Thinking 'Counter Clockwise' To Beat Stress Psychologist Ellen Langer has spent 30 years researching mindfulness, which she describes as the process of letting go of preconceived notions and acting on new observations. Her ideas revolutionized the field of social psychology, and her work is now used from battlefields to schools to hospitals.
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Thinking 'Counter Clockwise' To Beat Stress

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Thinking 'Counter Clockwise' To Beat Stress

Thinking 'Counter Clockwise' To Beat Stress

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. When psychologist Ellen Langer asked participants at a seminar to talk about someone or something that just drove them nuts, one woman spoke about her husband always being late for breakfast - a minor, everyday annoyance that Langer suggested might be reframed: Focus on the gift of a few moments alone.

A small thing maybe, but over more than 30 years, Ellen Langer's conducted a series of ingenious experiments that show how small and seemingly simple changes in our lives can reduce stress and help us lead healthier, happier lives. The Harvard psychologist's books include "Mindfulness" and "The Power of Mindful Learning" and "Clockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility." The latest of her many honors is her selection to give the Arthur W. Staats Lecture on Unifying Psychology tomorrow at the American Psychological Association conference in Orlando. She joins us in just a moment.

Has there been a stressful situation in your life that you turned around by reframing your outlook? 800-989-8255. Email us, You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, best movie about the Olympic Games. You can email us your nominee now. The address again is But first mindfulness, and Ellen Langer joins us now from member station WMFE in Orlando. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

ELLEN LANGER: Thank you for inviting me.

CONAN: And I think your study in the field of mindfulness actually started when you were studying what you called mindlessness. Tell us about the poker game.


LANGER: The poker game, my goodness, I haven't thought about that for almost 35 years. I was a graduate student at Yale, and we were going to play poker. It was my turn to deal. And all the cards would be face down, and I dealt the card rather than to the person next to me, to the person next to that person, and they just filled in and gave the person next to me the next card. And everybody went wild.

Misdeal, you know, and I didn't quite understand what difference it made which card I gave the person, since we couldn't see them anyway. And that said to me that people are mindlessly following rules and seem to give up thinking.

And so I went on then to study this concept of acting like a robot, not being there, and I must say that over - in almost 40 years, it's clear to me that this is pervasive, that virtually all of us, almost all the time, are not there.

When I was thinking about getting dressed this morning, I said: Let's see, what should I wear to be on your show?


LANGER: And reminding people it's a radio show, so it hardly matters.

CONAN: It doesn't really much matter, no, that's one of the blessings, in fact, of being in this industry. But I have to say that your groundbreaking discoveries in that field sort of branched in two directions. There is any number of people who have looked at that mindlessness thing and said, well, wait a minute, our brain doesn't make rational decisions all the time, doesn't make cold, calculating decisions all the time. This is evolution at work. This is the way we have evolved to think - and I think the popularization of this might be in the book "Blink."

You took it in another direction and said wait a minute, what might happen if we actually did start to make decisions and did start to think a little bit more.

LANGER: Yes, and I think that I've argued that it's never to our advantage to respond mindlessly. Only under one circumstance would it be, and that is if you found the very best way of responding, and things didn't change. And I think neither of those conditions are likely to be met.

It's always better, I think, that if you're going to do it to be there. It's also more enjoyable.

CONAN: It's also more fun, yes. So don't let your evolutionary response, your bottom brain react: Think about it.

LANGER: Right. I think that most of us are responding based on the things that we were taught when we were younger. And if we stopped and said, well, what was the basis for that learning, and typically there are a group of people behind these decisions who have particular biases that are behaving in a particular context that may not be relevant any longer.

And so you want to stop and say, well, does this make sense now. Even, you know, when we learn things for safety sake. So for many people, at least those, let's say, over 40, if they're skidding on ice, what they're probably going to do is slowly pump the brakes in their car.

Now that we have antilock brakes, the way to prevent accident is to firmly hit the brake. So, you see, even though we learn something at time one that was to be good for us, we keep doing it and doing it and doing it. Circumstances slowly change, and before you know it, what was good for you turns out to be quite bad. So by being more mindful, what happens is we can take advantage of opportunities that present themselves, but we also avert the danger not yet arisen.

CONAN: But this is not as easy as it sounds, is it?

LANGER: Well no, I think it's easier than it sounds, actually, that, you know, it's - people often confuse mindfulness with thinking, and thinking has gotten a bad rap itself. Now, when you're being mindful, as I study it, you're simply noticing new things. Even when you're thinking, what is stressful is the worry that you're not going to get the answer right, not the actual playing with the material.

Mindfulness is what you're doing when you're at leisure. If you are, oh, let's say, on a vacation, you're looking for new things. You've paid a lot of money to be in that state oftentimes. So I think that people would recognize that it's enjoyable rather than taxing. And it's even more than that. It's I think mostly energy begetting, not consuming.

CONAN: Perhaps I think your most famous experiment, you took a bunch of elderly gentlemen out to a very unusual vacation, back to 1959, in fact.

LANGER: Yeah, that's the - what we call the counter-clockwise study. What we did was to retrofit a retreat to 20 years earlier and had a group of men in their 80s. And I must say that was when 80 was 80, not the new 60.


LANGER: I mean, they were really old, so much so that I questioned my sanity, you know, why am I doing this? I mean, I'm going to be responsible for these men for a week. At any rate, they lived as if the past was the present, speaking about the past in the present tense so that everything was right now.

And as a result of this, what happened is their vision improved, they became stronger, more mentally alert. And we had taken photographs of them before we started and then again at the end of this, and they were evaluated by people who knew nothing about the study as looking younger.

Now, the BBC just replicated this study with British celebrities, and they also, and it's right on film, easy to see, that the celebrities improved enormously. And what was interesting...

CONAN: I was just particularly struck...

LANGER: Would you like to say something? It's your show, I realize that.


CONAN: It's my show, yes, but no, I was particularly struck by the finding that their fingers became longer as - because arthritis loosened.

LANGER: Right. I analyzed those data myself way back when, and I was, you know, dumbstruck - what does it mean that their fingers got longer - until I recognized that it was, yes, the arthritis was reducing.

CONAN: And that suggests that this novelty, novelty of living 20 years in the past, well, did it fool them into thinking that they were 20 years younger?

LANGER: I'm not sure exactly what happened. It was a very big study, very hard to run all the different control groups that would help me answer some of the questions you might be likely to ask. I do know that there are several things that happened. The first is that when they first arrived, this was a group of people who had been over-cared-for, over-loved in some sense, by usually adult children, daughters mostly.

And all of a sudden, they were on their own, the way they had been in the past. And we expected them to take care of themselves, and so - of themselves. So what happened was that they weren't reminded of their presumed incompetence at every turn. And so as they started to get into the activities, I think what happened was first they didn't have the typical mindset that said they can't so that that would slow them up or prevent them from even beginning. The mindfulness of engaging in the activity would provide some of the energy that was needed.

They were - and then they would experience this change, I think, which would lead to more and more change.

CONAN: You did not publish this study.

LANGER: Well, I published it in a handbook by Oxford. You know, so it was peer-reviewed in a sense, but no, I didn't send it in to the journals because, dare I say, the mindless reviewing processes that often take place.


LANGER: You know, that it was a very big - imagine, I took these people away for a week. There could be so many other things that one might want to control for, you know, just being on a vacation. Well, that one we had two groups. The experimental group did better than the group that just reminisced for a week. But, I don't know, whatever people could come up with.

And in all honestly that I had just gotten tenure, and this was in 1981. It was a very big event for me personally, and so I wasn't interested in fighting that fight. But I have many, many new and exciting studies that I report in the "Counter-Clockwise" book that have all been, as you say, peer-reviewed, and they're out in the best journals. And so that plus the BBC replication made clear to me that the counter-clockwise study itself would have been published had I pushed it.

I think that one thing to underscore was that all that people would ever disagree with is the explanation for the findings. The findings were very straightforward. So - and that's something I think noteworthy.

People don't think that old people are going to improve. You know, usually, at best you think you're going to forestall the decrements rather than actually turn things around. So improvements in vision, you know, that was unheard of at the time.

CONAN: It helped lead you to this idea that if we could all live in a state of, in a sense, novelty all the time, be in the moment, as people say, well, we might have some of those benefits, too.

LANGER: Yes, I think that many of the things that stop us are things that we've learned that we don't question. We just assume that they're true, and let me give an example of something that was important to me. Many years ago, I was at this horse event. And this man asked if I'd watch his horse for him because he wanted to get his horse a hot dog.

Well, I'm Harvard-Yale all the way through. So I snicker to myself: What is he, kidding? Horses don't eat meat. He brought back the hot dog, and the horse gobbled it up. I like being wrong. You can actually learn something.


LANGER: And then I said: What does it mean, horses don't eat meat? How many horses were tested? How large were the horses? How hungry were the horses? How much meat was mixed with how much grain and so on and so forth? And that made me realize, as I discuss in the "Counter-Clockwise" book, that all that we know are probabilities that are given to us, and research as absolute fact.

CONAN: Ellen Langer, the mother of mindfulness. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. Our guest is Ellen Langer, a pioneer of research into what's known as mindfulness. She demonstrated that we could be healthier and live better by noticing new things.

One recent example, Langer worked with a group of hotel maids. Just by doing their jobs, each got more than the recommended amount of daily exercise, she told them, but they didn't think of it as exercise. Once Langer told them that it was, yes, what you're doing is comparable to working out, they lost weight and reduced both body mass index and blood pressure without changes in their diet or their practices.

That deceptively simple idea can be applied to many other aspects of our lives. Has there been a stressful situation you turned around by reframing your outlook? 800-989-8255. Email us, You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And I wanted to read a couple of emails we got. This is from Alex(ph) in Richmond, California: It's such a simple thing, but whenever I have something distasteful to do, like say clean the toilet or some such, instead of saying I have to go clean the toilet, I say I get to clean the toilet, that is I am in good health, and I am able to do this task. And it sounds - you know, it sounds, well, simple. But Ellen Langer, words matter.

LANGER: Well yes, enormously. It reminds me we just had a wedding at our house this weekend, and everybody was eager to help. And it occurred to me that helping clean up other people's houses is always fun. So I thought early in the morning, somebody should toot a horn or something, and everybody then switch houses so we could all have fun cleaning somebody else's place.

CONAN: It would be interesting to see the patterns that develop, too.

LANGER: But yes, words matter enormously. The words that I focused on are words related to health and disease. So when I started the "Counter-Clockwise" book, I looked at chronic versus acute illness, and I couldn't find a definition for chronic. You know, did you need to have the symptoms 24/7, three hours a month? There was no definition.

But it mattered enormously because when people see that they have a chronic illness, they believe that there's nothing they can do about it. And so then we set out to study this in various ways, not the least of which is once you start paying attention to when you have the symptoms and when you don't, three things happen.

The first is you see you don't have it all the time, so it's not quite as bad as you thought. You know, people are depressed, they think they're depressed all the time. No one is anything all the time. People who are dyslexic, it turns out that most words, over 90 percent of the words, they're reading they tend to read correctly, yet they define themselves by their illness.

So what happens is first you see you're not as bad as you thought you were. Second, by seeing that sometimes it's better, sometimes it's worse leads you to ask the question, well, why, and you may well come up with a solution. And the third, even if you don't, that whole process is mindful, and the 35-or-so years of research we've done shows that that kind of noticing new things leads to health and longevity.

CONAN: Let's get a caller in. This is Roger(ph), Roger with us from Walnut Creek in California.

ROGER: Yes, hi. Dr. Langer, it's a pleasure to talk to you. I'm a psychologist, research psychologist. In another study, that I'm going to take you way back again, another study that you're very famous for is the one you worked on with Judith Rodin on - it's called - well, it's known as the plant study.

LANGER: Right.

ROGER: And it was in a nursing home. And I wonder how that study informed your current work.

LANGER: Yeah, well, actually that was the basis of a lot of it. We gave people choices, and the choices were things like do you want a plant, water the plant, take care of it yourself, do you want to see a movie, things that didn't seen consequential. But we found that those people given these choices actually lived longer. And so that was very important in my trying to figure out what is going on. How can such a simple thing lead to such monumental - in my mind - monumental consequences?

And I see choice as an exercise in mindfulness, you know, that if you're given a choice that doesn't matter to you, you're not going to think about it. You don't even see it as a choice. We all have choices all the time. I can be talking now or not talking, but until I said that, it didn't occur to me that, you know, that I had a lively choice.

CONAN: You don't. Not talking is not an option.

LANGER: For me, I'm feeling that I'm not giving you a chance to do your share, Neal.

CONAN: Oh, that's quite all right.


LANGER: But so making these choices means you're going to notice subtle differences among the various alternatives or between two alternatives. And...

ROGER: It's also about empowerment, then.

LANGER: Exactly so that empowerment - making choices is empowering. Making choices is the essence of mindfulness. So it goes beyond just feeling more powerful: The neurons are firing, and life becomes more exciting.

ROGER: Thank you.

CONAN: Roger, thanks very much for the call.

ROGER: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's go next to - this is Estelle(ph), and Estelle's with us from Marianna, Florida.

ESTELLE: Hi, how are you today?

CONAN: I'm good.

ESTELLE: Wonderful subject. Very briefly, I have a chronic disease, and I use mindfulness in order to have a good life and kind of taught myself to do it. I just decided that this disease would not define who I am or what I am. And it visits me occasionally. I empower myself to deal with it when it does and go on to have a very good life.

I've often had a lot of people say oh, how do you deal with this situation, you poor dear? And I think oh my goodness, you have much more wrong with you than I do me.


ESTELLE: And I just think that it's a state of mind. I never have a bad day. I just have days that aren't quite as good as others.

CONAN: Why do you...

LANGER: That's wonderful.

CONAN: Why do you think this works, Estelle?

ESTELLE: Oh, I don't think it works, I...

CONAN: I think she was going to say I know it works.

ESTELLE: Yeah, I know it works. And I believe that for me it works because I think that every day, when I open my eyes, I have a choice to have a good day or a bad day, and the experiences within it are also a choice of how I view them. So if I don't really quite feel well, it affords me the opportunity to do something that is not quite so busy, perhaps, for the day, whereas I may have gone out and mowed grass and been busy all day instead of wrote letters and enjoyed conversations with people.

So I just never really say this is terrible. I just say well, this affords me the opportunity to do something I might not have done if I could exercise my will to be different. And it really seems to work, and it helped me overcome being depressed, and it really - it works. It works. Keep your smile on, and suck it up.

CONAN: Ellen Langer?

LANGER: I think that's wonderful. You know, there's data that many people who have heart attacks, after the heart attack realize that life can be short and then begin to start living. When people are given a diagnosis of cancer, after the initial shock, there's a new way of orienting themselves to the world.

I think that people need to wake up and realize that basically we're - we've been sealed in unlived lives, and you don't get a second chance or probably don't get a second chance. And we need to take advantage of it now. And as your caller just said very nicely, I think, that when something looks - you know, is different, rather than see that difference as negative is to ask yourself how to make the most of that particular difference.

ESTELLE: Exactly, exactly, and that's what I've had to do because I had to give up so much of who I was. So I just became a different person. There's no sense in crying over it. You know, I wake up every day, you know, and I say this is the day the lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it. And I am truly grateful for every moment that I have.

And of course there are times when we're all human, and we go boo-hoo, this is awful, but then you just suck it up and get on with it, you know, just carry on.

CONAN: Thanks very much, congratulations.

ESTELLE: Thank you very much for the show. I really enjoy it.

CONAN: Thank you. Is it important to know why this works, why Estelle feels better, why the maids lost weight?

ESTELLE: I think there are two different explanations. As far as why the maids lost weight, I think that the problem is, again, with language, that we have this idea of mind and body, as if they're separate, and the mind-body problem the is how do you get from this fuzzy thing called a mind to the body. And I prefer putting the mind and body back together. And as one then wherever the mind is so too will be the body and vice versa.

LANGER: And that explains, then, placebos, spontaneous remissions and the weight loss, you know, that basically if you had a couple of people in the gym, and one is working much harder than the other, but they were - the person who is barely moving saw herself as getting a full workout, this would suggest that she will benefit by that change in mindset, that there's nothing to explain, in some sense.

Now the - for the caller, that if one is buying into the mindset that whatever one has is awful and they're not engaging themselves, then what happens is it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, in part, you know, that - let's say - even - if you had some disorder, let's say you had arthritis, and you're gardening. And after the gardening you're in great pain and you see the pain as a function of the arthritis, over-assimilating everything to that diagnosis, that would dictate to you, you know, don't garden.

Whereas if you pay closer attention, and saw, you know, when I garden in this way, I - it feels much better when I garden in that way. Then what happens is you don't give up activities that you might actually enjoy, and then you're out in the world, enjoying yourself. You're living rather than being consumed by these negative mindsets.

CONAN: Let's go to Heather, Heather on the line with us from Wilmington, North Carolina.

HEATHER: Hi. How are you?

CONAN: I'm good. Thanks.

HEATHER: So, kind of going with this whole mindfulness, my husband recently joined the military. And being separated after over five years of marriage for 10, 12 weeks at a time, rather than ending our letters to each other with, oh, God, you know, it's so long until I see you or I've been gone so long, we always ended it with: It's one day closer to being able to see you. It's one day closer till he comes home, one day closer to when I can possibly get a phone call. And that helped to change our mindset and improve our positivity, not just in our relationship with each other, but it's had a profound, phenomenal on our marriage, as well.

CONAN: And your husband keeps the same mindset, do you think?

HEATHER: Yes. We both learned that the more positive that we were, the more supportive that we were for each other, even in being separated, when we are together now, it's - like I just came back from a two-week absence. You know, being absent for that long, now when we see each other, it's just, man, this is -our time together is great. I can't wait until we can spend as much time together or, you know, learning how to just be positive about the time that we do have.

CONAN: And is your husband away now?

HEATHER: He is not. He is in training, but he's not away yet.

CONAN: Well, we wish you and him the best of luck.

HEATHER: Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the phone call. Our guest is Ellen Langer. Tomorrow, she gives the lecture at the APA Convention in Orlando, Florida, and joins us today from our member station there, WMFE. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

And you mentioned earlier, some new research in that lecture tomorrow night. Can you give us any kind of a preview?

LANGER: Oh, we have - there are several new things that I'll talk about. One, that - we just got the data, so it hasn't been, as you said, peer-reviewed yet, but the numbers are quite clear. What we did was to take women in their fifth month of pregnancy and taught one group of them to be mindful. And in this sense, it was attending to the variability in their sensations.

So, again, when you are going to notice when you're better, when you're worse, that seems to improve situation in many different ways. One, you see it's not as bad as you thought it was. Two, you come to know how to organize yourself to, again, decrease the negative times. And three, the whole activity tends to be more mindful, which is good for your health and well-being.

At any rate, what we found was that this attention to variability increased health for both the mother and the infant. We used the Apgar measure for the infant, which is a measure that we take - is taken the moment they - of birth, and then five minutes later, on things like heart rate, respiration, the color, muscle tone and flexibility. And so that's very exciting.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in. This is Sherry(ph), Sherry with us from Rochester, New York.

SHERRY: Hi, there. I was listening to your show, and I just got caught in a horrible traffic jam, and I started to get all stressed out. And then I realized I could be mindful and be appreciative that I have time to listen to your show.


SHERRY: So I figured I'd give you an example of practicing mindfulness.

CONAN: There's an opportunity...

LANGER: There you go.

CONAN: ...we think America should take every day. We're greatly in favor of traffic jams.


SHERRY: I think so, too.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Sherry.

SHERRY: Thank you. Bye-bye.

CONAN: This is an email we have from Adam in Lincoln Park, Michigan: Your guest has mentioned the benefit of more people being more mindful in the moment. However, as an artist, I wonder what her opinion is about what I would call automatic behavior, such as drawing or painting, or even the performance of music by a virtuoso. Certainly, much of what creative people do would be considered mindless in the sense of conscious decisions aren't being made, but are a sort of automatic behavior.

LANGER: On the contrary. The research that we've done with symphony orchestras, for instance, and with painting and so on suggests that the more present one is, the more that they're actively noticing what they're doing. They're not evaluating themselves. They're right there, doing their art - results in a product that other people, who are oblivious to how they did it, will end up preferring it.

We have symphony orchestras where we instruct them, the members of the orchestra, to play this particular piece and make it new in various, subtle ways that only they would know. And the ways must be subtle, because they're playing classical music as a group. And we record these. The comparison group is told: Remember a performance of the same piece that you were very pleased with and try to replicate that.

So they would be playing either this mindfully or mindlessly. We would record it. We would play it for people. And overwhelmingly they prefer the mindfully played piece. And overwhelmingly the musicians prefer playing mindfully. Much of the time, when we're being mindless, it's because we're being evaluative. What if we don't get it right, or what am I supposed to be doing now? Do I still have it? Will the end result be good? And when you're doing it mindfully, you're not lost in that morass of evaluation.

CONAN: Ellen Langer, we hope you can retain your concentration and be in the moment in the lecture tomorrow night.

LANGER: Thank you.


CONAN: Good luck. Appreciate your time today. Psychologist Ellen Langer joined us from member station WMFE in Orlando. She's a Harvard professor of psychology and author of "Counterclockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility."

Coming up, the Olympics are good on the small screen. They're even better on the silver screen. And everybody always loves an underdog.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: That's above me.

CONAN: Murray Horwitz, our favorite film buff returns with the best movies about the Olympic Games. Summer, winter, doesn't matter, call in with your nominee. 800-989-8255. You can also email us: Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

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