Meet the Mind: Ellen Langer

Meet the Mind: Ellen Langer

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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.”

Explore Langer’s Key Studies

Everything from a hair salon appointment to household chores can make your body look, feel and act years younger. Find out why, below:Mindfulness Improves Your VisionTake Responsibility, Live LongerMindful Marriages Are HappierThink Young, Look YoungMindfulness Can Make You Fitter

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.MORE: Find Your Flow“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.MORE: Can You Lose Weight Just by Thinking Differently?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.By the end of the week, all of the men looked about three years younger, had better hearing, memory and strength, and had gained weight. But the men who had lived as if they were 20 years younger had better posture, vision and joint flexibility than those who had just reminisced. A greater percentage had higher intelligence scores, too. In other words, their bodies behaved as though they were, in fact, younger.

explore Langer’s Key Studies

Everything from a hair salon appointment to household chores can make your body look, feel and act years younger. Find out why, below:Mindfulness Improves Your VisionTake Responsibility, Live LongerMindful Marriages Are HappierThink Young, Look YoungMindfulness Can Make You Fitter

This study, early in Langer’s career, was a landmark. These men had been operating under the stereotype that people become decrepit as they age. After only a week spent engaging with the world as they had in middle age, their bodies followed suit. The study demonstrated what is now a pillar of Langer’s philosophy: “Stereotypes, in general, are holding things still and lead us, often, to get just what we expect,” she says. Using mindful attention to dissolve these stereotypes can have dramatic effects.Most of us don’t have the opportunity to spend a week in a mindfulness-focused monastery—but we don’t need to. Langer explains that there are certain situations in which we’re already accustomed to practicing mindfulness. On vacation, for example, we tend to look with fresh eyes at things we ignore at home. And if we’ve spent a lot of money on concert tickets or a restaurant meal, we’re likely to pay closer attention to the music and food than we do at home.MORE: Meditation for BeginnersThe trick is adopting this mentality in your everyday life. Langer suggests that, repeatedly throughout the day, we take a pause to notice five new things. “Actively noticing new things puts you in the present,” she says. “There’s always something to see, to taste, to hear.” 

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