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Counterclockwise

by Tresca Weinstein

Harvard psychologist Ellen J. Langer’s newest book, Counterclockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility, is a riveting account of her groundbreaking Counterclockwise study, which definitively illustrated how our state of mind influences our state of wellness. A movie based on the book is currently in production, with Jennifer Aniston playing Ellen. Kripalu Online editor Tresca Weinstein spoke with Ellen about how to live mindfully, what it means to take charge of your own health, and why medical research is not the final word.

Tresca Weinstein In your 1979 Counterclockwise study, you immersed a group of older men in a time period—the year 1959—when they were all young and fit, surrounding them with cultural references from that year that virtually turned back time for them. But just as important, you and your colleagues treated these men as if they were healthy, capable people despite the fact that many of them had been considered near death’s door before coming on the retreat.

Ellen Langer That’s right, and we treated them that way right from the beginning. When we got to the house the first day, I realized that they all had suitcases with them. So when I got off the bus, the first thing I said to them was, ”I don’t care if you move your suitcases one inch at a time, or take things out and bring them in one at a time, but it’s your responsibility to get your luggage to your room.” And they did it. It was amazing, given that these people, prior to this, seemed like they were on their last legs. And over time they began to seem like happy, reasonably healthy people on a vacation.

The findings of the Counterclockwise study were remarkable, but what was more remarkable was how palpable the changes were. Some of the things that happened by the end of the study I wasn’t willing to describe initially because they were almost unbelievable. One of the men who had a cane stopped using it. I was playing touch football with all of the men at the end. These were men who, just a few weeks before, were hobbling down to my office to interview for the study, and I was wondering, why am I doing this, will they even make it through the week?

Tresca Part of what you concluded from this study, and many others you’ve conducted, is that when people are conditioned to believe there are certain limits to what they can do, that becomes true for them—and vice versa, when they’re told they can do something, they are often able to, even if the medical data says they can’t.

Ellen People take the given information that they’ve learned based on research without an awareness of the limits of that research. Take the idea of chronic illness versus acute illness—if you’re told it’s chronic, you assume you’ll always have it, that there’s nothing you can do about it. The consequences of buying into that are enormous. Once you believe a disorder is uncontrollable, you don’t try to control it. The research I’ve done for 30 years suggests that may be a very big mistake.

Research yields probabilities—most of the time if we do the exact same thing, we’ll get similar findings. It’s very different from absolute fact. What two circumstances are exactly alike? When a medical person runs a study, it’s conducted with certain people at a certain time, with certain amounts administered of whatever is being done or given. A slight change in anything could change the result.

It’s very important that we recognize that most of the world is a social construction. For example, imagine you have a sign that says, “Keep off the grass.” People tend to obey that sign. But if the sign says, “Ellen says keep off the grass,” then people think, maybe I can negotiate with this Ellen, or maybe Ellen doesn’t live here anymore. When you put people back into the equation, absolutes give way to possibilities. The results of even the best studies only speak to some of us. Virtually all the things that seem impossible are based on somebody else’s understanding of us, and on data collected by people who are not omniscient. One of the things that has always struck me as bizarre, for example, is how willingly people go into a doctor’s office and look at an eye chart, a series of random letters in black and white. You take the results of whatever you do that day and say, this is what my vision is. If you’d just been looking at something colorful before you came into the office, if you’d had too much to eat that day, if you were happy, if you were sad—all of these things affect your vision.

Tresca In your book, you use the phrase “health learner.” What does it mean to be a health learner?

Ellen Most important is to recognize that whatever our symptoms are, for whatever the disorder, they don’t stay still. Sometimes they’re less severe; sometimes we don’t even have them. So we note those times and we ask questions: Why don’t I have symptoms now? Why are they less than before? When you ask those questions, lots of hypotheses leap to mind. If I have asthma symptoms when I’m talking to Bob, I’ll want to decrease my interactions with Bob, or change those interactions. But if we assume it’s always going to be the same, we don’t bother looking for solutions.

It’s crucial for the medical profession to tune into this kind of thinking, because they know they don’t know—now they need to know it’s okay that they don’t know. When I personally seek out the help of a physician, the most important thing to me is how willing that person is to say they don’t know, and when they don’t know we both try to find out. Medical people are very smart, often very caring people—this is not an indictment of the medical world. They have been trained to accept these absolutes in the same way the rest of us have.

Tresca So the alternative to accepting the “proven” realities is practicing mindfulness, which you equate with health and well-being.

Ellen Being mindful is essentially the way to be fully alive and experiencing one’s life. All you need to do to be mindful is to notice new things—to become aware of how much you don’t know and stay tuned in. When you notice new things, you end up happier, healthier, and you even live longer. Mindfulness, as I study it, is something you should be doing all day long—when you’re alone, when you’re with people, no matter what you’re doing. It’s not an activity like meditation or yoga, it’s part of every moment of our lives. When you see somebody really involved in what they’re doing, all they’re doing is being mindful—noticing novelty.

Mindlessness is essentially when you’re on automatic pilot, and that comes about by being in these mind-sets we’ve unwittingly accepted as absolute truths. If I “know” something is going to be pointless, I don’t do it. If I already know the question you’re going to ask, why listen to the question? If I’m walking somewhere I walk every day, and every time I’ve taken this route it’s fine, I may not see the pothole that’s there today.

Everything changes, and if we keep our eyes open to those changes, we can transform our lives and our health. Let’s say you’re paralyzed and I tell you that nothing, not even that part of your body that’s paralyzed, stays absolutely still and that you can, by following a strategy, improve. Are you going to be able to jump up and run? Who knows? But you probably will improve, and the larger point is that the journey toward that improvement enhances your life.


Ellen J. Langer, PhD, is the author of more than 200 research articles and 11 books, including the international best-seller Mindfulness, which has been translated into 15 languages. www.ellenlanger.com

© Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. All rights reserved. Originally published in the January 2010 issue of Kripalu Online. To request permission to reprint, please e-mail editor@kripalu.org.