Written by : Transcript – Using Your Mind to Improve Your Health With Dr. Ellen J. Langer 

Transcript – Using Your Mind to Improve Your Health With Dr. Ellen J. Langer

Follow along with the transcript below for episode: Using Your Mind to Improve Your Health With Dr. Ellen J. Langer




[00:00:02] PF: Thank you for joining us for episode 433 of Live Happy Now. When it comes to our health, most of us believe that we just have to live with ailments and declining well-being as we grow older. But this week’s guest is about to flip the script on everything you thought you knew about health and happiness.


I’m your host, Paula Felps. This week, I’m talking with the mother of mindfulness, Dr. Ellen J. Langer. Ellen is highly regarded as one of America’s most influential psychologists. In her new book, The Mindful Body, she presents decades of research that shows how our thoughts and perspective can change our health. She’s here to tell us how we can use the mind-body connection to rethink what we believe to be true, and explains how our thoughts could be undermining our health and what we need to do about it. Let’s have a listen.




[00:00:52] PF: Dr. Langer, thank you so much for being on Live Happy Now.


[00:00:56] EL: My pleasure, Paula.


[00:00:58] PF: You have written many books, but your latest one is truly remarkable. It has had me absorbed since the moment I got – well, actually before I even got it in the mail. I have to say that one of the first things that struck me about it was the subtitle and that is Thinking Our Way to Chronic Health. I love the idea of chronic health. Can you tell us what that means?


[00:01:20] EL: Well, we have a sense of as we get older, we’re going to become sick, and we have little control over being sick. All of the work, hopefully, we’ll talk about some of it now, suggests to me that, no, we don’t have to get sick. We don’t have to go to doctors. I’m not putting down the medical world. Certainly, if I just broke my arm, I’d go to the hospital. But there are so many ways we can take care of ourselves. So much control that we have that people are totally oblivious to. So I saw it as an opportunity for me to make people aware of all this control by doing all of this research.


[00:01:57] PF: Do you find any pushback from people initially when –


[00:02:01] EL: You know what? It’s really interesting. I would expect it, right? Doctors know or they don’t know. But they’re under the impression, I think, that you’re going to heal faster if they pretend they know. I think that it depends on the particulars but most of the time that what we need to do is exploit the power and uncertainty.


Let me talk to you about mindfulness because that’s the basis of all of this. When I’m talking about mindfulness, it has nothing to do with meditation. It’s the simple process of noticing. Now, why then aren’t we all mindful all the time? Because most of the time, we think we know. When we think we know, we don’t pay any attention.


If you simply notice five new things about the environment, the person you’re living with, talking to, five new things about your work, what happens is you come to say, “Gee, I didn’t know it as well as I thought I did.” Then your attention naturally goes to it. When we’re actively noticing, the neurons are firing. Our research has found that it’s literally and figuratively enlivening. So it feels good and it’s good for us.


Now, what people are taught by parents, by speakers, myself excluded, are absolutes. You go to school, and they tell you things like, oh, I don’t know, “One and one is two.” So, Paula, how much is one and one?


[00:03:29] PF: Oh, I guess it’s two.


[00:03:30] EL: No, not always. If you’re adding one wad of chewing gum plus one wad of chewing gum, one plus one is one. If you’re adding one pile of laundry plus one pile of laundry, one plus one is one. One cloud plus one cloud, one plus one. So in the real world, one plus one doesn’t equal two as often as it does. But once we think we know, we stop paying attention. So I’m sorry, Paula. For the rest of your life now, if somebody asks you how much is one and one, you’re going to have to sit up and pay attention to the context to get the answer. Now, what –


[00:03:59] PF: Well, because I’m already a writer, so they think I can’t do math, and they’re not wrong, so.


[00:04:02] EL: Okay. That’s great. Let me tell you something important that happened to me a while ago. I was at this horse event, and this man asked me if I’d watch his horse for him because he was going to get a hot dog for him. Well, I’m Harvard, Yale, all the way through. Nobody knows better than I. Horses don’t eat meat. That’s the starting point. He comes back with the hot dog, and the horse ate it. Oh, my. Everything I thought I knew now I realized I might not know.


Now, some people in hearing this or figuring out that they don’t know very much might be worried. But for me, I was excited because it meant all sorts of possibilities open up. That’s what this book is about, possibilities. So there was a study I did. I don’t know if it, although I talk about it in this book, so you’ll pretend you did, even if you didn’t read it yet.


[00:04:54] PF: How far is it because I’m like two-thirds through.


[00:04:57] EL: Okay. I’m sure. It doesn’t matter. I’m sorry I put you on the spot.


[00:05:01] PF: Oh, we’re good.


[00:05:02] EL: Okay. So basically, this was the first test of the mind-body unity idea, which goes through this new book. Now, mind-body unity means mind, body, they’re one. If they’re one, then wherever you put the mind, you’re necessarily putting the body. You’re thinking about, “My gosh, all the places I can go with my mind, and that’s going to have an effect on my health and well-being.” So in this first study, we took old men to a timeless retreat that – oh, you know it.


[00:05:30] PF: Oh, my gosh. I love this. I was telling a friend about this yesterday that this blew my mind, and now I want to create a retirement home like that.


[00:05:38] EL: Okay. So what we did, we retrofitted the retreat to 20 years earlier. We had old men live there for a week as if they were their younger selves. That means that they talked about the past in the present tense, okay, as well as other things. Now, just a week, right? What we found was that their hearing improved, their vision improved, their memory improved, their strength improved, and they looked noticeably younger. To me, this was incredible because when have you ever heard a 90-year-old’s hearing improve without any medical intervention?


[00:06:12] PF: Exactly.


[00:06:15] EL: So in this new book, I talk about all the new research testing this mind-body unity idea. The next study we did in that series was with chambermaids. If women are listening, they’ll find this especially interesting. So we asked six chambermaids. How much exercise do you get? They said, “Oh, I’m too tired. Exercise is what you do after work, so I don’t get any exercise.” So we divided them into two groups. We took one group, and we taught them that their work was exercise. They were told making a bed was like working on this machine at the gym and so on. So at the end, we have two groups. One who believes their work is exercise. The other group doesn’t realize.


We take many, many measures before we start. At the end, simply changing your mindset resulted in people losing weight, a change in body mass index, waist-to-hip ratio, and their blood pressure came down. All right, let me hurry along here to the newest research, although there are many in between these two testing this mind-body unity. So we inflict a wound. Now, it would have been more dramatic if I could really hurt people, but I didn’t want to do that.


[00:07:21] PF: Like cut an arm off or what.


[00:07:22] EL: The review board wouldn’t let me, even if I did live in that world. So it’s a minor wound, and people are in front of a clock. 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 time. For a third of the people, it’s real time. The question we’re asking is how long does it take the wound to heal.


Well, it turns out the wound heals based on perceived time, clock time, not real time. We have so much control over everything, and we’re simply blind to it that I think, although I don’t have data specifically for this, so you can imagine when I tell you how hard it would be to do the studies, that the major cause of illness is stress, major cause.


Now, stress is psychological. So if you say to yourself – and it’s also the case that when we’re stressed, two things are going on. The first is we think something’s going to happen. The second is when it happens, it’s going to be awful. Well, it turns out we can’t predict. If you think about it, you go back over the times you’ve been stressed, almost all the things we’re stressed about never even happened.


[00:08:37] PF: Right. It’s the stuff we’re not thinking about that gets us.


[00:08:40] EL: So if you said to yourself, what are three reasons this thing I’m scared of won’t happen, and you’re usually able to generate them. So you went from thinking it’s definitely going to happen to maybe it will, maybe it won’t, so you immediately feel better. But now, what I think people should do is say let’s assume it happens. What are three, five reasons that it’s actually an advantage? You can always come up with things.


Now, what people don’t realize is that events don’t come pre-packaged. This is a good thing. This is a bad thing. It all depends on the way we understand our world. So the more mindful you are, the more potential understandings of any event you can come up with. An example I’ve used too often but I can’t come up with another one on the spot now.


[00:09:27] PF: So let’s do it again.


[00:09:28] EL: Okay. Let’s say you and I go out to lunch, and the food is wonderful. Wonderful, it’s a win. You and I go out to lunch. The food is awful. Wonderful, I’ll eat less, and that’ll be better for my waistline.


[00:09:39] PF: I like that.


[00:09:40] EL: All right. There is always a way of interpreting things. It’s also true for people, which we don’t tend to realize that we tend to see people by dispositions. Paula, you really are getting on my nerves because you’re so inconsistent. I’m getting on your nerves because I’m so gullible.


Well, it turns out for every single negative description we can give to somebody, negative way we understand what they’re doing, there’s an equally strong but oppositely balanced alternative. What is negative is equally positive. So you’re not inconsistent. From your perspective, you’re flexible. I’m not gullible. From my perspective, I’m trusting. This is true no matter what words we come up with to insult ourselves or other people.


So now, all the times you’re stressed because I keep trying to change you, I can’t stand you’re so inconsistent. Now that I realize you’re being flexible, hey, now I appreciate you. As I appreciate you, you appreciate me. Because we’re both less judgmental, our relationship improves. As our relationship improves, we get more support. With that support, we’re going to experience less stress, and we’re and going to end up healthier.


[00:10:54] PF: I love the way you tie that all back together. As we talk about health, it’s really clear that we have turned the power of our health over to our practitioners. Will you talk about how we can kind of start reclaiming control of our health from our practitioners because to your point, they don’t know everything.


[00:11:15] EL: Oh. Well, you can challenge them, but why bother? What I would suggest is that we stay healthy in the first place and that when we have symptoms, we engage in what I’ll talk to you about after, the next three things you want to talk about, attention to symptom variability. Let me throw one thing in there, is a one-liner that I’ve come up with that is so meaningful to me. You can ask yourself with anything. Is it a tragedy or an inconvenience? Almost all the time, you realize so what I burned the dinner? So what I missed the bus? So what I didn’t get the project done on time?


Just by asking that question then we relax. Again, as we’re relaxing, we’re becoming happier and healthier. What we need to understand is that symptoms, no matter what we have, if we’re depressed, we’re stressed, we have Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, a broad range of things, the mistaken assumption people make is that their symptoms are going to stay the same or get worse. Well, it turns out nothing only goes in one direction.


Now, so what we did, we took people with major diseases, and we set this up where we were going to just call them at random times throughout the day, throughout the week, and ask them, “So how do you feel now? Is it better or worse than before, and why?” Okay, now what happens, the first thing you see is that, gee, I’m not stressed all the time, or I’m not in pain all the time. So you immediately feel a little better.


Second, by asking why, why does it hurt now and it didn’t before, you’re going on a mindful search. I didn’t mention it explicitly, but several experiments that we’ve done showed just by becoming more mindful, you live longer. So it’s very potent, even if you stop there. Then finally, if you look for a solution, you’re much more likely to find it, and you’re engaged. Engagement itself is the essence of being mindful. You’re taking care of yourself, so you feel good about it. We’ve done this now with people who have Parkinson’s, stroke, multiple sclerosis, arthritis, chronic pain, depression, and just imagine stress.


Paula, let’s say you feel you’re stressed all the time. No one is stressed all the time. It’s just that when you’re not stressed, you’re not thinking about being stressed.


[00:13:44] PF: Oh, that’s a great point.


[00:13:44] EL: Then you get stressed again. So point A, you’re thinking about it. Point C, you’re thinking about it, and you assume it’s all the time. You do this thing. How do you feel right now? Are you better or worse than before and why? After you do this, you discover I’m maximally stressed when I’m talking to Ellen Langer. Well, if that’s the case, the solution is easy. Don’t talk to me or talk to me differently. Talk to me in the way you talk to people when you’re not stressed.


This is just part of the control we have over ourselves. That placebos may be our strongest medicine. As everybody knows, the placebo is a sugar pill, or it’s something inert. You take this thing that’s nothing, and you get better. Okay. So clearly, you’re making yourself better. All of my work is designed to find out how to do that more directly where we don’t need to go to a doctor. People would be surprised. I don’t know if I should reveal this or not, but much of the medication that we’re prescribed are, in fact, placebos. So you go to a doctor. You get a placebo. You take this placebo, and now you get better.


One of the things that people don’t realize, and there’s no reason why people who aren’t scientists necessarily should, is that experiments, the medical experiments, all experiments only give us probabilities. All right, now those probabilities say that if we were to do the exact same study again, and we can never do the exact same study, but let’s say we could, we’re likely to get the same findings. Those are translated as absolutes. You have cancer. Horses don’t eat meat. One and one is two, so on and so forth.


So the first thing we have to do when we’re given a diagnosis is to say, “Well, okay. Maybe, maybe not.” Even if so, it doesn’t mean it has to follow any particular course. Because once we assume that we have this disease, and this disease follows plan A, B, and C, then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. I believe that way back when, when people were told cancer is a killer, that many of the deaths that occurred were not a function of the cancer but a function of giving up because of the belief that the cancer is a killer.


[00:16:11] PF: You showed – you gave a wonderful illustration. It’s early in your book, talking about being diagnosed as pre-diabetes and showing like that borderline, that 5.5 difference to 5.6.


[00:16:24] EL: I’m glad you mentioned that. Yes. Okay. You want to tell everybody, but I want to tell everybody.


[00:16:28] PF: No. I want you to tell it because I’m going to mess it up.


[00:16:30] EL: Okay. I don’t think so. But as I said, I’m on a roll. All right. So this – what I call the borderline effect, if people just imagine. So let’s say, Paula, you and I take an IQ test, and you get a 70. That means you’re normal. I get a 69. That means I’m cognitively deficient. What we used to call retarded. All right. Now, nobody in their right mind, even if nothing about statistics, would think there’s a meaningful difference between 69 and 70, right? I could have sneezed, misread the question, so on and so forth. All right.


However, once we’re in those two different categories, our lives unfold in very different ways. Everybody knows we treat you differently from poor me who is cognitively deprived. All right. Well, it’s the same for every diagnosis. There are some people who fall right above the line saying you’re healthy, those who fall right below it, which means you have the disease. Now, if those two groups are not different at the start and go forward a month, three months, six months, and they’re different, well, what’s causing that difference? They’re the same, and now they’re different. It’s their psychology. All of that, again, speaks to the control we have over our health.


[00:17:52] PF: If we have so much control over our health, how do we think better? Because as you point out in your book, every thought we have affects our health.


[00:18:02] EL: Yes. That’s the mind-body unity. It’s one thing.


[00:18:05] PF: So how do we think better.


[00:18:07] EL: Yes. Okay.


[00:18:07] PF: How do we start practicing that.


[00:18:09] EL: Well, you don’t have to practice it. All you need to do is recognize that the things you’re taking as real can be understood differently from different perspectives. The more mindful you are, the more choices you have. So if you just recognize that things themselves, as I said before, are neither good nor bad, whether or not we experience things are good or bad depends on our perspective. The more mindful, the more choices we have again.


Now, if you think of anything that you think is bad and just sort of think of your friends and all the people you know and have known, is everybody responding to it the same way? Well, if not, then what are they doing differently? That it’s not the thing. Events don’t cause stress and unhappiness. Our views of events cause stress and unhappiness.


Let me tell you about something that had happened to me many years ago. I was at a friend’s house for dinner. It was late, and I came back to my house, and my house had been burned to the ground. So the next day, I called the insurance agent. He comes out and he said in the 25 years he’s been doing this work, this was the very first time that the call wasn’t as bad as the damage. Everybody, “Oh, my God. Oh, my God.” You see it, and it’s not so bad. Here was the reverse because I had already lost all of that. Getting myself crazy, throwing my sanity away also I wasn’t going to help.


There’s so much to say about this, but let me jump to the end. This was around Christmas. So I was staying in a hotel. I went out Christmas Eve, and I got back to the hotel, and my room was full of gifts. Not from the people who own the hotel, not from the management, but from the so-called little people, the chambermaids, the waiters, the waitresses, the people who park my car. It’s only recently that I’m able to tell the story without it bringing tears to my eyes.


Now, I’m not saying everybody should hope that they experience a major fire. But I must say that I remember virtually nothing that I lost in the fire. Every Christmas, I think about this, and it renews my faith in people. So was it good or bad?


[00:20:23] PF: That’s just incredible. The perception and the perspective makes such a big difference. I think that was so amazing throughout this book the way that’s emphasized over and over. There are so many stories. First of all, you’re such a wonderful storyteller.


[00:20:37] EL: Thank you.


[00:20:37] PF: And you have so many excellent stories and examples of how our mind can really change our outcomes. I do want to ask you one thing I hear a lot of probably because of recent birthdays. I hear so much my people around me talking about how I’m too old to do this. I can’t do something like this because I’m old. To put that in perspective, my partner who is older than I am is participating in a CrossFit tournament tomorrow. So don’t tell me –


[00:21:04] EL: Yes, yes. No, I think it’s terrible. The other day –


[00:21:06] PF: How does that affect our aging process if you’re –


[00:21:08] EL: Well, of course.


[00:21:09] PF: Constantly saying that.


[00:21:11] EL: Okay. So if we associate old with becoming decrepit, losing your memory, falling apart, as soon as you see yourself old, you’re going to attend to the ways you’re falling apart and so on. Some of it doesn’t have to be a mystery. If you’re 20 years old and you hurt your wrist, you do things to make your wrist better. If you’re 70 years old and you hurt your wrist, too often people say, “Well, what do you expect? I’m 70 years old. I’m starting to fall apart.” So then it becomes you don’t do anything, and so it does get worse. Yes.


Now, I think – well, I may be strange in this regard. I don’t know. The other day, I was helping a woman with something, an old woman I thought. My spouse told me, “She’s probably 10 years younger than you are.” So I’ve never let age influence what I do. Now, there are changes as you get older. But I see the changes. Most of them is glorious. Not to worry about some of the silly things we used to worry about when we were younger.


[00:22:11] PF: I absolutely love that, and one thing that you talk about, it’s an assertion that we think we are doing the best we can, that we’re doing great. But you say that we aren’t, that we’re not even close to doing the best we can. Talk about what you mean with that.


[00:22:25] EL: Well, I don’t want people feeling good that they’re doing well to feel bad. All I’m suggesting is whatever is, there can be more and that we need to not limit ourselves with the notion of limits. This may be a little far afield again. But years ago, I was on the Committee on Aging at the Harvard Medical School.


My friend, Jack Rowe, who was the chair, I called him and I said, “Jack, how long does it take for a broken finger to heal?” He said, “I don’t know, a week.” I said, “What would you say if I said I could heal it in five days?” He said, “All right.” I said, “What about four days?” He said, “All right.” I said, “What about three days?” He said, “No.” I said, “Okay. What about three days and 23 hours?” Where is the point where here we can do it and here we can’t do it?


So for anything that we want to do, there’s a step that’s small enough between where we are and where we want to get to that we can take it. If that doesn’t work, make it a little smaller. Somebody is trying. So Zeno was a Greek philosopher, and Zeno’s paradox with respect to distance was if you always go half the distance from where you are to where you want to get, you’re never going to be there. I’m an inch away. I’m a half an inch away. I’m a quarter of an inch. Zeno was [inaudible 00:23:47].


Langer’s reverse Zeno is that there’s always a step small enough from where you are to where you want to get. So you want to not eat the box of cookies you eat. Okay. Eat half the box. You can’t eat half the box. Eat a quarter of the – everybody can eat it crumbless, and that’s a new starting point. Then we’re able to achieve all sorts of things that we were oblivious to before.


I mean, there’s so much that we have wrong, even notions of fatigue. We have lots of research that [inaudible 00:24:20] the book on this, but let me give you the overall, so it’s easy to understand. If I say to people, “Do 100 jumping jacks and tell me when you get tired,” most people are going to get tired around 67. If I ask you to do 200 jumping jacks, most people get tired around 140.


[00:24:40] PF: Amazing.


[00:24:41] EL: So that’s why I’m saying that what we build into everything we do is a mistaken notion of limits. You can never, there is no experiment, no science that can prove that we can’t. All we can prove with science is that what we tried on our personal science, so to speak, what we’ve tried didn’t work. Trying new things is fun. People think they want to be perfect at things. You can either be imperfectly mindful or perfectly mindless. Once you’ve got it, you don’t pay attention to it anymore. You want to win. Play Tic-Tac-Toe against a four-year-old. You can always win. People who play golf think they want to get a hole in one in each shot. Well, if you do that, now there’s no game.


[00:25:27] PF: Yes. They lose their being special.


[00:25:29 EL: Exactly, right. So trying new things with your health, with your performance is actually energy-beginning. Mindfulness we found and very clearly makes us more energized, happier. When you’re mindful, people see you as more charismatic. They see you as more authentic. Relationships improve. Being mindful in this act of noticing way even leaves its imprint on the things that we do, so it feels good. It’s good for you. Everybody responds. Why not? Because it’s fun. It’s what you’re doing when you’re having fun.


So if you came to my house, Paula, you’ve never been here. You don’t have to practice being mindful. You assume, “Gee, it’s all going to be new,” so you take it all in. What I’m trying to explain to people is that everything is new. We just make it old by holding our mindsets about it still. The underlying phenomenon is always changing, always potentially exciting.


[00:26:34] PF: Our job is then to notice it and curate our thoughts, as we walk through that experience.


[00:26:41] EL: Enjoy our thoughts. Yes.


[00:26:42] PF: Yes. I love that. So we are going to tell our listeners how they can find you, where they can find your books. But what do they do right now, as they’re listening to this and they’re saying, “Yes, I want to create chronic health in my life, and I want to notice more.” What are a couple of things that you would tell them to start doing right now?


[00:27:00] EL: Okay. Well, the first thing is to make a universal attribution for uncertainty. I don’t know. You don’t. Nobody knows. We can’t know because everything is always changing. Everything looks different from a different perspective. So you don’t need to pretend, and not knowing is a good thing. It makes us curious. It makes us involved in what we’re doing. Every time you hear yourself, call yourself something negative, or see somebody else in some pejorative way, recognize that there’s an alternative that’s equally potent to that that’s positive, that’s going to make you feel better and also improve your relationship.


I think that just by realizing that this act of noticing is good, that no matter what we know, there’s always a new way to know it. I think people will begin all of this. Now, we’ve all been trapped in being mindless. I asked you how much is one and one. You said two without thinking. But at the least, what people can do is when they’re unhappy about something is to remind themselves of all that we’re saying now. How else might they look at the situation? How might that thing actually have more than a silver lining, if silver lining sounds like it’s just on the bottom. It’s not so important. I’m saying the whole thing is actually an advantage.


Then, of course, I must say that when you forget everything that I’ve said, you go back to the book, and you look at it again and reread it.


[00:28:35] PF: I love that. I love that. You have so much to teach us. This information is truly life-changing, and I’m so happy that it was shared with me and that we were able to talk about it. I appreciate all the research and the information that you’re bringing into this world because you really are changing the way that we look at our bodies and the way that we move through this world.


[00:28:57] EL: Thank you very much, Paula.




[00:29:03] PF: That was Dr. Ellen J. Langer, talking about the mind-body connection and how it affects our health. If you’d like to learn more about Ellen and her new book, The Mindful Body: Thinking Our Way to Chronic Health,” learn about her other books, or follow her on social media, just visit us at livehappy.com and click on the podcast tab.


That is all we have time for today. We’ll meet you back here again next week for an all-new episode. Until then, this is Paula Felps, reminding you to make every day happy one.



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