We are the guardians of our health

Ellen Langer, author of Counter clockwise, conducted an experiment on elderly nursing home residents. One group was encouraged to live more fully; they were allowed to make more decisions for themselves. The second (control) group received no such instructions to make their own decisions. For example, the first group was given houseplants and was asked to take care of them, whereas, the second group was told that the nursing staff would care for them. A year-and-a-half later, Langer found that members of the first group were more cheerful, active, and alert. How did this happen? Langer writes, “Our explanation was that the results were due to the power of making choices and the increased personal control it affords.” She says that making choices results in mindfulness, and we could change our physical health by changing our minds.

In another carefully planned experiment, Langer sent two groups of men in their 70s and 80s to spend a week in an old monastery. She wanted to find out “If we put the mind back 20 years, would the body reflect this change?”

The first group was asked to pretend as if they were young men. The second group was told to stay in the present and simply reminisce about the time when they were 20 years younger. For the first group, the clock was turned back, and for the second group, it was not. The first group was asked to write a brief autobiography in the present tense, whereas the second group was asked to write their biography in the past tense. Before and after the experiment, both groups took a series of cognitive and physical tests.

Langer noticed a change in behaviour and attitude in both the groups before and after the experiment. They found participants ‘younger’ in many respects. Both groups were stronger and more flexible; for example, both groups came out of the experience with their hearing and their memory improved. The first group (as if they were actually young) showed significantly more improvement.

Her experiments indicated that the mind has enormous control over the body. These experiments indicated that it is not our physical state, but, our mindset that limits us. Langer believes that our fixed ideas, internalised in childhood, can affect the way we age. Context matters. “I can see a candy bar from a great distance when I’m hungry.”

Langer’s advice to us is to keep our mind open to possibility. Our power of possibility is huge. Mindfulness, she tells, is the process of actively noticing new things, relinquishing preconceived mindsets, and then acting on the new observations. Mindlessness blinds us to new possibilities. She argues that our mindless decisions can have drastic effects on our physical well-being.

Langer says mindful health is not about how we should eat right, exercise but about the need to free ourselves from constricting mindset and the limits they place on our health and well-being,. She advises us to appreciate the importance of becoming the guardians of our own health.

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© 2017 by Dr Purnendu Ghosh