Dr. Ellen Langer is known as the “mother of mindfulness” and was the first woman to whom Harvard gave tenure in psychology. She is nothing less than psychology royalty.
Join us for a wide-ranging conversation about the power of positive thinking, the mind-body connection, and the realization that many of our limits are self-imposed. Dr. Langer even helps our host with some of his own insecurities. Listen now!
Dr. Ellen J. Langer was the first woman to be tenured in psychology at Harvard, where she is still professor of psychology. The recipient of three Distinguished Scientists awards, the Arthur W. Staats Award for Unifying Psychology, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the Liberty Science Genius Award, Dr. Langer is the author of twelve other books, including the international bestseller Mindfulness, as well as The Power of Mindful Learning, Counterclockwise and On Becoming an Artist. Her trailblazing experiments in social psychology have earned her inclusion in The New York Times Magazine’s “Year in Ideas” issue. She is known worldwide as the “mother of mindfulness” and the “mother of positive psychology.” She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Our host, Gabe Howard, is an award-winning writer and speaker who lives with bipolar disorder. He is the author of the popular book, “Mental Illness is an Asshole and other Observations,” available from Amazon; signed copies are also available directly from the author.
Gabe makes his home in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio. He lives with his supportive wife, Kendall, and a Miniature Schnauzer dog that he never wanted, but now can’t imagine life without.
To book Gabe for your next event or learn more about him, please visit gabehoward.com.
Producer’s Note: Please be mindful that this transcript has been computer generated and therefore may contain inaccuracies and grammar errors. Thank you.
Announcer: You’re listening to Inside Mental Health: A Psych Central Podcast where experts share experiences and the latest thinking on mental health and psychology. Here’s your host, Gabe Howard.
Gabe Howard: Welcome to the podcast, everyone. I’m your host, Gabe Howard, and calling in today is the mother of mindfulness, Dr. Ellen Langer. Over 40 years ago, Dr. Langer pioneered what today we know as mindfulness, and she is regarded as one of America’s most influential psychologists. She was the first woman to be tenured in psychology at Harvard. And her new book, “The Mindful Body: Thinking Our Way to Chronic Health,” is available now. Dr. Langer, welcome to the podcast.
Ellen Langer: Thank you, Gabe.
Gabe Howard: I have to say that the studies in your book suggest that if we improve the way we think, we can have better health outcomes. Now, I’m completely on board with the power of positive thinking and improving health conditions like stress or anxiousness or sadness. But the examples in your book suggest that better thinking can improve someone’s vision and hearing. Is it really possible to think ourselves out of hearing loss and glasses?
Ellen Langer: To a degree, yes. That’s what the data suggests. It’s not just thinking our way to better health, because that leads people to think they just need to have nice thoughts. And I’m saying something I think much bigger than that. It starts with an idea of what is the mind, what is the body? These are questions nobody can really answer effectively. And I say, let’s put the mind and body back together. And if you have mind body unity, then what happens is wherever you put the mind, you’re necessarily putting the body. And that means every thought you have affects the body. Every move you make in some ways affects your mind. Now, if you if you consider that our thoughts are directly connected to our bodies, then imagine the control we have. In fact, I think that we’ve barely touched the surface of how we can control our health and well-being.
Gabe Howard: I know you have lots of examples, Dr. Langer, of where the mind leads us in a different direction, away from reality. But can you share one from your personal life?
Ellen Langer: I was married when I was very young. And I went to Paris for my honeymoon, and we’re in this restaurant, and I ordered this mixed grill. One of the items on the mixed grill was pancreas. Well, now, I was 19, going on 40. A married woman. I had to show myself, if nobody else, that, you know, I was all grown up and to eat something like pancreas would be sort of a natural thing for me to do. So, I’m a big eater, so I eat excitedly everything that’s on that plate. Oh, at first, when they plate first came, I asked my then husband, which was the pancreas? He pointed to something. Okay, I then eat everything else. And now comes the moment of truth. Can I get myself to eat the pancreas? I started eating it and I literally, not just fig, literally get sick to my stomach. He starts laughing. I said, Why are you laughing? He said, because that’s chicken. You ate the pancreas ages ago. [Laughter] All right.
Gabe Howard: [Laughter]
Ellen Langer: So and that’s probably one of my favorite foods. So we all have lots of personal experiences like these where something happens, a leaf blows, and you don’t realize it’s just a leaf and you get very scared, your pulse increases and so on and so forth. Or you see somebody regurgitating on the side of the road and you yourself feel the need to vomit. Lots of things that say mind and body are just one thing.
Gabe Howard: I remember when I was growing up as a kid, there was tabloid magazines, and if you looked in the back of those magazines, you’d see those classifieds and it would say things like, you know, do you have diabetes? Do you have cancer? Do you have leukemia? And if you send us, I don’t know, like 1995, we will mail you the cure for that ailment. And it was very scary.
Ellen Langer: So that’s the main difference. I forgot to put a price tag on the information.
Gabe Howard: Exactly, exactly. But but here’s the thing. And this is why I’m bringing all this up. The power of placebo is well studied, it’s well recognized, and it’s well understood not only in the scientific community but also among laypeople.
Ellen Langer: Mm-hmm.
Gabe Howard: Can you explain to our audience how they can give themselves that boost, give themselves that hope, give themselves that, that that health reward without falling scam to all the social media ads, in the classified ads of our time that are out there selling hokum.
Ellen Langer: Well, sure. I mean, I think hard data. And the data make clear that in the circumstances that we’ve addressed and when I talk about in the book, we actually have this control Now, placebos that you mentioned are actually, I think, our strongest medicine. And if you think about it, you know, if you take a placebo, by definition it’s inert. It’s a sugar pill. So, you take this nothing and then you get better. Well, why are you getting better? You know, you’re actually doing it yourself. And so, all of my work is designed to bring that control to us much more directly. Now, when you are given a diagnosis of some chronic illness, for example, people say first chronic as something you can’t control, that you can’t beat. And I question that. And second is the assumption that the symptoms are going to stay the same or just get worse. Well, it turns out, Gabe, that nothing moves in only one direction. There are always little blips where now you’re a little better, now you’re a little worse, and so on. And by attending to when you’re a little better, when you’re a little worse, several things happen. First, by saying, oh, you’re a little better, there’s hope, and you realize that it’s not a one way ticket downhill. Second, by looking for why am I a little better right now, you’re engaged in a mindful search. By actively looking for new things, noticing new things, you’re going to be improving your health. And third, you’re much more likely to find a solution if you’re looking for a solution.
Gabe Howard: Let’s go ahead and talk specifics. Is there an example of something, Dr. Langer, that the way that we think about it is going to influence its impact on us?
Ellen Langer: You can take stress. So, Gabe, let’s say you think you’re stressed all the time. Nobody is stressed all the time. The issue is that when you’re not stressed, you’re not thinking about stress. So you go from you’re very stressed to you’re not even attending to it, to you’re very stressed again, thinking that that whole time you’re extremely stressed. So let’s say you start paying attention to the circumstances when you are, when you aren’t. And let’s say after you do this over a week or two, you see you’re really stressed when you’re talking to Ellen Langer. Well, if that were the case, the solution is easy. Don’t talk to me.
Gabe Howard: [Laughter]
Ellen Langer: All right. So lots of the things that seem insurmountable are not. And while we’re on the topic of stress. I think, this may be the major cause of illness and I think also the major cause of how an illness unfolds and gets worse and worse. And stress is psychological, right? You’re stressed when you mistakenly think that bad things are going to happen. But stress does not result from events. It results from the views you take of events. So if you open it up and have a more positive view, the stress is going to diminish. And just as a one liner for people, lots of my my friends have this on their refrigerators after we speak. When you’re stressed about something, if you simply ask yourself, is it a tragedy or an inconvenience? Not having met the assignment on time, missing the plane, the dog ate the homework, whatever it is, you know, these are really not tragedies. And so as soon as you recognize that, you immediately feel better. Not only that, most of the things that we’re stressed about never occur.
Gabe Howard: How do we shift that thinking? I want to confess to you, Dr. Langer, I am a glass half empty person. I will find the cloud in every silver lining. I will be that person.
Ellen Langer: Yeah.
Gabe Howard: I win the lottery. And the first thing I’m thinking is, Oh, this is going to involve lawyers and bureaucracy now that government’s involved. Oh, people are going to want to borrow money from me and the rest of the world is like, Can you believe this dude just won $1.5 billion and I’m miserable
Ellen Langer: Right.
Gabe Howard: About it 100% of the time. So I’m asking this question very much for myself as I am for my listeners. How do I shift that? You make it sound easy.
Ellen Langer: Yeah, well, I think it is reasonably easy. But the first thing is, Gabe, you’ve organized your whole life around this pessimism, so it buys you something. And also oftentimes people who only think of the negative are seen as discerning, you know, and so on. Not me, I like everything. I like everybody. Everything is good. So I can seem not quite as discriminating as you. So the first thing is, do you really want to change this? The second the change depends on how willing you are to come up with the other side. You know, that I had this experience, quite a while ago, where I came home from a friend’s house for dinner and all of my neighbors were outside because my house had just burned. So 80% of what I owned was just destroyed. Okay. So that’s more of a tragedy than an inconvenience. Now, listen to what happened. So the first thing that was fun is I called the insurance agent. The next day he comes over and he says, this was the very first time in his 25 years of the job that the call wasn’t as bad as the damage because, oh my God, oh, my God. And then he gets there and you know, things are not so terrible.
Ellen Langer: But for me, I thought, well, everything was already destroyed. Why throw my sanity away as well? Okay. But the story gets better. I think. So I move into the Charles Hotel. This was all around Christmas. And so I was a sight. I had two dogs with me. I mean, people knew that I was there. Christmas Eve. This all happened right around Christmas Eve. I go out for someplace for Christmas Eve. I come back to the room in the hotel and it’s full of gifts, not from the owner of the hotel or the management, but from the so-called little people, the people who parked my cars, the chambermaids, the waiters and waitresses. And it’s only recently that I’m able to talk about this without it bringing tears to my eyes. And it was wonderful. And every Christmas I’m reminded of it and it renews my faith in people. And I really don’t remember anything that I lost. So I’m not, I’m not saying that we have to have these terrible things happen and then test all of this because my guess is all of your negativity is about trivia, or at least by comparison, I don’t mean to demean you in any way.
Gabe Howard: No, in many ways, you’re right. I don’t think you’re diminishing it at all. I often reflect back and I think, what did I get so upset about? What was I so worried about? And I think, and I did learn this in therapy, in mindfulness. I wasn’t in the moment. Why could I just not sit there in the moment and to go back to our examples and think, wow, this $1.5 billion is really going to improve my advocacy work and make the lives of myself and the people I love and my dog better. But instead, I fast forwarded to look at some of the negatives. And here’s what I kind of want to touch on. Dr. Langer. For me.
Ellen Langer: Did you really win the lottery or was this just
Gabe Howard: No,
Ellen Langer: An example?
Gabe Howard: No, no. God, no, no. I did not win the lottery. Analogy. You’re not talking to a billionaire.
Ellen Langer: Okay. I was going to suggest if you had then when we had that dinner, you picking up the checks.
Gabe Howard: That would be very, very reasonable. No, the, the but, but I, I, I use that because there’s always that millionaire with a tax problem. I often, the code that I have for myself when I’m trying to get myself out of the funk, right? Is the millionaire with a tax problem. A millionaire with a tax problem, a millionaire with a tax problem. And I think about some some true scenarios, like literally true scenarios. For example, I was invited to speak at Oxford. I got to I got to speak at Oxford, the, the oldest learning institute in the world. I got to fly to England for free. I got to sit where Einstein sat and and answer questions.
Ellen Langer: [Laughter]
Gabe Howard: And talk to like, there’s more Nobel Prize winners out of that institution than than than any other place. It’s it’s an incredible, it was an incredible honor. It is an incredible honor. But I got to tell you, here’s what I thought. Well, I was the second choice. I mean, this this was around Thanksgiving. And I bet they asked somebody else and they weren’t available because they had family. And I’m pushing my family aside to do this. Now, I have no evidence of this whatsoever, Dr. Langer.
Ellen Langer: [Laughter]
Gabe Howard: I don’t I don’t know that I was the second choice, the eighth choice, the 30th choice. I have no idea. Because who calls you up and says that? Hi, my name is Lucas from Oxford University. And Gabe, we’ve we’ve gone through many people better than you, but now we’re down to you.
Ellen Langer: [Laughter]
Gabe Howard: That’s. That’s. That’s not how any institution of higher learning invites you to speak. But in my mind, I didn’t deserve to be there.
Gabe Howard: And we’re back with the author of “The Mindful Body: Thinking Our Way to Chronic Health,” Dr. Ellen Langer. And I know that many people feel this way. There’s there’s whole terms for it. Imposter syndrome and and and feeling like you don’t belong and minimizing your own success. And of course, my personal favorite, I’m a pessimist, but
Ellen Langer: Yeah.
Gabe Howard: I bring all this up because in my mind, in my mind, in Gabe Howard’s mind and in the minds of many people I talked to who are similarly inflicted, we’re just realists. The fact that we can see the whole picture makes us better.
Ellen Langer: Wait a second, Gabe. You know, you define the world as optimists and realists. It could easily be pessimist and realist. You make your own life so that when something happens, you find a way to enjoy it. Or you make yourself miserable. These things are forced on us. You know, so that you’re not doing the job you could be doing of creating the kind of life you want to live. But, you know, there’s so many things I want to say in response to what you’ve said. The first is about deserving. This is kind of interesting because I think the culture, the culture sets up all of these hierarchies and we end up with the people who can and the people who can’t. We’re not questioning who chose the criteria to decide on this excellence? And I have an eight year old grandkids and when they were five, I taught them a little song, a little ditty that I wrote based on, I’m not going to sing it for you, but based on the old Sara Lee commercial. It’s very simple and it says everybody doesn’t know something. Everybody knows something else. Everybody can’t do something. Everyone can do something else. And if you pay attention to what you can do, then you feel less bad about things you can’t. And you don’t want to be able to do everything perfectly because then there’s no there there. Let’s say you play golf and every time you swing that club, you get a hole in one. Well, that’s the end of the game. So we either can be imperfectly mindful or perfectly mindless when we’re doing things.
Gabe Howard: As I was reading through your book, your research uncovered that, quote, Too often we think that we’re doing the best that we can, but we’re not even close. Our expectations for ourselves and one another are often too low, unquote. But this does beg the question how do we set expectations for ourselves that are reasonable? Because sincerely, all someone has to do is read any mainstream women’s magazine or internet site about having it all. You can be a full time worker, a full time housewife, a full time mother, and still throw the best parties. Look, the messaging surrounding what is reasonable to accomplish in a day is mixed at best. So how does somebody set reasonable expectations that aren’t too high and of course, aren’t too low?
Ellen Langer: Um, well, first, I don’t think setting expectations that turn out to be wrong is a big problem. If I intended to, I don’t know, to do four podcasts before 12:00 today, that could be difficult. And so let’s say I only get three and I have to reschedule the fourth. So what? What is the big deal? So the problem is not so much in not meeting the expectations. It’s in thinking that the world is going to fall apart if you don’t do what you thought you were going to do. And that I think the original way you asked the question was how do we know if we can do more than we expect to do? I think we should always expect that we can do more just a little more and then a little more the next time and a little more after that. We don’t know how much we can get done, you know. You know, Zeno, a Greek philosopher, had a lot of paradoxes, and one of his paradoxes was with respect to distance. And Zeno said, if you always go half the distance from where you are to where you want to be, you’re never going to get there. So let’s say you’re an inch away, then you’re a half an inch away, then you’re a quarter of an inch out. And in my mind, Zeno was a cynic and a pessimist, someone probably you can identify with Gabe. I think.
Gabe Howard: [Laughter] Yes, very much so.
Ellen Langer: Let’s do let’s do the reverse Zeno. There’s always a distance you can go from where you are to where you want to be. And what you do is always go half the distance. So you want to stop eating a box of cookies a day. So eat half a box. You can’t eat half a box. Okay? Eat a quarter of a box. Everybody can eat a crumb less. And then you have a new starting point because people need to understand that they really don’t want to get to most of those places that they’re struggling to get to because then it becomes, as I said before, like that game of golf where you get a hole in one each time, there’s no game anymore. You know, if you always want to win, play tic-tac-toe against a five year old. All right. So we know we don’t want that. It’s the journey, as others have said, that’s fun. It’s mastering, not having mastered something. So we set goals. They come out of nowhere and we have to remember that they’re just arbitrary guesses. I teach a health psychology class at Harvard, and the other day I asked them, how far is it humanly possible to run without stopping? Now, these are smart kids, so they know it’s got to be more than a marathon or else I wouldn’t ask the question. So they usually come up with something like 40 miles. Okay. Then I show them a film on the Tarahumara of Mexico who run 250 miles without stopping. Well, the very big difference. And if they run 250 miles, this is so hard to think that there isn’t somebody who’s running 260.
Gabe Howard: What’s, what’s one more? Right. What’s what’s adding a mile up at up at this point,
Ellen Langer: Exactly. Yeah. So why should we impose limits on ourselves?
Gabe Howard: I don’t want to put words in your mouth, Dr. Langer, but it really sounds like you’re saying, hey, aim for the moon. Just, just, just aim for the moon. Try to do it all, hit it all, and see how far you can go.
Ellen Langer: No, You know, it might sound like I’m saying that. And if that’s what somebody wants to do, you know, all the more credit to them. You know, my view is actually quite different. My view is that if you’re, if you show up for whatever you’re doing and you do it mindfully, it will be rewarding. You know, life consists of moments, and if you make the moment matter, then at the end of the day, you’ve had a meaningful day and you do this the next day and the day after that. It depends on where these goals are coming from. So let’s say you decide you want to lose 10 pounds. Okay, fine. There are ways that we can take off weight. What I’m suggesting is as you approach that goal, you might also consider why is it so important to lose those 10 pounds? And when you do that, you start to realize I can be a happy person and be 10 pounds overweight. I mean, it’s really not such a big deal. So but what happens more often than not is we set a goal and then when we don’t reach it, we come down very hard on ourselves. So what I’m suggesting is you set a goal. It’s it’s sort of a probable goal. You know, it’d be nice to. But the world isn’t going to end if I don’t reach it. And then you set out to do it all the while remembering that now you’re a different person from the person who initially set that goal. It’s okay to change our goals midstream.
Ellen Langer: We shouldn’t be come down hard on ourselves. When we feel bad about something, we have to ask ourselves why? Who decided how we should do it, feel it, and so on? I think an example might make this clearer. When I’m lecturing, sometimes I’ll look in the audience, I look for a big man and there’s always, for some reason, somebody who’s over six feet in the audience. I ask them to come to the stage. Now I’m five three, so he’s six three. We look silly next to each other. Then I ask him to put his hand up and I put my hand up next on top of his, and his hand is like three inches longer. And then I just raise the question, does it make sense for us to do anything physical, for example, the same way? I would argue no. So if the world is ruled by people like him, then people like me are going to have a harder time meeting those goals. All right. So what I’m suggesting is that. We question the goals that we give ourselves. We recognize that most of these goals were decisions made by other people who lived in other time who may be very different from us.
Ellen Langer: And so that if we’re not able to meet the goal as quickly, as easily as we’d like to, the difference between us and that person who made the goal, like the six foot three person, might be relevant. So I’m a tennis player. I’m a very intermediate player. Now, when I play tennis, I throw the ball up the first serve, I kill it and it doesn’t go in. Now I use a backup whoosh, very light second serve so that I won’t double fault. Who decided that we needed two serves? Why not three serves? Four serves? If I had three serves, I would hit the first one really hard. It wouldn’t go in. Now I’d have my second serve where I could practice the feedback I just got and still have my follow up serve. So for me, in my in my mind, I’m not as good a tennis player as I would have been if I decided the original rules of the game. So I don’t feel bad that I’m not completely expert at it. And of course I can practice and probably get better and so on. And if you were to play tennis with me, Gabe, I’d say let’s have three serves rather than two. But the point is there are always reasons why we’re less able to do things than we would like to be able to do them. And oftentimes it’s because we’re different from the people who decided what the rules are in the first place.
Gabe Howard: It really sounds like all of your research has led to people can really perform at a higher level than they are now. Almost everyone. But that seems like such a big statement that everyone can be doing better?
Ellen Langer: Well, science experiments can tell you that something you’ve tried didn’t work, but science can never tell you that you can’t do something. If you try it and it doesn’t work, try it in other way. Recognizing that if you’re present while you’re doing it, you’re going to reap the benefits of it anyway.
Gabe Howard: I really like the idea of staying in the moment. I know we’re almost out of time. Are there any messages that you would like to leave people with?
Ellen Langer: I guess it’s important for people to realize that our health and well-being are just a thought away.
Gabe Howard: I love that, Dr. Langer. Where can folks find you online and learn about your new book?
Ellen Langer: Sure. My website is EllenLanger.me. But if you go to EllenLanger.com, it’ll tell you take you to EllenLanger.me. So, it was just redone. The title of the book is “The Mindful Body: Thinking Our Way to Chronic Health,” published by Random House. And I’m told despite that, Mindfulness was a bestseller and I’m told started all this revolution and everybody using the word and thinking about mindfulness that this book is even better. It’s got more of me in it. So I do hope people will check it out. And this has been fun. Gabe So thank you for the opportunity.
Gabe Howard: Dr. Langer, thank you so much for taking the time. As we wind this interview down, are there any messages that you would like to leave people with?
Ellen Langer: I guess it’s important for people to realize that our health and well-being are just a thought away.
Gabe Howard: You are very welcome, Dr. Langer. And I want to give a big thank you to all of our listeners as well. My name is Gabe Howard, and I am an award winning public speaker, and I could be available for your next event. I’m also the author of “Mental Illness Is an Asshole and Other Observations,” which you can buy on Amazon, but you can grab a signed copy with free podcast swag, or learn more about me by heading over to gabehoward.com. Wherever you downloaded this episode. Please follow or subscribe to the show. It is absolutely free and you don’t want to miss a thing. And hey, do me a favor, recommend the show because sharing the show to the people you know is how we grow. I will see everybody next Thursday on Inside Mental Health.
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