Meet the Mind: Ellen Langer

Can you turn back the clock? One Harvard University professor shares her secret to releasing the fountain of eternal youth.

| August 23rd, 2011
Meet the Mind: Ellen Langer

It wasn’t until her fifties that Ellen Langer, Ph.D., an acclaimed professor of psychology at Harvard University, decided to take up painting.

Well—“decided” isn’t quite right. Langer was staying at her summer house on Cape Cod and, after a week of rain, ran into an artist friend in town. “She asked what the day held for me, and to my surprise I said I was thinking of taking up painting,” Langer writes in On Becoming an Artist. “I have no idea why I said that. I don’t think I’d had more than a fleeting thought or two about painting in my entire life up to that point.”

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A week later, Langer found herself painting—on a shingle—a girl riding horseback in the woods. She enjoyed it so much that she moved on to canvases, painting horses and more horses. “I was completely engaged in what I was doing,” she writes. “I loved every minute of painting; then I loved trying to figure out why I painted what I painted.”

Langer continues to paint voraciously—dogs reading books, women playing tennis or eating over the sink, barns and houses and libraries. “It’s more than an avocation—it’s a passion,” she tells YouBeauty.

Perhaps the reason is that painting, like other purely creative pursuits, enables the kind of mental engagement that Langer champions. For over 35 years—beginning well before she painted that first shingle—Langer has studied mindfulness. She writes that, all too often, people move through their lives detached, on autopilot, “not seeing, hearing, tasting or experiencing what would turn lives troubled by boredom and loneliness into lives that are rich and exciting.” Painting encourages complete engagement.

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“Mindfulness is the process of noticing new things. It couldn’t be simpler,” Langer explains. People in a mindless state are not alive to the world as a dynamic, changing place: they mistakenly view all things as static. But your surroundings change constantly, and mindfulness is the process of noticing those changes.

Ellen Langer
Ellen Langer

Langer was born in the Bronx, grew up in Yonkers and majored in psychology at New York University. In 1974, she graduated from Yale with a Ph.D. in social and clinical psychology. She spent three years teaching at the City University of New York before she moved on to Harvard, where she remains—and where she was the first woman to be tenured in psychology. Over the past three decades, Langer has won many awards—including a Guggenheim Fellowship—and written over 200 articles and almost a dozen books, mostly focusing on what mindfulness can achieve. 

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In 1981, Langer rose to prominance with a surprising finding that has defined much of her later work: Mindfulness can turn back the clock. Langer and a research team organized a weeklong retreat for a cohort of men between 75 and 80 years old to a monastery outfitted with 1950s memorabilia. Half the men were told to reminisce about 1959—the events, the music, the television shows, their lives. But the other half was told to live the week as if it was 1959, using the present tense.

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