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Here's a true story about the power of mindfulness: a group of women spent their days cleaning houses, doing very physical work. When asked if they exercised regularly, they said no. Then, as an experiment, half of them were told to view their work as exercise, just like going to a gym. In other words, they were told to think differently about their work — to notice it in a new way.
The results were dramatic. The women who were told to think of their work as exercise lost weight and their blood pressure went down. The control half of the group -- the women who were not told think differently about their work — showed no physical benefits.
This is just one of the studies described in "Mindfulness" by Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer. She originally published the book in 1989 and it's now been re-released in a 25th anniversary edition. Langer is one of the early pioneers in the study of mindfulness, which she describes as "the simple act of noticing new things." And she makes the case that it can lead to better health and happiness.
1. Notice new things:
Ellen Langer: "You come to see that you didn't know what you thought you did as well as you did. And, because everything is always changing, everything looks different from different perspectives. We tend to hold it still and think we know, and then life becomes uninteresting. By actively attending [and] noticing new things...the familiar becomes interesting again and we become more aware of the inherent uncertainty, and that promotes even more mindfulness."
2. Avoid being mindless:
EL: "We're taught to be mindless. We're taught in schools that there are absolute answers, we're — I think — mistakenly taught that those who know the most, win. And so, there seems to be an effort to hold things still so that you can feel you have control over them and, oddly or ironically, when you do that you're actually giving up control, because you're no longer in that moment where you can take advantage of benefits and opportunities and avoid mishaps."
3. Re-frame what you think of as negative attributes in your loved ones:
EL: "Let's say I say that you're impulsive...I'm not going to be fooled by you...But, in fact, since behavior always makes sense from the actor's perspective, or else the actor wouldn't do it, and you wouldn't intentionally be impulsive, that if I opened up my mind and looked at it more mindfully, I would see that you were probably being spontaneous. And so our whole interaction changes by my not being wedded to that negative trait description."
4. Be responsive, not reactive:
EL: "Right now, people are brought up to believe that if it's good, I have to have it. If it's bad, I have to stay way from it. And not realizing that the evaluation that you're making is in your head, not in the event. So, that when you see it's neither good nor bad, then you can just be still and notice...It speaks to bullying...Rarely, if you're feeling to be made small by somebody, [would] that would happen if that person had it all together. And so, instead of being intimidated, you should feel sorry for that person. And then, again, you can be responsive but not reactive."
5. Always look for growth:
EL: "You work the same job for 20 years, the same relationship for 20 years, people tend to be bored. And, again things like boredom, excitement, stress, these are in your mind. They're not in the events. And so the example that I use is...when your son is 20 years old, that's 20 years of watching him, talking to him...I doubt that at any time during that time you're going to be bored by him. We tend not to be bored with our children, we're not even bored with our plants. And the reason for that is that we expect them to grow, we expect them to change. And so, by looking for these differences, noticing what's new, we become engaged."
6. Change your thoughts, then you can change your body:
EL: "I'm saying that you change your mind from...doing this activity to, now it's exercise, exercise means it's going to be good for your health and you're going to lose weight and, bingo, you lose weight without anything intervening. That the people who now saw their work as exercise...that was the only thing that we could ascertain was different between the two groups. They're doing the same thing — one sees it as exercise, one doesn't, and the group that does results in a change in body mass index, waist to hip ratio, weight loss, blood pressure and so on."
7. Don't worry about meditating:
EL: "I did research on meditation 20, 30 years ago. No, this is a different way of getting, basically, to the same place. Meditation is a tool that sets you up for post-meditative mindfulness. My approach is, in some ways, more direct. So, rather than, 'Come, over time, after you meditate, to see that it's only a thought that's driving you crazy.' I say, 'Let's go in and attack the thing.' You know? You say it's bad, let's look at all the ways it's good. You're sure it's going to happen? Let's look at all the ways that it might not happen and you end up, again, believing that the stressor doesn't have to have the negative effects on you."
8. Don't have "worries before their time":
EL: "What happens is that, with the worry....we've wasted all this time and the event may not even occur. So, that's why we should put it off. But it's also the case that there is really no time for the worry because the worry suggests, again, that, 'Oh my goodness, this is going to be awful.' And it's delight or awfulness are our function of the views you're going to take."
9. Strive for work-life integration instead of work-life balance:
EL: "Right now, from many people, behavior is context-dependent. You act the way the situation demands implicitly. And that when you really get it together, that you should be deciding to be the same person regardless of the context that you're in. And in doing that, you can take the benefits from one context and bring it to another. So, lots of business gurus say, go for work-life balance and, certainly, work-life balance is better than work-life imbalance. However, I think better still is work-life integration. You're going to be Anthony whether you're at work, whether you're with your son trying to get into the bathroom, no matter where you are. The point being that there are things that we do at home, the absence of stress, for instance, that we should introduce to our work life. There are things that we do at work where we come with a more serious focus that we could introduce to things we do at home."
This story aired on October 15, 2014.
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