The Surprisingly Effortless Power of Mindset
I remember a friend once telling me that he and his housemates had implemented ‘Positivity Month’ because they felt they spent too much time complaining. During Positivity Month, nobody was allowed to complain, ever. Garbage bin liner sprung a leak on the way down the hall and spread radioactive coloured bin juice through the carpet? No problem, I love bin juice and I particularly love cleaning it out of rental carpet on a Monday night! A housemate used the emergency toilet paper without replacing it again? Great! I love piecing together a square from the remnants stuck to old rolls like some sort of desperate D.I.Y jigsaw puzzle!
At the end of Positivity Month everyone agreed that it had been useful but they found it too exhausting to continue and were also starting to find the relentless optimism a bit irritating.
Fortunately, more qualified people are also studying the impact of mindset, notably, a Harvard psychologist by the name of Ellen Langer whose research findings give a fascinating insight into ways we can sustainably bring about changes in mindset.
Langer first showed the impressive power of mindset in an experiment in 1981 in which she took a group of men in their seventies and eighties for a week-long stay in a monastery which had been fitted out as though it were 1959. Half of the men were told to pretend they were back in the 50’s and live like they had at the time, the other half were just told to reminisce. The men underwent cognitive and physical tests prior to and following the week-long stay. At the end of the week all had improved, but the ones who had pretended to be young had improved the most. Height, weight, posture, vision, hearing and IQ had all improved. Mentally putting themselves back into their youth had actually made their bodies younger.
Langer believes that body and mind are one and that by altering the way we think about ourselves and our worlds, we can actually bring about change in our bodies and lives. Langer calls this process mindfulness, which she defines simply as the process of noticing new things (note the absence of meditation for those of you who don’t like to meditate!). Langer emphasises the importance of focussing on novelty and engaging with the environment.
A great example of mindset change was demonstrated in a study of eighty four hotel cleaners who claimed they never exercised, but were in fact on their feet and physically active all day. The group was split in two, one group was told that their work was, in fact, exercise, the other group was told nothing. One month later, the group who had been told that their work was exercise had lost weight, lowered their blood pressure and reduced waist to hip ratios, while the other group had not changed. Neither group reported any changes in diet, exercise or work hours.
Perhaps one of the big differences between Dr Langer’s mindfulness process and Positivity Month, is sincerity. Dr Langer’s mindfulness doesn’t ask us to deny our experience and pretend that everything is wonderful, but rather to open our minds to the possibility that there is more than one way to see our circumstances, and this makes it a lot easier than attempting to manufacture positivity! The idea is to actively notice new things, actively let go of preconceived ideas – and it is applicable everywhere. Whether it’s letting go of a label we have placed on someone else and noticing something different about their behaviour, seeing a situation in a new light, or letting go of a self-judgement and seeing what lies beneath…all you really need is curiosity.