Ellen Langer

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  • Dec 29, 08:37 AM

Psychopathologizing Everyday Life

It is certainly good to know that the theorizing and work that we do our laboratories reaches the public. On the other hand, it is also true that “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” Many people are aware of concepts like rationalization, obsession, and denial, for example. In my view, it is these very concepts that do more damage than good when they are used in the casual way many of us seem to use them; and even perhaps even more so when professionals us them to explain behavior that might be better understood differently. Let me take them up one at a time and explain.

Most of us are familiar with the tale of the fox who wants the grapes on the vine too high for him to reach. Instead of pursuing what is taken to be a hopeless venture, he instead concludes that he didn’t really want them anyway. This is the essence of rationalization; the “after-the-fact” decision that is motivated by the belief that we can’t have it, so we re-evaluate wrongly that we don’t really want it. That is, we lie to ourselves. There are at least two problems here. The first one is in the frequent confusion of a “before-the-fact” strategy and lying to ourselves after the fact. When we hear someone say some version of “I didn’t want it anyway,” we too quickly accuse them of rationalizing. If whatever the person no longer wants is from all perspectives, positive, so that to not want it would be irrational, then maybe we would be right. When is this the case? Rarely, if ever, I think. Indeed, the more mindful we are, the more we realize that whatever we are evaluating “cuts both ways.” What is good from one perspective, may be bad from another, and neutral from yet a different view. If we know this and as a life strategy, choose to attend to the positive aspects of the people and things around us, then an adaptive thing to do when the frustration to get want we want feels too much for us, is to let it be and attend to those aspects that give us a more balanced picture of what we are not having; that is, the good and bad aspects of it that we can call to mind. To do this is not lying to oneself. If we too easily see ourselves or others as rationalizing whenever we/they take a positive view; we foster negativity. If every time we change our minds we accuse or are accused of rationalizing, we learn to become less flexible. Let’s go back to the fox and the grapes.

The fox apparently can’t bear the disappoint of not having the delectable grapes and so he lies to himself about them. If instead of being mindlessly consumed by how delicious the grapes might taste, he allowed more uncertainty about them, the fox might be freer to actually find another way to get to them. That is, our single-minded evaluations that lead us to think in terms of rationalization, often lead to intense emotions that prevent more flexible thought. The grapes in some ways may be good, in others they may not be; in some ways eating them if good will be good for us, and in other ways they won’t be. This more mindful view prevents the narrowing of attention that comes with intense emotion.

Now let’s consider obsession. If we can’t sleep at night because we feel plagued by some problem at work, for example, too often we accuse ourselves of obsessing. We complain that we just can’t stop thinking about it. Many of us lead very active lives meeting demands made by many people. Lives like this allow little time to sit back and problem solve. Once we turn off the lights the night is ours to reclaim. If we go right to sleep, the problems that faced us that day may still be there to greet us tomorrow. If we mindlessly assume that we should fall asleep almost immediately upon hitting the pillow, then, of course, if we don’t there is a problem. If we try to address the day’s concerns before we fall asleep, on the other hand, tomorrow may be a better day. If we do resolve the problem after the lights are out, then the process of problem-solving before sleep has been reinforced. Thus, we try it again another night with another problem. It is not, to my mind, irrational to do what seems to work. The problem with this kind of problem-solving, is that it is not always successful. If indeed it were, many of the issues would probably have been dealt with earlier in the day. That is, some problems simply are difficult to solve. If we wake up tired, with the problem not solved, it seems that the thoughts were useless and hence our attribution to obsession. Failed attempts at working something through may be necessary to finally arrive at what we take to be a solution. I think an attribution to problem-solving rather than obsessing, may help us get more sleep.

Denial is yet one more of these psychopathological terms that we overuse to describe ourselves or others. As with rationalization and obsession, often when we make an attribution to denial we are understanding the situation mindlessly from a single-perspective. Consider that horses are fast approaching us and everyone but me runs for cover. Later, when we discuss it from my hospital bed, I am accused of having denied the threat of harm. Before agreeing that I was in denial, let’s turn this example just a bit. Later, when we are about to discuss the event, consider that instead of being in the hospital, I am dismounting from one of the horses. Now instead of accusing me of being in denial, those who ran away feel like cowards. The point is that before the event we could not know what would happen. Others did what made sense to them given their prediction of impending harm. They also were not irrational, given their view of the likelihood of being harmed. I did what I did, as a result of a very different prediction; one based on the assumption that harm was unlikely.

Thus, the attribution of denial is often simply the mistake that the situation can be seen in just one way; and the person purportedly in denial sees it in a way that is different. The more people who see it in the same way, the more likely the one who sees it differently will be misunderstood. Now let’s return to our discussion from my hospital bed. Since those who ran away are now safe and I was harmed, I can mistakenly say of myself that I must have been in denial. Seeing oneself as in denial is not unlike the feeling that “I should have known.” After the fact it is easy to see how the events unfolded. Before the fact, there are many other ways it could have gone.

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  • Mindfulness
  • Dec 26, 02:17 PM

Scroogenomics: Are the Grinches wrong?

We either gave gifts as usual this Christmas or heeded the advice of Joel Waldfogel, Wharton Professor of Economics and author of Scroogenomics, who argues in his book that we should not have. My guess is those who chose not to give gifts were not so much persuaded by his argument, but found him a convenient expert to justify what they were already planning to do.

Now that the decision is past, do they suffer post decision regret? I bet many do. Sure, sometimes giving a gift is done mindlessly and thus may be meaningless. Sometimes it’s also stressful. More often though, it creates memories that may last a lifetime that would be hard to quantify in an economist’s cost/benefit analysis or to replicate in some non-gift-giving way.

Gift-giving may be likened to our system of law. We can never or rarely be sure if someone accused actually committed the crime or not. Thus we always run the risk of punishing the innocent or freeing the guilty. We take as a standard, innocent until proven guilty. A gift can be a waste of money where the receiver has no use or desire for it or it can be meaningfully received. We can run the risk of giving without benefit or not giving when there would have been benefit. I strongly vote for the former. Give, give, give. I wish I knew how many gave, gave, gave and now feel generous.

I spent Christmas Eve at a small party of eleven people, playing Santa. I chose a bunch of games that I had remembered being fun as a child and thought would still be entertaining. It was a big hit. For reasons I can’t conjure up, however, while I bought a gift for a friend’s two teens and his wife, I didn’t buy one for the male host. I also didn’t bring one for my partner, thinking we would exchange gifts the next day. They didn’t need whatever silly thing I would have gotten. But like children, not having anything to open was a small disappointment and I felt Scrooge-like.

I’ve written elsewhere about how giving leads the giver to feel empowered and generous and in the process of choosing the gift to come to know the recipient better. The more mindful the individual is in trying to figure out what to get, the more rewards the giver will reap in terms relationship satisfaction. Moreover, much of my research on mindfulness suggests that more mindful gift choices may improve our health and well-being as well.

A gift didn’t have to be expensive or even store bought. It just needed to implicitly say “I care” to be successful. My gifts that were wrapped with care brought smiles. Very easy, no stress, and very rewarding—even in a cost benefit way.

Economists have found that people often wouldn’t buy the item they were given. So what? Seemingly even worse, they typically think it costs less than it did. Is this reason to stop giving gifts? Before answering, let me share a personal experience.

In December, 1997, my house had a fire that destroyed around 80 percent of what I owned plus all of the gifts that had arrived for the holidays and all of those waiting to be mailed. I arrived home from a dinner party at 11:30 to find my neighbors outside waiting for me and my house boarded up. They waited in the cold so I wouldn’t have to face the event alone and to make sure I knew my dogs were okay. The next many days my dogs and I stayed at the Charles Hotel. Not surprisingly, we were not unobserved nor were we ignored.

On Christmas Eve, I left the room to go to dinner. When I returned, I returned to a room filled with gifts. They were from the chambermaids, the men who parked my car, the waitresses, the clerks at the desk. It brought tears to my eyes and still has that effect every Christmas when I recall the generosity of these loving strangers.

If an economist asked me if I would have bought the items for myself, the answer would have been no. That would be taken as evidence that I shouldn’t have been given them. If these people had been convinced by experts not to give to anyone but immediate family, they probably would have felt less generous that Christmas. I would have missed an experience of a lifetime that keeps on giving, memory after memory.

Christmas is a time to give presents, it’s a time to let people know you are there and that you care. The Grinches need to know that it’s never too late.

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  • Dec 22, 08:31 AM

By accepting our shortcomings, we deny our strengths

Many people advise us to change the things we can change, don’t try to change the things we can not change and know the difference between the two. Questioning the wisdom of this may upset many people, but still, I wonder if this is really good advice.

My doubt rests on the lack of distinction drawn between the concepts uncontrollable and indeterminate. To say that something is uncontrollable, means that we know that it can not be controlled. This is something we can not know. All we can know is that “it” has not yet been controlled. Whether or not we ultimately will find a way to control it is indeterminate. It would seem that any advance, personal or scientific, depends on the assumption that what is not yet known may be knowable. If a quadriplegic told you he thought he could walk again if he tried hard enough in different ways, could you be sure he couldn’t? If we based our predictions on the past, we’d be sure. It’s hard to imagine it being otherwise because it hasn’t happened. What if in 1798 an individual told you he thought he could figure out how to fly? Clearly this too would have been hard to imagine. We could take a historical perspective and show that in case after case that which was presumed to be uncontrollable became controlled. But certainly this would not prove that all is potentially controllable. However, by the same token, descriptions of actions not known to exist that lead to the assumption of uncontrollability do not prove uncontrollability.

On whom shall the burden of proof fall? To answer this, one may use a cost-benefit analysis, and compare the potential costs and benefits of perceiving control or no control. Some of the alleged dangers of perceiving control in “uncontrollable” situations are that it wastes the individual’s time and effort and will keep him or her from more productive enterprises; that “inevitable” failures will lead to perceived incompetence and helplessness; and/or believing that all situations are controllable leads to excessive self-blame when the situation “in fact “, is not controllable. These alleged dangers are by no means necessary consequences of the perception of control. To perceive controllability with respect to some goal does not mean that one must attempt to exercise it. After consideration, one easily may decide that the goal is not worth expending all the time and effort that is deemed necessary in order to achieve it. Furthermore, to begin on a path does not necessitate staying on it. One could decide that time and energy would be more satisfactorily spent elsewhere.

Some would argue that the individual who tries to attain the “unattainable” is setting him or herself up from self-recriminations: “Why did I waste my time?” If, on the other hand, a solution is found and what seemed uncontrollable is now readily controlled, the person who believed it couldn’t be may say “Why didn’t I at least try?”

If the advice means don’t try to change other people, then it is even more confusing to me since the advice itself is meant to change people, or else why would it be given? We influence and are influenced by others all the time. If the advice means that “other” people don’t want to feel controlled, that is another matter. Then the advice is really suggesting a more successful interpersonal strategy and has little to do with controllability.

Just think about it, when we are displeased with ourselves, wouldn’t it be more advantageous to change the things we can easily change, try to change the things that may be difficult, and to accept the difference between uncontrollable and indeterminate?

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  • Dec 15, 08:30 AM

To give and to receive: the when and the why

It’s nice to receive gifts. Often it tells us that someone cares, to say nothing of now being in the possession of that new item. Giving, on the other hand, tells us more about ourselves; increases the bond between us and the person to whom we have given something, and provokes mindfulness in us.

The decision to give to someone typically leads to at least some reflection about what our relationship to the person is (what kind of gift is appropriate), how much we do or do not care about the person (how much effort/expense do we want to go to), and how that person’s likes or dislikes may be similar to our own (what should we actually buy/make). These are just some of the thoughts gift-giving typically provokes. The same may be said of giving advice or doing someone a service. These have the added benefit of showing us that we are capable.

This line of thinking leads me to two unusual thoughts: one concerns the question of why being nice often isn’t as successful with the opposite sex as being demanding. The second concerns at least a partial remedy to the empty-nest problem.

Most of us want to be loved, but as Erich Fromm astutely pointed out, it is actually loving that is rewarding. Being loved just facilitates our opportunities to love. To accept this just consider how suffocating it feels to be loved when we can’t return the feelings. When we love, we give. If giving is an effective way to feel competent, mindful, and loving, then the person who attends to every need of a potential suitor and asks for or takes nothing in return, is effectively denying the suitor a chance to feel effective. Attending to someone else’s needs leads to affection for the person attended to. Discouraging a desired potential suitor from giving, then, is clearly the wrong strategy. Rather than experience guilt or fear that the person will resent doing things for us, perhaps we should reconsider what giving can mean to the giver. Of course for a successful long term relationship, both parties need to feel effective and experience themselves as caring. The not-so-nice person may win the suitor, but still loses. The recipe calls for both parties to be giving.

Now consider that many women experience a great sense of loss when their last or only child grows up and leaves home. The remedy for the depression experienced when faced with an “empty-nest,” is often to “find something else to attend to.” I would amend that advice in light of this discussion to “find something or someone else to give to.” The bond between a mother and child initially may be instinctual. Nevertheless, consider what the mother’s day consists of in the face of the responsibility she now has for a helpless infant. With all the giving she has before her, it is no wonder the bond grows strong. If her marital relationship is lacking in any way, even more attention is likely to be given to the child. Attention in this instance translates into giving. A mother’s role is certainly demanding, but now we can see new ways it may be rewarding. When the young adult leaves home, how will the mother feel competent? What will now provoke her mindfulness and experience of loving? Those who care about her will probably give to her now that she is depressed and lonely. What she may need instead, is to give to them.

Aristotle said that it is difficult to forgive someone who has done a favor for us. This made sense given our traditional ways of thinking. Just think about it, it may be better to give than to receive, unless one wants to give the joy of giving.

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  • Dec 8, 08:31 AM

The Medicalization of Mundane Experience: The “Syndrome” Syndrome

My fingers hurt after I’ve been typing all day; I get cranky and bloated once a month before I get my period; and every time I eat Chinese food I have chest pains from the MSG I consumed. Uncomfortable yes; tragic, probably not. Some sensations are, of course, worse: after radiation therapy I vomit; sometimes I have pain and muscle weakness in my shoulder.

At least to me, these symptoms don’t sound as bad or irreversible as they do once they are called syndromes. There are actually 97 named syndromes. As a culture, I think we have the syndrome syndrome—the naming of sensations. This kind of naming has a hidden downside in that it actually may cause ill health.

There are syndromes that have been categorized and those that haven’t. For example, there are those syndromes that stem from environmental causes like Acute Radiation Syndrome that results from radiation exposure and leads to vomiting, bloody diarrhea, exhaustion and Chinese Restaurant Syndrome that is a reaction to MSG and leads to chest pain and a burning sensation. There are cardiovascular syndromes like Shoulder-Hand Syndrome which results from Myocardial Infarction leading to Pain in the shoulder and swelling in hand. There are endocrine syndromes like Premenstrual Syndrome that results is Abnormal sensation in the breasts, abdominal pain, thirst, headache, pelvic congestion, nervous irritability. There are neurological syndromes like Carpal-Tunnel Syndrome which is a compression of the median nerve through the carpal tunnel that leads to pain and parasthesia.

And there are syndromes that are uncategorized, like Munchausen Syndrome: which is malingering—where people make up a clinically convincing disease. There is even, Munchausen syndrome by proxy where a person deliberately causes injury or illness to another person (most often his child) usually to gain attention or some other benefit.

What all of these and the remaining ninety not mentioned have in common is that people who are given these diagnoses probably feel some relief in knowing that their discomfort is “real.” (Of course, it’s real. Why should we think psychological discomfort is any less real than physical discomfort?) The problem is that once symptoms are given a name they run the risk of becoming more permanent than they might otherwise have to be.

Labels lead to expectations and expectations tend to be fulfilled. Surely there are instances when there are no symptoms, but these times are easily overlooked, making the diagnosis seem that much more accurate.

When we expect to have symptoms, we over assimilate our experience to those expectations. Very minor stomach discomfort, for example, is seen as PMS, even though on a particular occasion is could have resulted from overeating.

More important, when we expect symptoms now that we know we have a legitimate medical condition, we may be less likely to take steps to self heal. After all, one may think, if it can be self healed it wouldn’t be a medical condition in the first place.

These syndromes are evidence of the medicalization of mundane experience. Sensations fluctuate. Sometimes they are there and sometimes not; sometimes their felt effects are great and sometimes not. By naming them we tend to hold them still and overlook all of this variability. If we mindfully attended to the changes we would at least stand a chance of healing them ourselves. For example, if I have carpal tunnel syndrome I will not experience the same degree of pain every time I work at the computer. If I notice the changes in my experience—some times it hurts more and sometimes it hurts less—I may think to ask why this is so. Once I ask the question I can start testing my hypothesis. Perhaps when I’m writing something required I’m tense when at the computer while writing to friends does not result in any discomfort. If this were the case, then I should try to figure out how to make the assignment less stressful resulting in diminished symptoms and the end of the syndrome.

Nothing stays the same so no matter what the syndrome or disease, we can gain control in this way by mindfully attending to the variability and then questioning why the change. If everything becomes a syndrome, we give up this control over our health. The cure, then, for the Syndrome Syndrome is to become mindful.