Ellen Langer

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  • Counterclockwise
  • Jun 21, 01:34 PM

Gaining Control

In the New York Times of Sunday, June 20, there’s a story about how one hospital botched 65 of 92 prostate cancer treatments. There’s a strange upside to stories like these. People who read or hear about them are likely to become less trusting of the medical world when it comes to their own health. I’m not suggesting that in general doctors, nurses and their staff are in any way incompetent or ill intended. It’s just that we know more about our health—or at least should know—then anyone else and so it makes no sense to turn over complete control to anyone else.

As I wrote in Counterclockwise, I remember being stunned when my mother found out she had breast cancer and asked me if she were going to die. Asking questions like these of others highlights our mindless acceptance of expertise. Experts no matter how smart and well meaning can only know so much. We need to take back control of our health. I describe several ways to do this but this is only a tease so I want go into any particulars now. The first step, however, is to admit that we are not helpless over our diseases.

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  • Mindful Health
  • Jun 21, 01:32 PM

When He’s 64

Don’t buy him another tie or a shirt! Most of us approach Father’s Day mindlessly. The same old presents, the same old brunches, the same old Father’s Day cards. The older our parents get, the more this is the case. That’s unfortunate, because Father’s Day could offer us the chance to think about our fathers in a different way.

At an earlier time, our fathers used to be strong and seemed to know everything –or at least more than we did but now our father is diminishing right before our eyes. He’s less willing to try new things and often there seems to be something new going wrong with his health. Perhaps he is feeling a bit like a burden and we’re feeling a bit guilty about feeling this way.

The trouble is, the way we see him actually has real effects on the way he sees himself, and that has real effects on his life and health. My studies, and those of Becca Levy and others, show that our attitudes affect the quality of our lives and our longevity. We have far more control over our health than we realize, and the good news is that our fathers can have this control as well.

I conducted a study many years ago where we took elderly men to a “timeless” retreat to see if we could turn the clock back twenty years. When they first showed up to be in the study they were frequently accompanied by an adult child who babied them. To a one, they looked like they were on their last leg. For the research, these elderly men lived for a week as if it were twenty years earlier, speaking about the past, for example, in the present tense. Whoever was President twenty years earlier was the president “now.” Same with the baseball world series and football superbowl. When on their own, and without the influence of their worried children’s negative expectations for them, they did just fine. In fact, putting their minds in this younger place had considerable positive effects on their bodies. After a week away many of the men whose children thought of them as invalids were playing touch football with me.

Better than any shirt or tie, giving our fathers (and ultimately ourselves) a new attitude about their health and abilities would be the best gift of all. Instead of mindlessly going through yet another Father’s Day like all the others, give your father a challenge or a vote of confidence. Why not buy him a pedometer to encourage him to take longer and longer walks with pleasure and anticipation. Or challenge him to a scrabble game once a week or month. The winner gets a shirt. Or a tie! Let him see a world of possibilities in his current life, rather than see aging only as a time of loss. If we help our fathers add life to their years, we’ll actually help them add years to their life.

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  • Mindful Health
  • Jun 10, 05:54 PM

The Link Between Sex and Divorce?

Sex is a wonderful activity. So is having a romantic candlelit dinner. In the New York Times today there is an article about sex and marriage—or more specifically, sexless marriages. Research by Denise Connelly from Georgia State University, found that sexless marriages are more likely to end in divorce. Like all research, these results should be understood as probabilistic and not absolute.

People vary in their desire for sex. If little or no desire is shared by both partners and all else is in place (they are loving and respectful towards each other, they share much joy together, etc.) the absence of sex may mean nothing more than it would mean if they didn’t have breakfast together or that romantic dinner. People should not need experts nor research to know if their marriages are good. As a culture, I think we rely too much on experts who can only speak to what may be normatively true. Only we know what is true for us.

If we are content, we are content. It would be a shame for experts to lead any to worry if worry did not previously exist. Moreover, surely the finding is mainly a statistical one. Just as the research that shows that there are more car accidents close to home doesn’t mean we are driving more carelessly when we get close to home. Rather, it may mean only that we’re near our homes more than any other location.

When people are thinking about getting divorced they probably have stopped making love. That doesn’t mean that if we stop making love we’ll end up divorced.

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  • Counterclockwise
  • Jun 3, 04:00 PM

Bringing the Mind and Body Together Again

As recently as a decade or so ago, members of the traditional medical establishment thought eastern methods of healing—no less the emerging western ideas of how the mind may directly affect the body—to be almost a joke. Our views about these ideas have changed greatly, in no small part due to Christiane Northrup. When a well-respected physician such as Christiane considered alternative views of healthcare, many ideas thought to be on the fringe rightly moved to the mainstream.

I have been researching mind/body issues for over thirty years. I’ve learned that, when we set aside mind/body dualism—bring the mind and body back together— we find that wherever we put the mind the body follows. By putting the mind in healthy places, my research has shown that vision, memory, weight, even longevity can and do improve. The results are often startling to people, but that only proves when we give up limiting mindsets, all sorts of positive changes can occur.

Traditional medicine doesn’t need to be in conflict with other approaches, each has their place. We need to understand that medical research is designed to offer us probabilities—if we conduct the same research under the same circumstances with the same kind of people, most will respond in the same way. Yet when it comes to our health, it is of little consequence how most people may respond to a treatment or medication if it doesn’t work for us as individuals.

No research can predict the effects of any single treatment for any particular individual. We shouldn’t be deterred by this fact, it actually opens up enormous possibility as long as we open our minds to it. Established views are slow to change. But we shouldn’t have to wait for them to come around to start being mindful stewards of our health.

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  • Mindful Health
  • Jun 1, 04:11 PM

Further Reading About Mindful Health

If you’re interested in reading more about the psychology behind mindful health, I recommend the following books:

Dan Ariely, Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions, New York: HarperCollins, 2008.

Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald, Ordinary Prejudice, New York: Bantam Dell, 2009.

Tal Ben-Shahar, Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment, New York: McGraw-Hill, 2007.

Harold J. Bursztajn, Richard I. Feinbloom, Robert M. Hamm, and Archie Brodsky, Medical Choices, Medical Chances: How Patients, Families, and Physicians Can Cope With Uncertainty, New York: Routledge, 1991.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, New York: Harper Perennial, 1991.

Daniel J. Siegal, The Mindful Brain: Reflection and Attunemenl in the Cultivation of Well-Being, New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2007.