Ellen Langer was researching and promoting the idea of mindfulness long before the avalanche of books and articles about it started a few years ago. Her research into what it is and what benefits it offers provides real insights for business managers and leaders, especially in the domains of innovation, charisma, and reductions in stress.
Ellen Langer was born in the Bronx area of New York in 1947 and grew up in neighbouring Yonkers. She attended New York University, initially studying chemistry, but after attending a psychology course with Philip Zimbardo, she swapped courses. They remain friends. She earned her BA in 1970 and went on to gain her PhD in social and clinical psychology at Yale in 1974. Her research focused on ‘the illusion of control’ – our belief that we are able to influence certain events that are really outside of our control. After a period teaching at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, she was appointed the first tenured professor in the Psychology Department of Harvard University, where she continues to teach and research. In parallel, she also runs the Langer Mindfulness Institute, a research and consulting venture.
Her research also included a notable experiment transporting older people to an immersive environment much like that of their young adulthood and observing physiological changes consistent with reduced age. This is documented in her popular book. ‘Counterclockwise: A Proven Way to Think Yourself Younger and Healthier‘. The bulk of her research has touched in one way or another on the topic of mindfulness and her original book on the subject, ‘Mindfulness‘ has recently been re-released in a 25th anniversary edition. She recently co-edited the massive academic tome, ‘The Wiley-Blackwell Handbook of Mindfulness‘.
What is Mindfulness?
Langer has offered a number of definitions of the term ‘mindfulness’, which are wholly consistent, but together build a rich picture of how we can understand the term. Fundamentally, we become mindful when we turn off our auto-pilot and start to pay attention to our situation. It is a conscious awareness of our context and of the content of our thoughts, in which we link context and thought patterns together.
A deeper understanding of the meaning of mindfulness can be gained from examining the dimensions of Langer’s psychometric measure, ‘the Langer Mindfulness Scale’. The four dimensions are:
The extent to which we see every situation as a chance to learn something new.
The degree to which we tend to produce new information, to understand our situation.
The extent to which we notice details about our environment and how we relate to it.
The degree to which we embrace change, as opposed to resisting it.
Importantly, Langer’s definitions do not require meditation as a means of achieving mindfulness. Meditation, she says, is a tool. You can use it to become mindful, but you can also become mindful without meditation.
… and why does it matter to managers?
Langer asserts that most leadership problems are a result of inattention, and that organisations which create an environment that fosters mindfulness also become more effective and more innovative. This comes from her study of how people handle mistakes, which has found that a greater level of awareness of the potential for error leads to better and more flexible solutions to problems. Mindfulness reduces accidents and errors, and it also seems to reduce stress levels. Perhaps less surprising, mindfulness and attention to the people around us results in our being rated as more charismatic.
So how can you become more mindful?
Most important of all, start noticing things: be wholly present in the moment. When you find yourself worrying, examine the thoughts going through your head.If you need to make a decision, look ahead and consider how you will make it work. This way, you can notice events that are unexpected, rather than letting your cruise control run your life and therefore fail to notice small deviations. Become curious: when you do notice something, don’t just let it go past, but enquire into it. And finally, learn to savour experiences and small pleasures.
Ellen Langer speaking about ‘Mindfulness over Matter’
‘Most of us are mindless virtually all the time’
Why we are ‘frequently in error, but rarely in doubt’