April 16, 2014

Q&A with Ellen Langer, Harvard University psychology professor, author of ‘Mindfulness’

Posted by: in North America

Mindful Living, one of our 10 Trends for 2014 and Beyond, points to consumers developing a quasi-Zen desire to experience things in a more present, conscious way—that is, more mindfully. To explore this topic, we interviewed pioneering mindfulness researcher Ellen Langer, a Harvard psychology professor and author of 11 books, including the best-seller Mindfulness, which has been translated into 18 languages. She discussed what it means to be more mindful, how to go about it and what advantages it brings—including its many benefits for businesses—as well as why mindfulness is now finding a foothold in the West. 

Can you explain what you mean by the term “mindfulness”?

Mindfulness, as I have studied it now for over 35 years, is a remarkably simple process of noticing new things. When you notice new things, what happens is that it puts you in the present—oddly, everybody says we should be in the present, but when we are not in the present, we are not there to know we are not there. This is the way to be there. You notice new things, then that makes you more sensitive to context and perspective. 

The act of noticing new things feels enlivening and is literally, not just figuratively, enlivening. As you notice new things, you come to see that you didn’t know this thing as well as you thought. Then with this modicum of uncertainty, your attention naturally goes to whatever is the topic.

It is not at odds with meditation, but it is very different. Meditation is a tool that sets you up for post-meditative mindfulness. There are two ways of getting to the same place, and the place you get to is a place where you’re responsive to the world around you but not reactive. Right now, people are pulled: When they think something is good, they must have it. When they think it is bad, they must stay away from it. However, evaluations are in our heads and not in the things we are evaluating. The more mindful you become and the more you look at this thing and you see, “Well, in these ways it is good, and in these ways it is bad,” then you are not pulled in either direction, and you can just be.

Mindless, by contrast, here you are letting the past overdetermine the present. You are not there, and, again, you are not aware you are not there. Your behavior is dictated by the sense it made at an earlier time. Therefore, you are trapped in a rigid perspective, and you are oblivious to the fact that you are not seeing much of what is there to be seen. When we are mindless, we are acting like robots, more or less. We don’t hear what is being said that is slightly different from what we expected. We don’t see what there is to be seen, we don’t taste, we don’t feel, and so on—the past governs what we are doing.

Would you say mindfulness stems from meditation, or is that just one route to mindfulness?

[My study of mindfulness] is not based on meditation at all. It is very different. Mine comes from a Western scientific perspective. It was very rewarding for me studying this from this Western scientific perspective to say that I come to so many of the same conclusions as the old masters in the East. There are ways of becoming mindful without drawing new distinctions or meditating, and that would be if we learned about the world in a conditional way from the start. That means that rather than see things as they, in a particular way, we realize that it is only one of several ways it could be.

For instance, in schools—which are the major culprits in teaching people to be mindless—you have so many things like, “Here are the three reasons for the Civil War,” without a statement from whose perspective those are the reasons. When you are taught conditionally, then you walk around knowing that, “Well, it could be this way, it could be that way”—so you stay attentive. You don’t end up with this illusion of certainty. The illusion of certainty is mindless. Schools teach us to be mindless; schools teach us there are right answers irrespective of context.

There are no right answers irrespective of context. For example, if I said to you—and I use this example frequently—“How much is 1 and 1?” We have all been taught to say 2, but if you add one wad of chewing gum to one wad of chewing gum, 1 plus 1 is 1. The way we learned, we seek certainties. Oddly, we seek certainty so that we will be able to control our world. If I could pigeonhole you, I know how to respond to you, for example. However, it’s the very process of holding things still and thinking we know it that actually robs us of control. 

When did you first strike on the concept of mindfulness as an area of research?

When I moved to Cambridge from New York, very strange things seemed to be happening. I had the mindset that everybody in Cambridge was so smart because of Harvard. Then I saw these things—you would be in the bank and there were five tellers, and you would have many people on one line and nobody on another line, or very few; that would never happen in New York. In New York, people would quickly find the best way. Then I started noticing that if I walked into a mannequin, I would say, “Excuse me.”

It was clear that this mindlessness was pervasive, and over these many years, sadly, I have come to the conclusion that virtually all of us are mindless most of the time. 

Back in the early ’70s, I did a study with Judy Rodin where we gave elders in nursing homes choices and a plant to take care of, and that ended up resulting in them living longer—so a very little thing with very large consequences. I started to think about, what is the essence of this thing called “choice”? That’s what got me to study mindfulness. Since no matter what you are doing, you are doing it mindfully or mindlessly. It doesn’t matter what I end up studying, it always seems to come back to mindlessness and mindfulness. 

It seems like the concept of mindfulness is on the rise in the West. Why do you think that is? 

Well, I would like to think I have had some influence, as one of several people. I have hundreds of papers and four books on the topic. I am pursuing it, and Jon Kabat-Zinn, from a different perspective, is pursuing it.

I also think we are in the midst of an evolution in consciousness that was just a matter of time. As the world becomes smaller, we see people doing things that we, ourselves, don’t do; and when you have whole cultures doing it, you would be less likely to cast aspersions. Over time, because the world has gotten smaller, it has given rise to some alternative explanations, which then means we are less judgmental, and it all works together. 

Also, the population around the globe, and certainly in our country, has an increase in the number of old people. You have a lot more wisdom. Then we have people like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and the people who haven’t taken the traditional routes through school who become phenomenally successful. So that leads to even more questioning and an awareness that there are many ways of getting to the same place. All of this works together to help cultures around the globe become more aware that there is more going on than we had thought.

Business leaders in tech companies and across industries are trying to bring mindfulness initiatives to their companies. What do you think of those programs? 

To make people more aware, no matter what the program is, is going to be in everybody’s best interest. The materials that are used to teach people their jobs or textbooks in schools can be written based on our work to promote mindfulness. As I said before, we present the information conditionally. By presenting it conditionally, people who are learning have a greater feel for the information, and it stays more interesting. When they are older and they are taught their jobs in this way, it gives rise to a greater responsibility for what they are doing, more caring, because they are making these choices.

If you were taught how to play tennis, in the past and probably still today, you would be told, “This is the way to hold the tennis racket.” Well, it is not; it depends on a host of factors. Basically, you want to say it is sort of like, “Depending on your own physique, depending on how well you slept, depending on the weather conditions, you want to vary the way you are holding it ever so slightly so that you can take advantage of opportunities or the dangers not yet arisen.” If everybody is taught in this more conditional way, it is much easier to do this than to take time out in all these companies to have people meditate. But again, these two approaches are not at all at odds with each other.

In your book Mindfulness, you mention that advertising effectively caters to mindlessness. How do marketers cater to a mindful person instead of trying to trap the mindless?

As the culture becomes more mindful, people are going to be less likely to be fooled. When people are mindless, pretend and are inauthentic, they’re less attractive, less trustworthy, less liked by other people. And I would think the merchandise that the inauthentic are trying to sell would also become suspect. Our mindfulness leaves its imprint on the products we create. As the culture becomes more mindful, its products should become superior.

If it is the case that [a product] may break, why should somebody buy it? Perhaps because it is inexpensive. I think it would be better to say, “This will get the job done for six months” rather than pretend the product is something it is not. 

That would be advocating for transparency.

Exactly, because when you are talking about an educated consumer, a mindful consumer, the consumer is going to have a different relationship to these products.

Last year we outlined a trend that we termed Play As a Competitive Advantage—the idea that adults are increasingly adapting play for themselves, because they realize that unstructured time begets more imagination, creativity and innovation. In your book, Mindfulness, you mention play being tied to mindfulness.

Once you put evaluation aside, the distinction between work and play is artificial. It is nonsense. Those of us who are the most likely to succeed are the people who are enjoying what we are doing. When you enjoy it, you are more present. When you are doing it, you tend to spend more time with it, and that is going to lead to superior performance, or superior outcome. For example, we have a study where we have symphony musicians where we teach them to be mindful. We compare their performance to the mindless. The mindless group simply is told, “Try to remember a performance you were pleased with that you gave when playing this particular piece.” The mindful group is told, “Make it new in very subtle ways that only you would know.” Then we play that piece for people who have no idea about the study, and they overwhelmingly prefer the mindfully played piece.

What is interesting about that for business is the hidden finding that I didn’t think about until after I started to write the paper, which was, what you have is everybody in some sense doing it their own way and you get better coordinated behavior, performance. People in industry are often afraid to let the people who are not very high up in the organization exert any individuality, any thinking about what they actually are doing, which is a shame because the people on the front line are the ones who know the small aspects of the product best.

There are so many ways that mindfulness adds to the bottom line in business that it is hard to enumerate quickly all of them. Let me go through a few. You are going to have fewer accidents; you are going to have better products; you are going to have a happier workforce; you are going to have a healthier workforce. We have lots of data, much of it reported in my book Counterclockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility. When people are mindful, they are not just happier but actually healthier—it means it is going to cost insurance companies less money; it is going to cost companies themselves less money for health care costs. 

With mindfulness, some large companies are embracing it, and it’s showing up in schools, but at the same time, it’s not mainstream yet.

I think it would become more mainstream if people recognize some of the alternative ways of bringing it about. For example, for some, you are rushing through your life to take 20 minutes twice a day to meditate, which leaves lots of people to think they just don’t have time for it. But as I said initially, there are many other ways. You don’t have to take time out to withdraw from everything to regain your peace of mind. All you need to do is this: The noticing of new things gives you a modicum of uncertainty, but then makes everything old feel new again and exciting.

Are there any last thoughts on mindfulness you’d like to mention?

As industry is concerned, I wrote this blog post for the Harvard Business Review—the bottom line was, when you look closely at all of this, what seems to be the case is that the main job in the future for a leader is going to be to enhance the mindfulness of those being led, which is very different from the way we currently see our roles as leaders.

1 Response to "Q&A with Ellen Langer, Harvard University psychology professor, author of ‘Mindfulness’"

1 | kane phelps

April 24th, 2014 at 5:18 pm

Avatar

Excellent interview! The path to healthy living is marked by living each new moment, making each moment new, and being open to finding our unique creative/generative sweet spots.

Comment Form

SIGN UP FOR OUR WEEKLY EMAIL NEWSLETTER:

New: The Future 100

The Future of Payments & Currency

JWT AnxietyIndex

Things to Watch

  • Tears become… streams become…
    December 17, 2014 | 1:50 pm

    Artists and performers are increasingly creating multisensory pieces that immerse and envelope audiences, who in turn are embracing these one-of-a-kind experiences. In New York, the latest example is the performance and installation tears become… streams become…, a “field of water that harnesses light, reflection, music and sound” by Scottish artist Douglas Gordon and French pianist Hélène Grimaud.

    Continue reading “Tears become… streams become…” »

  • The Glade Boutique
    December 11, 2014 | 5:16 pm

    More marketers across the spectrum are creating novel pop-ups and activities that add dimension to the brand and satisfy consumer interest in experiences. These experiences are also increasingly interactive, immersive and multisensory, as our past trend reports have discussed. In line with these trends, a Glade Boutique holiday pop-up in New York City’s Meatpacking district, created with fashion designer Pamela Dennis and interior designer Stephanie Goto, features five rooms themed around “scent-inspired feelings,” like relaxation and “energized” (complete with an Oculus Rift virtual thrill ride).

    The pop-up is a departure for the mass-market candle brand: It has no outside signage, just a keyhole with a neon sign asking, “What will you feel?” Inside, with white walls and polished concrete floors, there’s all the cues of a groovy concept store. Visitors walk past a terrarium to the “Feelings Lounge”—sofas arranged around an objet-bedecked coffee table—then find the new collection of candles covered in bell jars for sampling the scents, akin to the merchandising format of ultra-luxe candle brand Cire Trudon. There’s also a backlit installation made up of hundreds of Glade candles.

  • Cheap-phone wars
    December 3, 2014 | 11:54 am

    Obi Mobiles

    Mobile brands are creating cheaper, stripped-down smartphones for emerging markets, competing with domestic brands producing their own low-cost phones. The field is getting more competitive with Obi Mobiles from former Apple CEO John Sculley, which targets young, image-conscious consumers. Obi launched recently in India, the Middle East and Singapore, and plans for further expansion in 2015.

    Obi will be taking on Chinese up-and-comer Xiaomi, which is entering five new markets this year. Meanwhile, Google launched the Android One OS in India last month in tandem with several domestic brands, which are pricing the phones at around $100. Prices will get lower still, at least for the most basic smartphones: Mozilla has announced plans to sell phones that use its Firefox OS in India and Africa for just $25. —Marian Berelowitz

    Image credit: Obi Mobiles

  • Snapcash
    November 19, 2014 | 4:54 pm


    Disruption in the payments sphere is opening the way for social media brands to act as intermediaries between consumers and their money, as we note in our report on payments and currency. Facebook is said to be planning a P2P payments feature for Messenger, South Korea’s KakaoTalk announced a PayPal-like service in September, and Line is creating a mobile service that will let users make on- and offline purchases. Now, Snapchat is partnering with Square to enable payments between users, as explained in this video’s energetic retro musical number.

    After users (U.S. only and 18-plus only) enter debit card info, they simply send a cash amount within a text. While Snapchat’s recent data breaches may give some users pause, the P2P payments space is a smart place to be as young consumers get accustomed to services like Venmo that make it easy and even fun to pay friends. —Marian Berelowitz

  • Payment in a heartbeat
    November 11, 2014 | 5:26 pm

    Nymi-paywith

    Our recent report on the future of payments and currency spotlights the rise of biometric payments—using a unique physical characteristic to authenticate transactions—which promise to greatly improve security and help remove friction. So far we’ve seen systems that rely on fingerprints (e.g., Apple Pay) and the palm’s unique vein payment (see Quixter). Now, the startup Bionym is exploring ways to harness its Nymi wristband, which uses the wearer’s unique cardiac rhythm as authentication, for payments.

    Bionym is linking with MasterCard and the Royal Bank of Canada for a test in which an NFC chip in the wristband enables contactless payments. The company, which is looking to license its technology into other wearables, recently raised $14 million in a Series A funding round and has racked up 10,000 preorders for the Nymi. —Marian Berelowitz

    Image credit: Nymi

  • Vegetable co-stars
    November 4, 2014 | 6:31 pm

    veggies_4

    “Vegetable co-stars” is one of our 100 Things to Watch in 2014—the idea that veggies are gaining a higher profile on restaurant menus—and more star chefs are indeed embracing this trend. José Andrés and his ThinkFood restaurant group plan to open Beefsteak (as in tomatoes), a vegetable-focused fast casual eatery in Washington, D.C., next year. The Washington Post also points to chef Roy Choi’s new greenhouse-like Commissary in L.A., which says it serves “good food and drink based around plants as the foundation.”

    “Chefs around the country, and the globe, are pushing meat from the center of the plate—and sometimes off it altogether,” notes The Wall Street Journal, citing examples like Alain Ducasse revamping his menu at the posh Plaza Athénée in Paris. Catering to a growing group of diners looking to eat less meat, vegetable-heavy dishes also offer new opportunities for creativity. —Marian Berelowitz

    Image credit: Plaza Athénée

  • Xiaomi zooms ahead
    October 30, 2014 | 4:44 pm

    Xiaomi, which we included on our 100 Things to Watch in 2014 list, is now the world’s third-largest smartphone maker, according to IDC’s Worldwide Quarterly Mobile Phone Tracker. The young company has seen triple-digit year-over-year growth in smartphone shipments, per IDC, surging ahead of both LG and Lenovo. Often described as the “Apple of China,” Xiaomi released its first phone just three years ago; its latest, Mi4, is an iPhone clone that runs on a modified version of Android.

    The company is expanding beyond China into India and Singapore, and planning to enter a slew of other growth markets, including Russia, Turkey, Brazil and Mexico. For more on whether Chinese brands can succeed on the world stage, see our report Remaking “Made in China.”Marian Berelowitz

    Image credit: Xiaomi

     

  • Money & messaging apps
    October 23, 2014 | 11:13 am

    LINE_icon02

    Given the primary function of mobile messaging apps and their technical capabilities, money transfer and payments are an alluring proposition, as outlined in our new report on payments and currency. Snapchat filed two trademarks in July that indicate a potential move into peer-to-peer payments. The recently announced Line Pay will let Line users make purchases through their Line accounts, send funds to each other, and split costs using a “Dutch Pay” feature. Line Pay will launch in Japan and, as Tech in Asia reports, serve as “an entrance to new industries” thanks to integration with the new Line Taxi service and Line Wow, for food delivery. In South Korea, KakaoTalk launched the PayPal-like Kakao Pay in September, and a remittance service, Bank Wallet Kakao, is in the works. —Marian Berelowitz

    Image credit: Line

  • The #TimsDark Experiment
    October 14, 2014 | 3:46 pm

    To entice customers into tasting its new dark roast, Canadian fast food chain Tim Hortons, with the help of JWT Canada, created a surprise immersive experience. A store in Quebec was wrapped in material that blocked all light from the outdoors. Patrons entered warily and, once inside, heard a staff member (who was wearing night vision goggles) guiding them through the dark. At the counter, customers were handed a cup of the dark roast—the brand’s first new blend in 50 years—with the darkness heightening their sense of taste. When the lights came on, the patrons saw they were on camera.

    The #TimsDark Experiment has garnered YouTube views and some press attention, and shows how creatively imagined immersive experiences—one of our 10 Trends for 2014—can encourage consumers to engage with a brand.

  • Bitcoin bank Circle
    October 7, 2014 | 4:40 pm

    Circle

    In late September, the startup Circle launched a web app that effectively functions as a bitcoin bank. Using a debit card or bank account, users transfer funds to Circle, which converts the money to bitcoin at no fee. Circle also insures this money at no cost. The company aims to make bitcoin more accessible via consumer-friendly design and is aiming to take on traditional banks and companies like PayPal, as The Guardian reports. Next up: Android and iOS Circle apps.

    Circle co-founder Jeremy Allaire gave a keynote at the Inside Bitcoins conference in April, citing the need for a “killer app” to bring bitcoin into the mainstream. Now Circle seems to be taking the lead, and others are sure to follow. —Nick Ayala

    Image credit: Circle

  • RSSArchive for Things to Watch »