Harvard’s Ellen Langer and Psychology Hacking by Relabeling

In this blog, let’s do a little bit of psychology hacking. There is an amazing Harvard psychology professor called Ellen Langer and, in the early eighties, she founded this whole new way of thinking about mindfulness. It’s very important that we consider how we label important parts of our life.

Langer started by focusing on the way that we label aging and performed a study. She took a group of 90-year-old-men and drove them two hours north of where they were living to a facility that contained everything that would be familiar twenty years ago –newspapers, appliances, etc.– and she told the subjects, “You need to act like it was twenty years ago. So, read the newspaper like it was today’s newspaper and discuss it in the same way that you would with the other people who are here with you.”

ellen langer
Ellen Langer founded a whole new way of thinking about mindfulness in the 80s.

The amazing thing is, after these subjects left the facility, they were tested by doctors who had no idea what they had just done and it turns out that, on a variety of metrics, they tested like they were 20 years younger. Things like endurance, memory, strength. It turns out that the way that we label these things –in this case, aging– is incredibly powerful.

Let’s turn to how we can do this for the world of work. Many people associate work with some relatively negative emotions or just feel like work is a real slog; something that you really have to do. So, I’ve been experimenting with labeling my work as evolution. So, rather than going to work, I go to evolve. That takes energy, but it’s something that I associate more positive things with than working.

I challenge you to do the same thing. Take an area of your life that you currently label as something that’s really negative and then try to read label it with something that has more energy… more possibility for change and see what that does for you.

I’m going to go ahead and link to two articles that you can get on Ellen Langer. One of them is an article in Harvard Magazine and the other one is a podcast, where one of my favorite journalists interviews Dr. Langer at length about this study of mindfulness and labeling.

From Harvard Business Review: How Egos Distort the Way We See Each Other

This video from Harvard Business Review discusses how egos distort the way we see each other through:

  • Misunderstand facial expressions and what they mean in relation to our egos
  • Our misconception that there is transparency in how we perceive the behavior of others
  • Our existence as “Cognitive Misers”
  • The relationship between relativeness and closeness and how it affects the way we judge and perceive others


New Research on Stress, Anxiety, DNA, and the Likelihood of Getting Sick

In this blog, we want to share with you some research about stress. This research should cause us all to be more empathetic to the people around us.

There is a researcher at Yale called Joan Kauffman. What she did is she compared the DNA of children who had had no major trauma in their childhoods vs. children who had major trauma, whether that be some sort of abusive home or something like that.

What she found is that, at the DNA level, the children who had major stress constantly emitted hormones that were similar to their “fight or flight” hormones. Basically, That they had constant stress and, moreover, they found out that these stress receptors and what happens doesn’t go away. That is, these people who have traumatic childhoods don’t have their DNA modified and improved over time to where they don’t have this constant source of stress.

Upset problem child with head in hands sitting on staircase concept for bullying, depression stress or frustration
Upset problem child with head in hands sitting on staircase concept for bullying, depression stress or frustration

You might be thinking, “That is really sad for these children who had major sources of trauma.” But, there was another doctor in San Diego (Vincent Felitti) and he was looking at the correlation between childhood trauma and illness and he interviewed seventeen thousand patients. These are relatively normal patients. These are people who were the average age of 55 years old and they have college educations about three quarters of the time.

What he found is that about 65 percent of these people interviewed had some major traumatic event as a child, whether that be some sort of abuse or maybe bullying or a really dramatic divorce, and when you combine the two findings that these research teams, there’s a whole new body of knowledge out there about stress and its long-term impacts from childhood.

Our point is this: if 65 percent of people are walking around with increased stress levels, because of some event in their childhood, that’s a reason we should all be more empathetic because that means that over half the people in America are most likely walking around with these increased stress levels. It’s not something that’s their own fault. It’s something that happened to them when they were a kid.

Next time you’re seeing one of those people be stressed out and you’re thinking, “Man, they should just meditate and be zen,” instead think about this research that shows that maybe that wasn’t under their control. Maybe it was something that happened in their childhood that they never even had any control over, but it’s really impacting them through their adult life.

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