How old would you be if you didn’t know how old your body is? “You’re only as old as you feel” is folk wisdom that’s almost a cliche. In Counterclockwise, Harvard psychology professor, Ellen Langer, presents powerful evidence showing just how true that is.
Langer’s life work is on illusion of control, aging, decision-making, and mindfulness theory. She’s published over 200 research articles, six academic books, and won numerous academic honors. Part of her American Psychology Association award states, “…her pioneering work revealed the profound effects of increasing mindful behavior…and offers new hope to millions whose problems were previously seen as unalterable and inevitable. Ellen Langer has demonstrated repeatedly how our limits are of our own making.”
Her 1979 pioneering study on aging established her career and is where Counterclockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility draws its title. In this study an experimental group of elderly men were taken to a one week retreat in a detailed recreation of the world of 1959. All their conversations, movies, decor, music, current events and book discussions, photos, newspapers, and the like were as if they are actually living in 1959. A control group of elderly men were taken on a separate retreat to reminisce and talk about what their life was like in 1959. Both groups underwent extensive physical and mental tests before and after their retreats.
The differences were dramatic:
“The experimental group showed greater improvement on joint flexibility, finger length (their arthritis diminished and they were able to straighten their fingers more), and manual dexterity. On intelligence tests, 63 percent of the experimental group improved their scores, compared to only 44 percent of the control group. There were also improvements in height, weight, gait, and posture. Finally, we asked people unaware of the study’s purpose to compare photos taken of the participants at the end of the week to those submitted at the beginning of the study. These objective observers judged that all of the experimental participants looked noticeably younger at the end of the study.”
Langer’s conclusion set her career path for the coming decades and frames the focus of Counterclockwise:
“This study shaped not only my view of aging but also my view of limits in a more general way for the next few decades. Over time I have come to believe less and less that biology is destiny. It is not primarily our physical selves that limit us but rather our mindset about our physical limits. Now I accept none of the medical wisdom regarding the courses our diseases must take as necessarily true.”
Counterclockwise adds convincing evidence to the rapidly growing bodies of research on the mind-body connection and the power of optimism. The book chronicles numerous studies Langer, her colleagues, and other researchers have done to show how we can “change our physical health by changing our minds.”
Counterclockwise is a fairly short book. My only criticism is that it’s still about 30% too long. Langer’s anecdotes tend to ramble with much more detail than we really need.
The broader leadership implications of the book’s main findings are profound. She discusses, for example, how mindlessly we often accept limitations and give away our control over our health and other aspects of our lives. That limits our choices, reduces our chances of success, and further shrinks our boundaries.
Part of the work Langer and her research are currently engaged in involves mindful learning, mindful leadership, and the effects of a leader’s mindfulness on others. It will be fascinating to see if they can develop a study showing the impact of a strong leader helping a negative or defeated organization turn back the clock on their beliefs and behaviors.
- Thoughts That Make You Go Hmmm on…The Mind/Body Connection
- After the Tears: Getting Past Bad News by Visualizing a Better Tomorrow
- The Victimitis Virus: Undermining and Giving Away our Power
- Possibility Thinking: Spreading Hope and Optimism
- What We Get is What We See
- Vision at Work
- A selection of short articles on Attitude and Outlook