Wednesday, February 1, 2012

In a nutshell: Mental habits dull our lives.

Book Review: Mindfulness by Ellen J Langer

by Tom Butler-Bowdon on Jan 23, 2012

In a nutshell: Mental habits dull our lives. By regaining control of your thinking you can experience life anew.

Have you ever said excuse me to a store mannequin or written a cheque in January with the previous year's date? For most of us the answer is probably yes. Ellen Langer believes these small mistakes are the tip of a mindlessness iceberg. A Harvard psychology professor, her research into rigidity of mind led to observations about mental fluidity, or mindfulness.

Who or what is a mindful person? Langer suggests their qualities will include:

  • the ability to create new categories;
  • openness to new information;
  • awareness of more than one perspective;
  • attention to process (doing) rather than outcome (results);
  • trust of intuition.

New categories

In her book, published in 1989, Langer says we live and experience reality in a conceptual form. We do not see things afresh every time we look at them; instead, we create categories and let things fall into them, which is a more convenient way of dealing with the world.

Apart from the smaller things, such as defining a vase as Japanese, a flower as an orchid or a person as a boss, there are the wider categorisations under which we live, including religions, ideologies and systems of government. Each saves us from the effort of constantly challenging our own beliefs.

We divide animals into pets and livestock so we can feel OK loving one and eating the other, for example.

Mindlessness results when we do not know that the categories to which we subscribe are categories and that we have accepted them as our own without thinking. Creating new categories, and reassessing old ones, is mindfulness.

New information

Langer writes about premature cognitive commitments, which are like photographs in which meaning, rather than motion, is frozen. A child may know an elderly person who is grumpy and will hold on to a picture of old people are grumps, taking it with them into adulthood. In not bothering to replace that picture with different images of later life, the person is locked into a false perception that is likely to be reflected in their own experience. They will turn into an old grump too.

Perspective and context

Mindlessness occurs when people accept information in a context-free way. The ability to transcend context, Langer says, is the mark of mindfulness and creativity. She says much pain is context dependent. Getting a bruise out on the football field will matter much less to us than if we sustain one at home. Imagination is the key to perceiving differently.

The personal development implication of these vignettes is clear: we can put up with anything as long as it is within a positive context. Without a defined personal vision, life might seem like a mass of constant worries and annoyances; with one, everything is put into perspective.

Process orientation

Another key characteristic of mindfulness is a focus on process before outcome, or doing rather than achieving. We look at a scientist's breakthrough and say genius, as if what he or she made the discovery overnight. Most scientific success, though, is the result of years of work that can be broken down into steps. The process orientation requires us to ask not Can I do it? but How can I do it?


Intuition is an important path to mindfulness because its use requires us to ignore old habits and expectations to try something that may go against reason. The best scientists are intuitive, many spending years methodically validating what appeared to them in a flash of intuitive truth.

The amazing thing about mindfulness and intuition is they are both relatively effortless: Both are reached by escaping the heavy, single-minded striving of most ordinary life, says Langer. The mindful person will go with what works, even if it does not make sense.

Final comments

Its ideas may seem difficult, but Mindfulness was written for a popular audience and is not long. It may be more understated than most self-help books, but its insights tend to stay in the mind.

Ellen Langer

Ellen Langer is professor of psychology at Harvard University. Mindfulness was the product of more than 50 experiments, mostly with elderly people, which led Langer to believe the protectiveness of nursing homes led to reduced autonomy and responsibility, which hastened ageing. Langer’s other popular works are Personal Politics (with Carol Dweck, 1973), The Psychology of Control (1983), and The Power of Mindful Learning (1997).

In a similar vein

Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence (1995)

Martin Seligman, Learned Optimism (1991)

Extracted from 50 SELF-HELP CLASSICS: 50 Inspirational Books to Transform Your Life by Tom Butler-Bowdon, published by Nicholas Brealey Publishing in paperback at £12.99. To order your copy with free postage and packaging (UK only) phone 0207 239 0360 or email:

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