Ellen Langer, a professor at Harvard, is also the mother of the psychological concept of mindfulness. There was a great profile last Sunday of her work in the Boston Globe Magazine.
The article describes how, as a doctoral student, she was intrigued by how people reacted when a poker hand was misdealt:
One round, the dealer accidentally skipped someone. “Everyone went crazy,” Langer recalls. It was out of the question, she learned, to simply give the skipped person the next card and proceed with the deal. She began to wonder why people were so attached to “their” cards even when they had no idea whether they were good or bad.[…]
[She also] ran a study in which she set up a lottery and varied the terms by which people got their tickets. She found that subjects valued their tickets much more when they were allowed to choose them, even though that did nothing to increase their chances of winning. She called this “the illusion of control.”
Langer followed this up by looking at the often meaningless factors that determine how people evaluate information. In one study, conducted with Benzion Chanowitz and Arthur Blank, she had experimenters approach people who were using a Xerox machine and ask to cut in to make copies. They found that people were more likely to let someone cut if offered a reason – but, intriguingly, it did not matter if the reason made sense. People were as receptive to a meaningless reason (“to make copies”) as a valid one (“I’m in a rush”).
“It is not that people don’t hear the request,” Langer wrote in “Mindfulness,” “they simply don’t think about it actively.”
And hence mindfulness was born. She wrote a 1989 book of the same name that lays out a lot of this thinking and description of these and related studies.
The psychological concept of mindfulness is so simple, you might believe you’re missing something — that we simply need to go through life paying better attention to life itself. We need to stop and actually think about what we’re doing, how we’re reacting, and perhaps even reflect on why we’re reacting in the way we are in the moment. We make so many choices in our lives on “autopilot,” we don’t always spend the time actually thinking about what choices we are making.
When we go to pick up our morning coffee, such an autopilot serves a purpose and thinking about getting your coffee isn’t likely to bring you much additional joy or insight.
However, when we hold on to an argument or a position in a discussion with a loved one for no good reason outside of a stubborn belief that “we’re right,” that might be an example of how our mindlessness can be a harmful influence in our lives.
I don’t see mindfulness as simply being optimistic or “thinking will make it so.” Instead, it’s trying to put your thoughts into some sort of context — in the moment you’re doing something. It’s a pragmatic world view, and while not a satisfactory explanation or technique for every situation, it is one that can bring you to become more connected not only with yourself, but with those and the world around you.
Read the full article: Mind Power