Ellen Langer

If we were paralyzed for several months or years and couldn’t walk, taking even a few steps would constitute proof that we’ve changed. On the other hand, if we question our character, say, for example that we often used to lie, what would constitute proof that we have outgrown that style of behaving? If we tell the truth, it does not mean that we won’t lie again. If we think our spouse is having an affair, what could show us that we’re wrong for sure? If he went bowling on Thursday night as he said, it does not mean he didn’t see her some other time. If our cancer went into “remission” what would constitute proof that it will not return? If I’m fine today, it doesn’t mean I’ll be fine tomorrow, after all, I thought I was fine until I found that lump in the first place. If I were a depressed person, what would constitute proof that I’m doing better? There is no proof available. Let’s focus on the last of these because it is the most difficult to see how sometimes asking the question creates the problem.

Consider that we can be in one of two states of mind at any moment. Either we are experiencing ourselves or we are evaluating ourselves. The moments we are actively engaged in what we are doing, we are centered in ourselves and experience being situated in the present. These are the moments we seek. In order to evaluate ourselves, however, we have to take ourselves out of this engagement, hold ourselves “constant” and observe who or how we were. Essentially, to evaluate ourselves we must step outside of ourselves, away from our center.

When we are happy, we tend to go about our business without questioning our every move. Imagine, being in such a state and then coming across something that leads us to feel bad. For example, we didn’t finish the project when we had hoped to, the plan went awry, someone misunderstood our intentions, or the evaluation we were given was not up to our expectation. If we let these things lead us to question our basic worth, and we try to answer the question by evaluating ourselves, we may unwittingly begin a vicious cycle of feeling bad.

When we feel good we don’t ask ourselves questions about our self worth. When we feel bad, too often those are the very sorts of questions we do ask. What this means, in some sense, is that the answers we are left with weigh more heavily than they should. If we evaluated ourselves when we felt good and we evaluated ourselves when we felt bad, we might have a reasonable way to decide which feeling is dominant for us. Because the very act of evaluating ourselves prevents us from these positive evaluations, it might be better to just let ourselves be. Just think about it, this kind of ignorance really may be bliss.