The brain-body bond is powerful – perhaps more so, and in different ways, than most of us realize. In today’s always-on, always-connected society, it seems “mindfulness” is having a moment. But it shouldn’t be defined by or limited to holistic health, yoga and meditation practices. As social psychologist and Harvard University Professor Dr. Ellen Langer sees it, the ultimate promise of mindfulness is much more profound, and its incredible implications for business and life cannot be dismissed.
The renowned “mother of mindfulness” defines the concept with counterinteruitive simplicity – as the process of actively noticing things, with results of increased health, competence and happiness. Her take is rooted in science and drawn from her numerous provocative, unconventional studies, which have suggested for decades what neuroscience is pointing at now: our experience of everything is formed by the words and ideas we attach to them.
In a New York Times Magazine feature story published Sunday, Dr. Langer explains that when we are “actively making new distinctions, rather than relying on habitual categorizations, we’re alive; and when we’re alive, we can improve.”
Throughout her 40-year career, she has shown it’s possible to become psychologically younger through a changed frame of mind; to find joy in what was experienced as drudgery by renaming it as play; and to induce weight loss by substituting the label “exercise” for labor. Some of the outcomes seem to defy physics; others seem to present psychological “cures” for disease. They all come down to mindset – and control.
It’s the culture that teaches us we have no control, asserts Dr. Langer, whose seminal best-selling book “Mindfulness” (Da Capo Lifelong Books) was recently released in a 25th anniversary edition. Mindfulness helps you realize there are no positive or negative outcomes; there are only options, each with their challenges and opportunities.
“No matter what you’re doing – eating a sandwich, doing an interview, working on some gizmo, writing a report – you’re doing it mindfully or mindlessly,” she explains. “When it’s the former, it leaves an imprint on what you do. At the very highest levels of any field – Fortune 50 CEOs, the most impressive artists and musicians, top athletes, the best teachers and mechanics – you’ll find mindful people, because that’s the only way to get there.”
Dr. Langer’s research on mindfulness has greatly influenced thinking across a range of fields, from behavioral economics to positive psychology. Her infamous “counterclockwise” experiment is the subject of a future major motion picture. You might also be interested in a Harvard Business Review profile in which Dr. Langer discusses the link between mindfulness and innovation, and what leaders can do to become more mindful.
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