds. My guest today is Ellen Langer, a legendary psychologist, researcher, and author of the new book, The Mindful Body Thinking Our Way to Chronic Health. Ellen is actually known worldwide as the mother of mindfulness for her groundbreaking research showing how our thoughts, perceptions, and mindset directly impact our physical and mental health. In our conversation, she shares insights from over 45 years studying the powerful relationship between mind and body, or what she would consider them to be the exact same unified thing. The study she shares literally melted my mind and truly opened me to a new way of thinking about my attention and thought process and how powerfully they impact my physiology, my well-being, and both amazing and potentially devastating ways as well.

 

Jonathan Fields: [00:02:40] And Ellen also shares powerful and necessary reframes around the notion of mindfulness that are critical in understanding how to harness its power to both cultivate health and improve nearly every part of life, to live more fulfilling lives with happiness and vitality. In our conversation, she offers simple tips that anyone can use to unlock the potential of mind body unity and start reclaiming the richness life has to offer. So excited to share this conversation with you! I’m Jonathan Fields and this is Good Life Project.. I’ve been following your work for quite some time in the early days of the counter-clockwise study, and really traveling alongside. You have a number of friends who’ve sort of been in and out of the world of positive psych and early in the University of Pennsylvania’s Mat program. So I’m fascinated by, really the notion of how present we are in life and what does the science say about it. And then even if there isn’t science, what is our personal experience? Say about it? Curious about your new book? Also, you know The Mindful Body. From what I understand, this actually began life as a memoir, not what it is now. How did that transition happen?

 

Ellen Langer: [00:04:00] Well, it started as a memoir, which means there are lots of personal stories. And also by writing a memoir, jog my memory for many things that ended up relevant to what a point I was trying to make about risk-taking or decision-making. And then actually, it was my agent who will not be happy with me saying this. He said, Ellen, it’s very hard to write a memoir. And I said, okay, so I’ll learn. Then he said, well, you know, you could make it sort of a research memoir. And I was like, okay, maybe I’ll do that. You know, I’m open to all sorts of suggestions. I don’t mind being edited. And if anybody can make anything, I’m doing better. I’m pleased. But then I realized that my research isn’t linear. You know, the ideas go round and round and, you know, and eventually grow and lead me to the point where I have to put them on paper. So that wasn’t going to work. And then I just wrote, you know, the way I’ve written all my other books, but this one, I think because of all the personal stories and also because it’s a culmination of 45 years of research, I think that this one is my best, so I’m happy.

 

Jonathan Fields: [00:05:11] It Spans so much. I’m curious also just about the impulse for you. You’ve been writing for decades. You have. Was it a dozen books out at this point?

 

Ellen Langer: [00:05:20] 13. But who’s counting?

 

Jonathan Fields: [00:05:22] Where does the impulse come from, actually to say like, okay, so at this moment in time, I want to step into the memoir side of this. Was it more of a creative challenge or was it something that was bigger?

 

Ellen Langer: [00:05:34] Yeah, I don’t think it was either bigger or creative challenge because I’ve written many books before. If you knew me as a kid, you’d know that. But in some ways I haven’t changed at all, and I was very lucky to have parents that were wonderfully supportive. So I’ve been a happy camper all my life. And since I’m a little kid and I meet you, Jonathan, and you’re unhappy, I said, well, why don’t you look at it this way? So I’ve been doing that forever with the goal of sharing these ideas. You know, it seems to me that the happiness and success that people seek is really just a small step from where they are. And so I’ve taken it as in part, I guess, my life’s work to try to move people in that direction. And so that’s what all of the research is. And then the books follow naturally from that. As you know, here’s the best way for me to make people aware of all of the hard science as it’s called.

 

Jonathan Fields: [00:06:32] Yeah. I mean, which brings up another really interesting question. This was sort of your wiring from the earliest days, and you’ve spent pretty much your entire adult life working life diving into the science of how do we reorient people to these states?

 

Ellen Langer: [00:06:46] I never left school. That’s kind of sad, isn’t it?

 

Jonathan Fields: [00:06:49] Do you visit the notion of that? You know, it’s the classic question nurture versus nature in terms of this disposition?

 

Ellen Langer: [00:06:56] Oh, gosh. I mark the edge of the nurture part of the nature-nurture continuum. I don’t think we’re destined for anything biologically, nor socially, culturally or any other E in fact, there’s a slide I show when I’m giving lectures where I claim that if the root cause of virtually all of our problems, whether they’re personal, interpersonal, professional, global as our mindlessness and the, you know, to turn that around more positively, that means for me, everything has a solution. And I say that the world is in some sense, while things seem to be a mess now, there’s another way of looking at it as an evolution and consciousness. But what I say in that slide, which is kind of fun, I say virtually all of our problems are a direct or indirect result of mindfulness, and that’s because I’m writing it. And then I tell the audience that I really mean all, which is a very big statement, but I deeply believe it. 

 

Jonathan Fields: [00:08:06] Yeah. What’s the resistance where people think virtually, like, are they always thinking of edge cases to offer up to you?

 

Ellen Langer: [00:08:11] Yeah. No, I think that’s just in my head. You know, it’s sort of it’s so. 

 

Jonathan Fields: [00:08:15] It’s an hedge.

 

Ellen Langer: [00:08:17] Yeah. Exactly. You know to. It sounds so certain and it also sounds a little mindless, so I cover myself. It’s a hedge. Yes. So far I haven’t found a problem that I think wouldn’t be solved if we approached it more mindfully. Which doesn’t mean I have the solution at hand for any problem that we can throw at me, because the world right now has many of these problems, and, um, I’m not prepared to fix them all. But I still believe that if the cultures involved taught their children to be more mindful, if everything we did was to promote this alternative way of being alternative to the way most people live their lives, most of the problems wouldn’t occur and would certainly diminish if not go away.

 

Jonathan Fields: [00:09:04] Yeah, I mean, that makes a lot of sense. You know, when you use the word culture, are you talking mostly about Western culture? Because I feel like the notion of mindfulness just more broadly than.

 

Ellen Langer: [00:09:14] Yeah, you know, for everybody, the world is, uh, very small these days. So we used to say, are you talking about the East or the West? It doesn’t really make sense anymore, because there’s so many things in the East that are very Western, and we have all these people here meditating and trying to be Buddhist as people in the East.

 

Jonathan Fields: [00:09:35] Yeah, that makes sense. Let’s talk about language a little bit. You’ve used the phrase both mindfulness and mindlessness. Deconstruct those a little bit. For me, that’s.

 

Ellen Langer: [00:09:44] Probably the most important thing, is for me to define what I mean by that. Because when people hear the word mindfulness, they think of meditation, right? And meditation is fine, but that’s not what I’m talking about. Meditation isn’t mindfulness. Meditation is a practice you undergo in order to lead to post-meditative mindfulness. Mindfulness as we study it isn’t a practice, it’s just a way of being that results in you actively noticing. Now, when I say a way of being, once you recognize that everything is changing, everything looks different from different perspective. Nothing is certain. Nothing. And when you know you don’t know, you tune in. If your listeners thought they knew what I was going to say next, that’s when they’d get up and go get popcorn or something, right? We don’t know. And the problem is, too many people think they should know, and too many people pretend they do know, but we can’t know. So if you bought that lock, stock and barrel, as they say, then everything would be new and you’d naturally spend your time noticing. People have been taught, since they’re children to be mindless. Our schools, our parents, all of our institutions encourage our mindlessness. And they do this by teaching absolutes. And again, when you know something, absolutely, then you’re going to be more robotic, actively seek out alternatives.

 

Ellen Langer: [00:11:12] So my favorite example of this is the thing that people seem to be most certain of is how much is 1 in 1? So everybody says two, but it’s not. It’s often two, but it’s not always two. If you were to 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 and one wad of chewing gum, plus one wad of chewing gum. One plus one is one. So in the real world, it probably doesn’t equal two as or more often than it does. So now just imagine Jonathan, and this is not likely to happen. But right after we finished speaking, somebody asked you, hey Jonathan, how much is one plus one? You’re not going to mindlessly blurt out two anymore, right? You’re going to pay some attention to the context, and then you’ll answer more mindfully, saying it could be and then you could answer one, two, or whatever else you want to say. So because we’re taught all these absolutes and we think we know that cements that. That leads us to use everything we’ve learned yesterday to understand what’s happening today. And it’s not a good heuristic.

 

Jonathan Fields: [00:12:21] Yeah. I mean, it’s interesting, right? Because we’re sort of taught to always look for the exemplar, like what’s the last closest thing that we can see to what we’re trying to do now. And let’s get it as close to that and let’s apply that model to what’s coming at us. It sounds like what you’re suggesting is, and tell me if I have this right, that a precondition for true mindfulness is uncertainty.

 

Ellen Langer: [00:12:41] Exactly. And so the way to become uncertain when you’re steeped in all of this false knowing is so simple. Just actively notice new things about the things you think you know. So you walk outside your door. The you’ve done it every day for however old you are, however long you’ve lived there. And notice five new things. And you know, you see, gee, I didn’t know this street as well as I thought I did. And notice three new things. Five new things about your best friend, your spouse, boyfriend, girlfriend, whatever. And you keep doing this and the things again that you were sure of. Now change. You know, when I was. That 50 I started painting, and prior to that, if you had asked me what color of leaves and it would depend on when you’d ask me, because if you ask me in the fall, you know, I would be more aware that they’re changing color. But you asked me in the summer or the spring, and I’m going to say, and I’m sure I did say green. Then I start painting. And so I start looking at things differently. And I noticed that green I mean, there are hundreds of different shades of green. And wherever the sun is in the sky, each of those shades change. And so look at how rich and exciting the life becomes, you know, when from metaphorically, this one thing green to, you know, so many alternatives. And I think that what people need to understand is that coming up with these answers to questions is fun. When I say to people, you should be mindful all the time, Jonathan.

 

Ellen Langer: [00:14:10] Some people shudder. Sounds exhausting. Even thinking has gotten a bad rap. People don’t think they can be thinking all the time, but it’s not the thinking that is problematic for people. It’s the worry that you won’t get the right answer. Now, this mindfulness, which is just noticing new things, is what you do when you’re having fun. It doesn’t require any practice. If you are going to come visit me in my home right now, you’ve never been here, you wouldn’t have to practice. Get yourself ready for anything. You’d walk in, you’d say, oh, look at that. I wonder, did she do that painting, you know. And is this a book she’s reading? Oh, I hated that book. You’d have a conversation with yourself about everything that you saw, right? And you’d enjoy yourself. So, you know, you say, should you be mindful all the time? Could you be having fun all the time? And I’m here to say yes, because that’s the life that, you know, I’m fortunate enough to live where virtually everything is a game, every. It doesn’t mean there aren’t serious things, but they don’t become overwhelming. They become interesting. So yeah, when you know, you don’t know, everything is new. It’s the essence of engagement. It’s the way you feel when you just fall in love. You have a bite of that food you you’ve never had before that you think is delicious. Surely if you asked it the question that way, people would say, yeah, they can do this thing all the time.

 

Jonathan Fields: [00:15:30] Yeah. I mean, what you’re describing also sounds a lot like how I’ve heard the state of wonder described to me. Yeah. Which I think a lot of us tend to lose as we I think, you know, when we’re kids, I think wonder becomes a natural state. But as we grow up, we’re sort of like, let’s lock everything down and let’s assume that we know, like this, that and the other thing, and we don’t have to revisit it. And I’m so curious what your take is. I almost feel like we do that as adults because life gets so busy. There’s so much coming at us that we feel like we need to get so much out of our sort of decision matrix as we can, because it’s just overwhelming. So let’s lock down as much as we can so we can breathe more without realizing that we’re locking out so much wonder and so much possibility at the same time. Does that make sense?

 

Ellen Langer: [00:16:11] Oh, yeah. No, completely. I mean, I think that people think that there’s so much information out there. I can’t tell you how many journalists have asked me over the years. How can they cope? There’s just so much to know. And my answer is that there’s no more to know now than there ever was. You know, you could spend a lifetime, and some people do, looking at a blade of grass, wheat, you know, whatever the difference is that people think that their performance will improve if they take in more information. And there’s really no evidence for that. I don’t know where we got it all wrong, but I certainly don’t think that kids are more mindless than adults, which you sort of suggested. In fact, I think the reverse. And you take young kids and you watch them and they’ll take a paper bag and or a cardboard box and they’ll play with it all day creating different things. And, you know, they’re very happy until we start giving them expensive toys and what have you.

 

Jonathan Fields: [00:17:09] Yeah. No, I was suggesting, actually that there were more mindful. I want to get back to the uncertainty notion, though, because I’ve read enough research on tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity, and from my studies that show it’s correlation with activation of the amygdala, there seems to be an almost like brain-based neurological response to us having to make decisions or take action in the face of increasing uncertainty or uncertainty with increasing stakes.

 

Ellen Langer: [00:17:35] I think those are all separate issues. There are times you feel you want to take action. Most action is taken without a whole lot of information. You know, almost in some ways as if we’re all emergency doctors, where there’s no time to check and to see what the books say I should be doing right now to the person may die while you’re figuring this out. So taking action doesn’t rely on information. I think we talk ourselves into the necessity of taking most actions. You know, certainly the idea is start from you’re in the jungle and you know, there’s a tiger. You have to do something right. You make quickly. You’re either going to make friends with the tiger or you’re going to run. But in the life that. Most of us are living, the decisions we make. The stress we impose on ourselves to make these decisions is all self-made. I think that the best way of characterizing the whole, I don’t know, the whole world, but certainly the United States now is people suffering from stress. And I think that stress is mindless. You know, stress is the belief that something’s going to happen. And when it happens, it’s going to be awful. And we can’t predict. So we don’t know that it’s going to happen.

 

Ellen Langer: [00:18:48] In fact, most of the things people are stressed about never happen, right? And then when you say it’s going to be awful, people need to understand that events are neither good nor bad. Events don’t cause stress. What causes stress are the views we take of the event? So you give yourself a scary understanding of it. You’re going to be scared, but you needn’t be. And the thing is that when you’re mindful, you have many more options, many more understandings of any event. You know, if I just meet you and I think you’re a snob, my feelings can be heard. I can take different actions, whatever. If I’m mindful, maybe you’re a snob, maybe you’re shy, maybe your head hurts at the moment. You know, there are so many possible explanations that there’s no need for me to make the decision to protect myself, but with stress. Let me let me throw out something that people seem to find useful. I have a lot of one liners that are culled from a lot of research, so this is one that friends I have have on their refrigerators, which is, ask yourself, is it a tragedy or an inconvenience? Almost never are the things we’re worried about tragedies, not even potential. I missed the bus.

 

Ellen Langer: [00:20:00] I banged the car. I didn’t get the project done on time. I forgot to call you back. Whatever it is. And if you ask yourself that question, then you just sort of return to yourself. Calm down somewhat. Because people. No, no, it’s really not such a big deal. But the stress that people experience, I think, is perhaps the major problem with respect to illness, which is a different thought, you know. So, for example, I haven’t done this study, but if we took 100 people and they were just diagnosed with cancer, particularly any particular kind of cancer, nobody is going to be happy about it. So we leave them alone for a few weeks to figure out how to cope. And then we check in and measure this stress level, let’s say every three weeks or so. I believe the stress will predict the course of the disease over and above genetics, over and above nutrition, over and above the treatment and stress is something that we all have. We can all cure. Going to stress is psychological. And so if stress is what’s pushing us over the edge with so many diseases and we can control our stress, that speaks volumes to how much control we have over these diseases.

 

Jonathan Fields: [00:21:17] Yeah. So are you saying so? I understand correctly that the association between stress and mindfulness is negative. Right. But also that stress is not about the event itself. It’s about our perception or the story we tell ourselves about the event. And we can change that story by our attentiveness to mindfulness.

 

Ellen Langer: [00:21:38] Exactly. And so when you’re mindful, it just naturally alternatives naturally occur to you. And so if you know, if you thought something was going to happen and you gave yourself five reasons why it might not happen, you’re immediately going to be less stressed, right? Because you start off this terrible things going to happen, maybe it’ll happen, maybe it won’t. And so life just unfolds in a very different way.

 

Jonathan Fields: [00:22:02] Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. One of the overarching themes of the latest book, The Mindful Body, and this is like an overarching theme of your entire body of work, which is, I think, what you would describe as mind-body unity, which is really dives into the relationship between the state of the mind, the state of body, if you even consider them two things, and I don’t think you really do. Take me deeper into the concept. And what does it refute?

 

Ellen Langer: [00:22:27] Everything. Most people believe that we have a mind and we have a body, and that they are, since Descartes, two distinct things. And the problem is that in studying the mind and the body is, you have to ask, how do I get from this fuzzy thing called a thought to something material called a body? And that’s the problem that people have been able to solve. Although everybody, you know, once you’re, I don’t know, maybe even ten years old have had experience, you know, you’re walking down the street and a leaf blows and you get scared until you realize it’s just a leaf, you know, and your pulse increases and so on. Or you see somebody regurgitate and you yourself start feeling sick. And we all know that there’s a relationship. And so it went from the medical world, not that many decades ago believing being happy is nice, you know? But, um, psychology is irrelevant essentially to disease. To get a disease, you need the introduction of an antigen. Now, most of the medical world has moved over and people talk about mind-body connection. I’m not talking about connection. I’m talking about saying these are just words. And if we put them back together, the mind and the body, then wherever you’re putting the mind, you’re necessarily putting the body. And I’ve been testing this for over 25 years with very exciting results. But what it tells us, the bigger picture is our health and happiness is just a thought away, which is very different from the standard belief that people have.

 

Ellen Langer: [00:24:03] You know, the assumption is at a certain point in life, you’re going to start experiencing all sorts of negative things. If you have some chronic illness, you know that there’s nothing you can do about it, as people understand chronic as uncontrollable. And, you know, just think about it that first of all, we could never buy any science, prove something is uncontrollable. All you can prove is that what you tried failed. Which doesn’t mean there’s something else wouldn’t succeed. Now, if you believe something is uncontrollable, you don’t do anything to try to control it. You’re just mindlessly accept that. If instead and and more precisely, you realized it was indeterminate, we just don’t know. Then you might try things that other people haven’t thought about and that might work for you. You know, we took this and I have a whole treatment program for chronic illness. And it’s it’s very simple. I call it attention to symptom variability, which is a fancy word for mindfulness, because when you’re mindful, you notice when things change, variable means change. Okay. What we do is we take people who have chronic illnesses and we just call them periodically. How is the symptom now? Is it better or worse than before? Well, that very simple thing sets in motion many, many processes. The first is as soon as you see it’s change, you feel well made. A second. Maybe I can move this around the second by looking for why it’s better or worse. You feel in control again because the hardest part, or one of the hardest parts of having some chronic illness is you can’t do anything for yourself, so you feel helpless.

 

Ellen Langer: [00:25:43] The third, and probably most important, is that by asking yourself why? Why does it hurt more or less? Whatever. It doesn’t be hurt. It can be any symptom. Then, before you start on a mindful search for the answer, and I have decades of research showing that mindfulness is good for your health, independent of whether you find the solution you’re looking for. We have several studies where we give elderly people opportunities to be mindful and they live longer. So just looking for the solution will be good for you. And then last, I believe if you look for a solution, you’re more likely to find one sure than if you don’t. And as so, this was my attempt to replace the placebo. Now think about the placebo. Jonathan, you take this pill that is inert. It’s a sugar pill. It does not. It’s a nothing pill. You take a nothing pill and you get better. So who’s making you better? You’re making yourself better. And so my part of my life’s work has been to try to make that more direct. Get rid of the middleman. You don’t need the stupid pill. It’s not. There’s nothing. There’s no there there anyway. And this was an attempt to do that. But you can’t give yourself a placebo. But you still can do this attention to variability yourself where most people have. A smartphone. So set the smartphone to ring in an hour and then ask yourself, how is it now? And is it better or worse than before? Then set it to, you know, to ring in 2.5 hours, various times across the day, across the week.

 

Ellen Langer: [00:27:20] And we’ve had success with very big problems with multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s, stroke, chronic pain, arthritis, and so on. To make it maybe clearer to people, let’s say, Jonathan, you suffer because you’re stressed all the time. No one is anything all the time. The point is, when you’re not stressed, you’re not thinking about the whole thing. So you go from thinking about being stressed. Your mind is elsewhere, and then you’re stressed again. It seems as if you’ve always been stressed. So now you do this. Attention to variability. Am I more or less stressed now than I was before? And why? You keep doing this and you discover that you’re maximally stressed when you’re talking to Ellen Langer? Okay, well, the cure is easy, right? Stop talking to me or change the way we speak to each other. So it’s anything that’s held still since everything is changing is artificial. And if we do this, you know, you think somebody is a nasty. Whatever. Well, nobody is a nasty whatever all the time. And so you notice when they are, when they are, and then your relationship is even going to improve your expectations about what they’re going to do next and so on. So in code, it’s being mindful to get us to recognize change in that last example.

 

Jonathan Fields: [00:28:42] Also. I mean, wouldn’t a third option also be to change the story I’m telling myself about what happens when I have a conversation with Ellen?

 

Ellen Langer: [00:28:49] Exactly. So for me, it’s very important for people to see the control they actually have over their health and wellbeing. The very first test of this mind-body unity. Remember, we take mind body. It’s one thing wherever we put the mind, we’re putting the body. So this was the counter-clockwise study, right? Jonathan, I can say this is a famous study. One shouldn’t talk about their own work that way. But that’s because if you tune in to The Simpsons, go to Havana, they actually discuss, I think that.

 

Jonathan Fields: [00:29:18] Qualifies for fame right there. Okay, good.

 

Ellen Langer: [00:29:20] And then you rate. So what we did was retrofit a retreat to 20 years earlier. And we had elderly men live there as if they were their younger selves. So they spoke about past events, for instance, as if they were just unfolding in a period of less than a week there. And these are old men. Their vision improved, their hearing improved, their memory, their strength, and they look noticeably younger without any medical intervention. Now, when was the last time you heard an 80-year-old’s hearing improve? It might have been said to you, but you didn’t hear it. Okay. You know, and so that was the first of many studies that I won’t go through all of them now. But just to give people an example of a few that are mentioned in the book, The Mindful Body.

 

Jonathan Fields: [00:30:04] So what’s the hypothesis there in terms of like what’s the mechanism? Or maybe it’s the wrong question actually. Right, Jonathan.

 

Ellen Langer: [00:30:10] No, no. Everybody asks that. Even after I explain it, they still ask it because we’re so, you know, wedded to mind and body. So what’s going on? But it’s one thing, right.

 

Jonathan Fields: [00:30:22] The underlying assumption.

 

Ellen Langer: [00:30:23] Now, I’m not saying this was good that you asked me this. I’m not saying there’s nothing going on physiologically. What I’m saying is what’s going on physiologically is happening more or less simultaneously. Right? So if I go like this, every part of my body is different. You know, it’s funny, I think I mentioned this in the book. There was a time I was in, um, Columbia, Missouri, or someplace in Missouri, Saint Louis, and a friend of mine dragged me to an iridologists. So, you know, I’m game for anything. It was kind of fun. And I sit in the office and she looks at me and she looks at my eyes because that’s what she does. And then she told me, I have a problem with my gallbladder magic. Okay, well, it turned out I did things like that. Evidence of everything is represented everywhere, as sometimes we don’t have the technology, the machinery, whatever to notice the difference, but it’s there. So the next study in the series was with Chambermaids. Oddly, Chambermaids don’t see themselves as exercising. They think, according to the Surgeon General, exercise is what you do after work and after work. They’re just too tired. Okay, so the first thing that one might ask, given that these women are exercising all day long and people say exercise is good for you, they should be healthy, healthier than socioeconomic equivalent others, right? But they’re not. That’s interesting. So now we take these women, divide them into two groups ever so simple. And we take lots of measures. And we’re going to teach one of these groups of women that they work as exercise. So they’re told making a bed is like working. At this machine at the jam. Sweeping is like working. So at the end we have two groups. One that doesn’t realize their work is exercise, one that does.

 

Ellen Langer: [00:32:13] At the end of the study, the group that changed their mind, they weren’t working any harder. They weren’t eating any differently. There were no differences on any of those measures. However, they lost weight. There was a change in waist-to-hip ratio, body mass index, and their blood pressure came down just from their change of mind. And I won’t go through all the studies. Let me just tell you one of the most recent. So we inflict a wound minor because we don’t want to hurt people, but it’s still a wound. People are in front of a clock. Unbeknownst to them. The clock is rigged. So for a third of the people, the clock is going twice as fast as real time. For a third of the people, the clock is going half as fast as real for a third of the people. It’s real-time. Now. Most people would assume that wound is going to heal when this wound heals, right? Based on real time. But no, the wound healed based on clock time. Based on perceived time. We have studies with fatigue, as it turns out, to be mostly a psychological construct with diabetes. You know, we use the same clock idea with diabetes study. People with type two diabetes come in for the study. We take all sorts of measures. Then we’re going to have them play computer games. The reason for that is so that they can look at this rigged clock and we tell them, change the game you’re playing. Every 15 minutes or so. They look at the clock for a third of them. The clock is going twice as fast as real-time for a third half, as fast for a third. It’s real-time. And blood sugar level follows perceived, not real-time.

 

Jonathan Fields: [00:33:55] That’s wild.

 

Ellen Langer: [00:33:56] So if you can think it, you can bring most things about. Yeah, well, you know, what people don’t realize is that almost all of the things they think they can do, you know, just came from, I don’t know, somebody telling them I’m trying once and giving up, you know, an example, I asked, um, my health class. I say, how far is it humanly possible to run now? It becomes like an auction. One person, they know it’s not 26 miles because that’s a marathon. So it usually starts at 30, 35. And then somebody says 50 and everybody is silent. Nobody believes 50 miles. Then I turn on a video. You should watch this if you’ve never seen this before, of the Tarahumara, which is a tribe in Kenya, uh copper canyon in Mexico, these people can go over 200 miles without stopping. Now imagine if you saw this as a kid. You wouldn’t get as tired at 26 miles. The idea of how much you could do would just instantly be expanded. And what we do and what the medical world does all too often is they give the average performance or the longest healing time. We’re doing a study now where we take the fastest healing time, and I think that will affect how long it takes for everybody to heal.

 

Jonathan Fields: [00:35:22] I mean, it’s so powerful also, right? Because you figure, well, maybe they give the longest healing time so that they’re trying to set expectations so people aren’t disappointed.

 

Ellen Langer: [00:35:30] Oh, there’s always a good reason. But you know but I but I they can do that in a different way. That doesn’t. Right right right. Set up the the negative expectation. You say many people do it in three months. Whatever we’re talking about, there’s some people you know who’ve done it in three weeks. I know maybe you could do it faster, or maybe it’ll take long. You know, just don’t give them the prophecy that will be self-fulfilled.

 

Jonathan Fields: [00:35:56] Yeah. It’s like you give them the possibility of them having some, like, it could be the fastest version. So it’s fascinating. I mean, and then when you broaden this out to the conversation around public health and the way that hospitals are built, the way that medicine happens and the relationship between caregivers and patients, the implications are astounding.

 

Ellen Langer: [00:36:16] They’re enormous. Yeah, I think so. I’m so glad that you mentioned that. And I have a chapter in the book on the Mindful Hospital, hopefully a hospital of the future. You know, burnout is a very, very common in the medical world. And burnout is a function of mindlessness. So if they saw their patients and noticed new things about them, the patient would feel cared for and end up more mindful, which would be good for them and probably help their whatever the disease process is and the staff, the medical staff would also become healthier. It’s kind of funny that, you know, when I started to think about hospitals, here’s a place that people go to get better. Virtually everybody when you first walk into a hospital is so stressed, you know it’s measurable, right? But hospitals don’t have to be stressful. You know, doctors don’t have to be wearing white anymore. I mean, that was a way to show dirt. Now with washing machines, you know, people aren’t looking to see if their uniforms are clean or not. An understanding of mindlessness is that something starts and it makes sense. And then you keep doing it. You keep doing it, you keep things change, but you’re still doing this thing that used to make sense. So an example if you’re driving and you’re driving on ice, what do you do?

 

Jonathan Fields: [00:37:40] Slow down. But the one thing I don’t do is hit the brakes.

 

Ellen Langer: [00:37:43] Okay. So that’s interesting. You say that’s what we were all taught. So time one when we all learned how to drive. And I’m much older than you are, um, that we were taught when the car starts to skid, you gently pump the brakes to get control over it. That made sense in the past. Now there are anti-lock brakes, right? And it turns out, Jonathan, for safety’s sake. Now, what you need to do is step hard right on that brake. The very thing you said you wouldn’t do. You say so what happens when you’re. We’re taught initially how to do something. It all makes sense. And then we do it forever, even though things change. So in the braking example now people, because they learned how to do it, are doing exactly the wrong thing and actually setting themselves up for more danger.

 

Jonathan Fields: [00:38:34] And I’m raising my hand right there because I learned to drive when the anti-lock brakes didn’t exist and there was no pulsing mechanism. And even though I know they exist now, and even though I know they’re in my car, my default mode is don’t hit the brakes right?

 

Ellen Langer: [00:38:47] If we learn it mindfully in the first place, then it becomes it stays. The choices stay lively throughout, you know? And the way to learn it mindfully is to know that it’s not absolute. Things are going to depend on context. Everything is sort of could be possibly rather than is. And this came home to me so many years ago and changed my life. This event at a horse event. Remember, I’m a straight A student. I’m the one everybody hates, right? Okay, so I know. So I’m at this horse event and this man asked me if I’ll watch his horse for him because he’s going to get his horse a hot dog. I know nobody knows better. Horses don’t eat meat. They’re herbivorous. So it’s all I could do but laugh. Right? But I want to be nice. Of course. I’ll watch your horse. Go get the hot dog. He goes. He comes back with the hot dog. Jonathan. The horse ate it. And it was at that moment that I realized everything I thought I knew could be wrong for me. Some people would be bothered. By that, but for me it was very exciting because it meant all those things that are not supposed to happen, that you’re not supposed to be able to do. All of those possibilities became lively again, and that’s the sort of thing that I’ve been researching for decades now.

 

Jonathan Fields: [00:40:06] Yeah, I love that. I mean, it’s like the I’ve always believed that, you know, uncertainty is one side of a two-sided coin, the other side of which is possibility. And like, we can’t have the possibility side without the uncertainty. And also the uncertainty exists only in the context of possibility. And but when you’re locked into certainty, when you think you know.

 

Ellen Langer: [00:40:22] You’re not there anymore.

 

Jonathan Fields: [00:40:24] Right? You know you’ve become mindless and you’ve also foreclosed possibility in a way that we don’t realize is just so life-limiting in so many ways.

 

Ellen Langer: [00:40:32] And another way of putting that is that people run from doubt. Doubt is bad, but people love choice. But you can’t have choice unless there’s doubt. Because as soon as you know you want $1,000 as opposed to the $100, right?

 

Jonathan Fields: [00:40:48] The choice is over, right? I mean, it’s fascinating because what you’re describing, it’s landing in an interesting way with me. I recently just actually recorded an episode of my journey with tinnitus or tinnitus, A sound in my head, which touched down in 2010 and for the first year or so was was really brutal. It was taking me to an extraordinarily dark place. I ended up actually finding a mindfulness-based cognitive therapist who was a former rock drummer, who also had it and asked him, could this help? And I started that practice, and his instructions to me were, yes, and maybe. But the part of the instruction that you’re not going to like is that the classic mindfulness meditation instruction is find an anchor. Often it’s your breath, but if there’s something that keeps coming back into your mind, make that your anchor for your attention for that particular session, which for me was always going to be the sound in my head. And when I started doing that, it made me so anxious. I literally started to shake and I had to back away. But I kept at it, and over a period of months, I started to notice that the sound of my hat actually was much more complex and nuanced, and it changed over time. What you’re describing here, I’m like, oh, this is interesting. And then I started to notice, well, it seems to cause a lot more pain for me at night than during the daytime when the din of the city drops away.

 

Jonathan Fields: [00:42:05] And that’s there’s nothing to distract me from it. And I had all the tests, so I knew this was not like a big scary thing that was causing it. So that was ruled out. And then what started to happen is I started to tell a different story to myself about it, that this was no different than any of the other sounds that were like, I’m in Boulder, Colorado now, but I spent 30 years in New York City, so why was it causing me so much distress? And when I realized that it was just the story I was telling about it, and then I started to practice letting go of that story and also being attentive to it and realizing that it actually wasn’t so bad. Exploring the sound, I was able to let it go and let my mind drift back to other things. And what I now notice is that for all intents and purposes, when I’m not actively seeking out the sound, it doesn’t exist. When I’m seeking it out, the minute I look for it, it’s there. But when I’m not looking for it, it’s not like I don’t hear it anymore. In my experience, it literally doesn’t exist anymore.

 

Ellen Langer: [00:43:03] Yeah. You know, but the question is, how do you get to the point of telling yourself a different story? And so, because being mindless, we don’t assume that there are alternatives to any of our thoughts, you know? And then when you tell yourself a different story, I’m glad it worked for you. But you shouldn’t stop at one story in a sense, falling into the same trap. You don’t know what it is. Yeah, but there are ways that it’s also helping you. And that would be a fun thing to think about. All the ways it’s helping you.

 

Jonathan Fields: [00:43:35] It is. I mean, the I don’t know if the sound itself has helped me, but I know is that to this day I continue with the same practice. And that practice has allowed me to, you know, like in the rest of my life, which is not the 25 minutes I spend in the practice every morning, I’m so much more present. I’m so much more mindful. I’m so much more attentive and attuned to everything that goes on around me and able to ask myself, is this the fact? Or is it just a story? I’m telling you about it? And can I tell a different story? So it’s rippled out into so many different ways.

 

Ellen Langer: [00:44:04] And people should understand that mindfulness, as we’ve been talking about it, and any form of meditation are not mutually exclusive. One could and probably would prosper from doing both. Yeah, but, you know, there are some people for whom any form of meditation sounds too woo-woo. It’s too out there. And I look at the people who are doing it and they’re just different from me. And for them, they can just jump right in to what I’m doing. On the other hand, I’ve had people come to me who who I think I could help, but my solution is too simple. And so then they want to find some practice that’s going to take them forever. Or at least, you know, several months. You know, the bigger the problem people often think, the bigger the solution has to be. And you know you have a problem. Your shoe is really hurting your foot. Possibly just need to get it stressed. Tiny bit. You don’t need to throw the shoes away or do anything dramatic, but it’s nice that there are options for a variety of people. Indeed.

 

Jonathan Fields: [00:45:07] And when you say my solution, is it essentially the steps that you just offered a few minutes before?

 

Ellen Langer: [00:45:12] Yeah, that’s part of it. The main thing is just to recognize that you don’t know. And part of that, you know, it’s interesting that people I always hesitate on these podcasts to go into this because everybody’s going to disagree, and I don’t know that I’ll be able to in the short time, persuade them. But we cannot predict. Prediction is an illusion, and our stress and our worries are all based on prediction, right? You’re predicting that something’s going to happen and you’re predicting that when it happens, it’s going to be awful. If I said to you, let’s go to a Mercedes car dealership, lots of fancy cars, right? And we’ll randomly choose one car and. We’ll make a wager if that car starts as soon as you turn the key, I’ll give you $1 million. I could find it. If it doesn’t start, you give me $1 million. Nobody’s going to take the bet because everybody knows you don’t know. Right? But if you started all the cars in the lot parking lot, almost all of them would start. You just don’t know which ones won’t. All right. So we can predict to the group, but we can’t predict to the individual the individual instance. And all we as individuals care about is about the individual case. I mean, if I were in the hospital and you’re telling me about a procedure that kills 90% of the people who have it, am I a part of the 10% or am I part of the 90%? Anyway, so I had my students from a health seminar I teach, and I said to them, okay, I want you to spend the week not making any decision.

 

Ellen Langer: [00:46:47] I want you to use some rule of thumb. It can be the first option that occurs to you. Or you can flip a coin, roll a dice, whatever it is for the whole week. And they did so and they came back and they had a glorious week that was stress-free. And so the one-liner that I have about decision-making is, rather than get stressed trying to make the right decision, we should make the decision. Right now, I have a complicated I don’t think it’s complicated, but an involved, mindful theory of decision making that says that most first of all, most people don’t do cost-benefit analyses. They think they should, but they shouldn’t. And the reason they shouldn’t is because once you recognize every cost as potentially a benefit, every benefit, a cost, when you add them up, you have plus one minus one. It’s not going to tell you what to do. And when you’re gathering information, everybody thinks you should gather information, but there’s no endpoint to the information you can gather. And that one piece that you didn’t think to ask could change the meaning of the decision.

 

Ellen Langer: [00:47:54] All right. You know, the choice that you’re going to make. And we don’t need to spend our time that way. And also, as I’ve persuaded you, that prediction is an illusion. And all of decision-making rests on prediction, right? You have your alternatives and you have to predict which of these is going to be better in some future case that hasn’t revealed itself. It’s more or less a waste of time except gathering information to have the information is fine. What’s bad is the stress that usually goes along with the whole process, as there’s so much. What ails us, as I’m trying to illustrate, is just a function of the mindless teaching that we’ve experienced, the beliefs that this is the way you’re supposed to make a decision. You could bring kids up and you say, close your eyes, and which hand is it in, basically, and do that for every decision you’re going to make. Now, it’s very bizarre when you think about it, Jonathan, because I’m saying and I don’t know why I should tell everybody this because it’ll make people crazy. But deciding between two candy bars is the same process as deciding, should I get an abortion or not? Should I take this job or not? Should I get married or not? Should I have a child? The big things.

 

Ellen Langer: [00:49:15] But in some sense all decisions are really guesses. And if you see them that way, you can’t know with this other life is going to be you make a decision to take some action. Once you take the action, you’re different. Everything is different. Should I go to Harvard or Yale? How could you possibly decide this? But people go through some cockamamie procedure, right? I’m saying they should just flip a coin if they really don’t know. Now, let’s say you go to Harvard for a semester and you hate it. People think, oh, I should have gone to Yale, but you could have hated Yale also. Or even more. You see, all regret is based on mindlessness. Every negative thing you experience is a function of our mindlessness. You know that once you’ve gone to Harvard, you’re now a different person. You have no idea what had been like to be in some other place. Same thing with having kids or not having kids and so on. But the good thing is, the second part of that whole thing, which is rather than spend your time trying to make the right decision, make it right, and you can make the wrong, seemingly the wrong candy bar, the right candy bar, the wrong mates, the wrong job. There’s nothing about it that makes it right or wrong. We create the world we want to live.

 

Jonathan Fields: [00:50:34] Yeah, I mean, it’s really interesting because I think so many of us have probably had the experience of being on the horns of a dilemma, and we end up looking at a set of facts or options, like you said, let’s like do the the yeses and the nos, you know, like the pros and the cons, but as you’re describing one. Person can look at that exact same set of circumstances and put one set of things on the other side, and another person is going to flip that entirely. So it’s it’s really it’s so much more subjective when we think we think we’re trying to get objective here and, and make a rational decision. Right.

 

Ellen Langer: [00:51:06] Exactly. And there’s no process, you know, this adding these costs and benefits, what you do. You start out when you’re going to make a decision. The decision means there’s uncertainty. Uncertainty means the alternatives look the same. So if they look the same, treat them the same and arbitrarily choose one or the other. Now you gather information. And if, let’s say we start out you want A or B, what’s the difference. All right. So you gather information and you find out let’s say that A is $100 and B is $1,000. There’s nothing to calculate right. But choice follows mechanically. If you want more money you’re going to take B. If you think money is a root of all evil, you’ll take A, people will take B, but you know, so there’s nothing to add subtract in the whole process.

 

Jonathan Fields: [00:51:57] Yeah. I mean when I hear this also my mind often goes to the edge cases. Let’s say somebody says they’re considering a job and they try and make the choice. They end up in the job and they find out, you know, it seems like on paper it was a dream job. But they then realized three months in that the team leader is just profoundly abusive and toxic.

 

Ellen Langer: [00:52:16] Yeah, exactly.

 

Jonathan Fields: [00:52:17] But what you’re not saying and tell me if I have this right or not. What I don’t think I hear you saying is suck it up and stay there and deal with the abuse. When you’re saying make it right, that is not what you’re saying.

 

Ellen Langer: [00:52:27] No, no, no, no.

 

Jonathan Fields: [00:52:28] Okay, so what do we do to fix this now basically or leave. Right?

 

Ellen Langer: [00:52:32] I mean, I used to argue when people before people had large televisions and people went to the movies that, you know, you don’t sit there for two hours being miserable. You either find a way to get into it, even if it’s just to demean it. You know, later when you’re at a cocktail party or leaves. And I think that’s what we should be doing with virtually, you know, every activity we’re about to engage in now, people are going to hear that and say, well, not everybody can just leave their jobs and probably, probably not. But I would say a subset of those people don’t even consider whether or not they can leave their jobs. And if you’re miserable at work, it seems to me nobody should spend 40 hours a week being stressed and unhappy. So you either again find a way to make it work, or I think you would be better off fully.

 

Jonathan Fields: [00:53:24] Yeah, and it sounds like what you’re describing also is if you take on the stance of mindfulness, what you’re basically doing is you’re putting yourself back into a place of uncertainty, which says, I’m asking myself, is there a different story? Are there different set of options to consider? Let me actually really pay attention to this, because maybe if I just assume this is my lot, I’m stuck. I have to deal with it. That’s when we become mindlessness and where the suffering really ratchets up.

 

Ellen Langer: [00:53:47] Exactly, exactly. We should also realize, as we’re talking about decision making, that everything that is was a one-time a decision. How high should the chairs be, what courses should be taught, who’s best to perform this or that business job, what have you? And when you recognize that everything was at one time a decision, and for something to be a decision, it means there has to be uncertainty. Without uncertainty, there’s no decision. You’re just moving through. Right means that everything is mutable. And that’s a very important part of all of my research over all these many years that if something doesn’t work, change it. So when I give these lectures, there are times, look in the audience. I just said this the other day as well, for somebody very tall, I don’t know why. There’s always a very tall man there. So he comes up on stage. He’s six-five, I’m five-three. We look silly, right? And then I ask him to put his hand up, and I put my hand next to it, and his hand is three inches larger than mine. And then I just raise the question, should we do anything physical the same way? And it doesn’t just have to be with physical differences. In some sense, the more different you are from whoever created whatever the activity, the job, the piece of furniture, whatever it is, the more different you are from that person, the more important it is for you to figure out how to do it your own way. I should not be holding a tennis racket the same way he holds a tennis racket, right? And the world treats us as if we’re the same. So, you know, this may be off color, but if he’s going to go to the bathroom at six-five and let’s say he’s living with somebody who’s five feet tall, biologically one of their needs are not going to be met, you know? So rather than assume that anything you think you can’t do is because you can’t do it, it may just be that you’re different from the person who. Came up with the rules telling you how to do it.

 

Jonathan Fields: [00:55:53] Yeah, that makes so much sense.

 

Ellen Langer: [00:55:55] I’m a tennis player, so I throw the ball up, I kill it playing doubles and it goes out. Then I throw it up and I have a wuss. Very soft second serve, so I don’t double floor. If I ruled the world, I would have given people three serves. Why two? There’s nothing logical about it. Three I kill it, it goes out now, I kill it again and I’m getting closer. I’m learning from it. And then I still have my backup. Third serve. I’m not suggesting that we change the rules to all of the formal sports games. We’re going to whatever. But I am suggesting that when you don’t do well at whatever it is, rather than make a personal attribution to yourself, recognize that the game wasn’t designed for you.

 

Jonathan Fields: [00:56:44] I mean, I think that also speaks to and this is something that you write about in the new book, and it’s been part of your work, like the how we as social creatures are also like comparison machines, basically, and oftentimes much to our detriment, because we’re comparing ourselves, as you’re describing, to a standard which was never made for us or to an operating system or an opportunity that’s like, it’s not for us. And yet we feel like if we don’t meet that standard, it’s not that the standard is bad. We really question the standard. It’s a personal failure of ours in some way.

 

Ellen Langer: [00:57:14] Exactly, exactly. And, you know, so fascinating. You’re an important social psychologist in the past, said that there’s a drive to compare yourself with other people. And so then people just sort of let it happen. But there isn’t a drive. I mean, when I’m brushing my teeth, I don’t say to myself, gee, I wonder how Jonathan is doing this, you know? So there were always activities where people just allowed themselves to do it their own way, and it should be across all activities. People need to understand that there are many ways of doing everything that the world teaches us single way, and that’s going to create a system of winners and losers. And sadly, more than half of the population much more. It’s almost everybody actually suffers from this way of viewing things. In fact, the other day I was thinking, I describe in the book the normal distribution. Right? So people need to know it’s a bell curve. It means, you know, a few people, oh, they’re terrible. Whatever. We’re looking at most people in the middle and then you have some people who excel. It doesn’t matter whether you’re talking about athletic ability, beauty, health, whatever it is. And people, when they are put on someplace on this curve, you know, just accept it. Yeah. Well, I’m just not very good at without realizing that. Well, if they did it differently and we changed the criteria, you know, maybe in fact they would be very good at it. So we accept things that we shouldn’t accept. Um.

 

Jonathan Fields: [00:58:47] You kind of wrap up the conversation in the book with the notion of a mindful utopia. Yeah. And I feel like that’s kind of what we’ve been talking about in these last few minutes as well. Is is there a different context or something you would add to that?

 

Ellen Langer: [00:58:58] No. I think that all of our institutions are keeping us in place, possibly to instantiate the differences among us to keep the powers that be in power. But for whatever reason, that by making the changes that I suggest in each of these books and the biggest and the mindful body, we start creating a different world. You know, what would a mindful utopia look like? Well, you can only guess when anything in the future. But part of it, I think, would be, and this is what I’ve been fighting, and I’ve actually now made a commitment to shift focus, small shift to taking the vertical. You’re terrible. You’re not so bad. You’re a little better up to the top of this. Great and making it horizontal. So I wrote this little song from my grandkids and I end the book with this. Actually, I would sing it for you, but anyway. And the point is, and the reason for the song is that I can sing, but why shouldn’t I sing? Singing is fun and there are other things that I can do. So it was based on the old Sara Lee commercial. And so the song is everybody doesn’t know something, everybody knows something else. Everybody can do something, everyone can do something else, which is very different, you see, from the normal distribution that permeates our society, where we think, you know, they really got it.

 

Ellen Langer: [01:00:23] They can do almost everything. You’re a loser. You can’t do anything. And the things that we all seek are not zero-sum. There’s a way for all of us to live full, happy lives. So, you know, I’m in my car with my grandkids and one of them starts to whistle. I said, oh, Theo, you’re such a good whistler. His brother then says, grandma, when Theo was learning to whistle, I was learning something else. That’s terrific. Right? Rather than feel inferior, rather than be jealous and have some negative feelings towards his brother, and so on. So I think that there’s so much that I have in the book that’s important to me about a way of understanding people that leads also to successful relationships, to an absence of being judgmental. The simplest thing, let me just throw it out there is if you accept nothing else. But that behavior makes sense for the person who’s doing it, or else they wouldn’t do it right. So that every time you’re going to call somebody by some negative name, you’re being mindless because it made some sense. And if you ask yourself, what sense did it make, you’re going to come up with alternatives, or at least you’re not going to be judgmental.

 

Ellen Langer: [01:01:41] So let’s say, for example, Jonathan, you can’t stand me because I’m so gullible, which I am now. I can try to not be gullible, but I’m going to keep failing. And the reason I’m going to fail is going forward. I’m not intending to be gullible going forward. I’m being trusted. You, on the other hand, are so inconsistent. This is going to be our last conversation. Well, I want you to stop being inconsistent. We could both look at your behavior and see you were inconsistent. Oh you said, I want to change, but you won’t be able to change because the reason you’re inconsistent is you value being flexible. All right. So the point is, every single negative way of describing what somebody is doing has an equally strong but positive alternative. And you can imagine how relationships will change. Right? My being gullible won’t get on your nerves anymore. But if you want me to stop being gullible, we both have to talk about why I should want to be less trusting and so on. And again, all of this falls out nicely from just being more mindful, because you naturally see that anything can be explained in multiple ways, right?

 

Jonathan Fields: [01:02:55] You open yourself to the fact that there could be different stories here, different interpretations, and you start to inquire into it rather than just assuming. And given the state of polarization in the world these days, it certainly seems like the more mindful, the more we inquire into and not just assume we know what somebody’s motives are or what’s in their head. I think the better off humanity is as a culture, so it feels like a good place for us to come full circle as well. So in this container of Good Life Project., if I offer up the phrase to live a good life, what comes up?

 

Ellen Langer: [01:03:24] Be mindful.

 

Jonathan Fields: [01:03:25] Hmm. Thank you. Hey, before you leave, if you love this episode Safe bet. You’ll also love the conversation that we had with Bob Thurman about the power of mindfulness, meditation and presence. You’ll find a link to his episode in the show. Notes. This episode of Good Life Project. was produced by executive producers Lindsey Fox and Me. Jonathan Fields Editing help By Alejandro Ramirez. Kristoffer Carter crafted our theme music and special thanks to Shelley Adelle for her research on this episode. And of course, if you haven’t already done so, please go ahead and follow Good Life Project. in your favorite listening app. And if you found this conversation interesting or inspiring or valuable, and chances are you did. Since you’re still listening here, would you do me a personal favor, a seven-second favor, and share it? Maybe on social or by text or by email? Even just with one person? Just copy the link from the app you’re using and tell those you know, those you love, those you want to help navigate this thing called life a little better so we can all do it better together with more ease and more joy. Tell them to listen, then even invite them to talk about what you’ve both discovered. Because when podcasts become conversations and conversations become action, that’s how we all come alive together. Until next time, I’m Jonathan Fields, signing off for Good Life Project.

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