The importance of being mindful during a pandemic: Interview with Prof. Ellen Langer

An engaging and uplifting discussion on the benefits of mindfulness.

Ingrid Rewitzky

We spoke to Professor Ellen Langer, mother of mindfulness, about all things mindful in this time of uncertainty. This discussion focusses on coping with the current COVID-19 pandemic and accepting the uncertainty that comes with the disease. She also discusses how mindfulness relies on the appreciation of uncertainty and that by recognizing this we become more mindful. She highlights the current ‘crisis’ as the time to find new opportunities, conduct our affairs in new ways and explore what works for us. Lastly, she emphasizes making peace with where we are at, and refraining from approaching numbers and statistics as absolute.

An overview of Prof Ellen Langer’s research

For the last 40 years, I have been studying this concept of mindfulness. This is the reason why I am called the mother of mindfulness. What is interesting is that it is mindfulness without meditation. It is very easy. In fact, it is so easy that it almost defies belief that we get the results that we get. When you actively notice things it puts you in the present, and it makes you sensitive to context and perceptive. And this is the essence of engagement. As you are noticing new things about the things you thought you knew, you see you did not know them as well as you thought you did, the neurons are firing and the research shows that the result is literately and figuratively enlivening. We teach people to be more mindful. They become more charismatic, their relationships improve, accidents decrease. And we have done this now with 15 diseases. We get significant improvement and it also increases longevity (of life).

When you are more mindful, you are also found more attractive. It seems to leave imprints on the things that you do and because it is such fun and so easy, there is no excuse for anybody to not try to enhance their mindful responses. Most of us do not realize that most of the time we are not there. If we are not there, we do not know that we are not there. We are mindless. If you are going to do something you should show up for it. We also think that we know things. If you knew what I was going to say next there will be no reason to actively pay attention to me. It turns out that everything is always changing, everything looks different from different perspectives, and what that means is that we cannot know. When we do not know then we actually tune in. If you do not know what I am going to say next then you pay some attention. Then the neurons are firing and you feel engaged and it becomes a positive experience. A simple way of understanding mindlessness is that we are frequently in error but rarely endowed. So what I often do when I am doing talks on this, I might ask people how much is 1 and 1. Well, everybody thinks they know, because they were taught in school, they memorize the facts. But it turns out that one and one is not always two. So if you add one wad of chewing gum to one wad of chewing gum: 1+1=1. If you add one pile of laundry to one pile of laundry, 1 +1 =1. When we recognize that we don’t know the thing that we thought we knew, we naturally pay attention to it. And everything becomes new again. You can become more mindful by this very simple process that relies on appreciation of uncertainty. The feeling of knowing makes us mindless. If you were now to travel before this pandemic and you were on a little vacation, because you have not been here before you naturally pay attention and enjoy the travel. So you can see that this active noticing actually feels good, it is in a sense what we are doing when we are having fun. So that is all it is. It is an appreciation of the apparent uncertainty of everything.

The myth of certainty revealed

The biggest myth is that people think there was certainty three months ago, before Covid-19. But since everything is changing there is always uncertainty. I do this exercise with my students in an advanced decision making course, I have been teaching a version of this course for the last 40 years. I go around the room and ask them to comment on the likelihood that I will be around next week. These are Harvard students so they do not say 100%, they say silly things like 99%, 97%, 98% as if they are doing some calculation. Then I say what I want each of you to do, is to generate a reason that makes sense to you that I might not be here next week. Then, invariably the first person says: “as you have always been here, you decide you deserve to take the time off”. The next person says: “your dog has to go to the vet”.  I go around the room and everybody generates a very reasonable, possible reason why I might not come next week. Then I say what is the likelihood I will be here next week and now instead of a 100% it drops to 50%. So what happens is that our certainty is based on looking back. Monday morning caller backing as it is called here. You have an understanding of something so it is easy to find an evidence for it. Going forward it is a whole different kettle of fish, we really cannot predict. The first thing for people to understand now is that they were never able to predict. They were confusing the stability of their mindset with the stability of the underlying phenomena. Things are always changing, if you are holding it still, it is just in your head.

Slowing down with COVID-19, more time to be innovative

I think that in this time where everybody focusses on all the awful parts, there is some positive things that are happening. One of the positive things happening is that people are not stressed and bothering with silly things such as having a bad hair day. People just don’t care about these things. Once all of this passes it will be nice if they maintained that different sense of what matters in the world. People are also being in contact with people they have not been speaking to or emailed in years, and they are learning new ways of spending time with themselves. I think people that are having a hard time, are people that are mindlessly trying to live their lives just the way they did before. Part of that is they do not know how to get into some new activities. And it is very simple. If you wanted to rearrange photos on your phone, for instance, it is for me an enormous task because there are thousands of photos and I do not have them categorized or whatever. If I simply said I am going to reorganize five of them, then it becomes a very simple thing and after the first five then maybe I do another ten. After ten, as long as I keep it fun, you know, I can do more and more. So the point is not to engage a new task as this giant thing but to approach a very small part of it and it becomes engaging. Also to find new ways of doing things to increase your mindfulness. So I had an ache on my shoulder last week and I did not have a heating pad, I have a small backyard so I went outside and I found a smooth rock and I wet it and I put it on the microwave and put it in a cloth and I had a heating pad. So you know, people who do not have weights in the house but want to exercise, there are cans that you have probably in the cupboard or things that can be lifted. You have to do these things carefully. But the point is that people need to find new ways to do things that they have done before and that becomes fun.

No matter who you are, you should try to fight against defensive pessimism

If you are lucky enough to have a large house, you can find ways to stay away from the rest of the family; it is easy. But people who are not blessed in this way, living in small crowed quarters, will manage if they put their stress aside. Stress relies on two things: it relies on an assumption that something is going to happen, and when it happens, it is going to be awful. But we cannot predict what is going to happen next. So if people start generating reasons why this terrible thing might not happen, they will immediately feel better. Second, and this is hard these days, consequences are in our head. They are not in the external world. It means that nothing is positive or negative, it just is. Take the things that you think are negative and ask how this can actually be a good thing? And then things switch around. So you go from this terrible anxiety that something is definitely going to happen, to this thing that may or may not happen, and if it happens there will be a positive aspect to it. So people need to emulate this. Many people do what I call defensive pessimism. I think that is a big mistake and I will explain why. Defensive pessimism is when we expect the worst and hope for the best.  It is like it is not going to happen but maybe. And what tends to happen is that our expectations tend to be fulfilled. People adopt an attitude of defensive pessimism thinking that if something negative does happen they will not be caught off guard and handle it better. But I think that that is also wrong. I think that if one is expecting the best, then our expectations tend to be confirmed and that makes us stronger. And if things are only good, then what happened is we have wasted our time worrying. And if things turn out not to be as we have hoped or expected, then we are stronger and better able to deal with it. Instead of a defensive pessimism I argue for mindful optimism. It is like buying house insurance for those in more economically sound houses, you buy a house and because you could lose the house you buy house insurance. Then you go about living. You do not spend every day worrying about the house going up in smoke or some disaster. So you want to go forward having this attitude of mindful optimism: make a plan. The plan would be like self quarantine, washing your hands, keeping social distance, doing some exercise, trying to eat well and so on and you just go about living your life.

Illustration by Liani Malherbe
Age and COVID-19

It is interesting that six months ago people would argue that 90 was the new 60 and now it is turned around where 60 becomes the new 90 again. I think that what one should do when they are a senior citizen is really nothing different to what they would have done when they were younger. If I said to you that this person is an Olympic athlete for example, versus a couch potato, who is going to be more vulnerable? So people of all ages should be exercising and eating well, but most important, they need to be as stress free, and positive, as possible. In that way you make yourself strong. You just live in the moment, mindfully, and that mindfulness is good for your health. There is a study I did a long time ago, I do not know if you know it, it is the clockwise study. We conducted a study on elderly people. They lived in a retreat that we retrofitted as it was 20 years earlier and they lived as if they were their younger selves. And by putting their mind in the place where they were when they were their younger selves, their vision improved, their hearing improved, their strength improved and they looked younger. So what we need to do, and this is a good time for older people to be doing it, is go through old photos, listen to old songs from the past to remember who you were. To know that who they were, is generally who they still are and who they will be.

How to simultaneously be a mindful mother/father, lecturer, researcher, wife/husband… at all time

I think the situation is right for mindfulness because it is brand new. You find new ways of dealing with things. For example, learning how to lecture online is new for everybody. The expectation from the administration of various schools is not “everyone is going to do it perfectly.” So just enjoy it. When you are lecturing online, you can turn the lecture thing away and take a bite of a sandwich that you could not do if you were lecturing in person. You can be wearing comfortable clothes and so on. I think we need to be easier on ourselves. So I was in a lecture a while back and in the middle of the lecture my dogs started to bark. So what, life goes on. It is just realizing that it never was perfect so why do we expect it to be perfect now.

 As far as the kids go. I think we need to give them a little more room to deviate from good behavior. Have them play with things, have them figure out how to keep themselves busy. In the wealthy countries people keep buying expensive toys for their kids, whereas if you just gave them a cardboard box and a pen and let their imagination go wild, they would be busy for hours. So, no matter what we are doing, we have to recognize that this is the opportunity to do it in a new way. To find out how to do it so that it feels good and works for us. But, with the understanding that we are not going to figure this out quickly, and that is good. Let us take golf as an example. You are playing golf and you do not know what you are doing. Then you start to learn and you get a little better and then you are not so good the next day. You slowly improve. But then people think: “would it not be wonderful if I were spectacular at this?” Let’s say you got to the point that you got a hole in one every time you hit the ball. There is no gain. If the kids were perfect angels. If the internet allowed you to give the perfect lecture and the laundry did itself and so on. What would you do with your time? This situation provides an opportunity for us. We should be trying to do things in ways that are new, that are fun. If the way we try does not work, then you do it differently. No one expects that everything is going to work the first time around. Teach the kids how to cook. If the kids need to learn math, you do not need to do it in a dry way where you are giving a table of numbers. Take the ingredients in the kitchen – if we subtract this from this, and add to this, what do we end up having? So what we want to do is to find our own way to do things. The problem is that the way that most of us have learnt how to do things is based on what worked for other people. When I lecture on this, sometimes I say, I was taught to hold the tennis racket in a particular way. I am 5:3 and if I ask a man who is 6:3 to come on stage and I put my hand next to his hand and he is clearly larger, and we will look ridiculous standing together. Should we hold the racket the same way? Should we do anything physical the same way? I am never going to be as good as he is if I follow his rule. So the point is that we have an opportunity to make things our own, to make it work for us. We should remember that no one is expecting us to do this perfectly. Everybody knows that this feels unusual. So we have a lot of latitude to experiment.

Can we make a virtual meeting as mindful as an in person meeting?

It can be mindful for the person that is giving the lecture. If the person on the other hand is engaging, sure it can be mindful. But I do think that in person has a quality to it that virtual does not. This does not mean that there is not something to be gained by virtual interaction.

Presenting numbers, statistics and models mindfully

We have to use numbers more mindfully. To make clear that no matter what, those numbers are based on research. If you were to do an experiment, all that the experiment tells you, all that those numbers tell you, is that if we were to run the exact same study – which you could never do – that you are likely to get the same results. Those probabilities are then translated as absolute. So people need to understand the inherent uncertainty of these numbers. Numbers tend to hide ambiguity. They need to be presented along with these ambiguities that are inherent to them. People need to realize that the number was based on a past calculation, and that does not mean that they will be true even at the present or moving forward.

These numbers do not mean much (referring to statistics of COVID19). Because there are all these people who have been exposed and are asymptomatic and stay that way. We have the number of people that get the virus but who would have died anyway even if they have not gotten the virus. Sadly, I mean there are other diseases out there that people suffer from. Numbers are questionable. All we should do is treat the numbers as possibilities and not attach an absolute understanding. Because the numbers themselves are not absolute. The number might seem absolute but what goes into it is far more ambiguous. We just do not know.

Last piece of advice

People need to recognize that uncertainty is the rule and not the exception, and it has always been that way. By actively noticing new things, by doing things in new ways, that is the essence of being mindful. When you are mindful, what happens is that you feel engaged, you feel uplifted and that is good for your health. Exploit the power in the uncertainty instead of becoming a stress pile. The things that people are doing to keep themselves safe are good things to do anyway. You know it is good to wash your hands. It is good to keep some distance from somebody that might be ill. It is good to learn how to keep yourself occupied at home and become more mindful of what you are doing, choosing what you are doing day to day, and not getting lost in a mindless routine.

Prof. Ellen Langer

Psychology Department
HARVARD UNIVERSITY

Prof. Ellen Langer is a professor in the Psychology Department at Harvard University. Her books written for general and academic readers include Mindfulness and The Power of Mindful Learning, and the forthcoming Mindful Creativity

Prof. Langer has described her work on the illusion of control, aging, decision-making, and mindfulness theory in over 200 research articles and six academic books. Her work has led to numerous academic honors including a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Award for Distinguished Contributions to Psychology in the Public Interest of the American Psychological Association, the Distinguished Contributions of Basic Science to Applied Psychology award from the American Association of Applied and Preventive Psychology, the James McKeen Cattel Award, and the Gordon Allport Intergroup Relations Prize.

Prof. Langer is a Fellow of The Sloan Foundation; The American Psychological Association, the American Psychological Society, The American Association for the Advancement of Science; Computers and Society; The Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues; The Society of Experimental Social Psychologists. In addition to other honors, she has been a guest lecturer in Japan, Malaysia, Germany, and Argentina.

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