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Mindfulness

Mindfulness by Ellen J. Langer

The creation of new categories, as we will see  throughout this book, is a mindful activity. Mindlessness   sets in when we rely too rigidly on categories and  distinctions created in the past (masculine/feminine,  old/young, success/failure).

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One need not work through deep-seated personal  conflict to make conscious those thoughts that are

mindlessly processed. However, such thoughts will not,  on their own, occur to the person for reconsideration.  In that way, they too are inaccessible. But if we are  offered a new use for a door or a new view of old age,  we can erase the old mindsets without difficulty.

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When children start a new activity with an outcome   orientation, questions of “Can I?” or “What if I  can’t do it?” are likely to predominate, creating an anxious   preoccupation with success or failure rather than  drawing on the child’s natural, exuberant desire to explore.   Instead of enjoying the color of the crayon, the  designs on the paper, and a variety of possible shapes  along the way, the child sets about writing a “correct”  letter A.

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Just as mindlessness is the rigid reliance on old  categories, mindfulness means the continual creation of  new ones.

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It is easy to see that any  single gesture, remark, or act between people can have  at least two interpretations: spontaneous versus impulsive;   consistent versus rigid; softhearted versus weak;  intense versus overemotional; and so on.

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Even if their  reasons are hard for us, as observers, to discern, people

are rarely intentionally stingy, grim, choosy, inflexible,  secretive, lax, indiscreet, rash, or fussy, for example. No  one tries to cultivate unpleasant qualities. Take the same  list and imagine yourself in a situation where the word  might be applied to you. If you bought someone a  present on sale, for instance, would you then see yourself   as stingy or thrifty? If you took your children out  of school early one Friday in spring, would you see  yourself as irresponsible or fun-loving? Virtually all behavior   can be cast in a negative or a more tolerable or  justifiable light.8

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The consequences of trying out different perspectives   are important. First, we gain more choice in how  to respond. A single-minded label produces an automatic   reaction, which reduces our options. Also, to  understand that other people may not be so different  allows us empathy and enlarges our range of responses.

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Second, when we apply this open-minded attitude  to our own behavior, change becomes more possible.  When I used to do clinical work, it often seemed odd  to me that many people in therapy not only had strong  motivation to change (hence their visits to me), but the  desired behavior was already in their repertoires. What  was stopping them? In looking back, now I realize that,  often, they were probably trying to change behavior  (for example, “being impulsive”) that they actively enjoyed,   but from another point of view (“being spontaneous”).   With this realization, changing one’s behavior   might be seen not as changing something negative  but as making a choice between two positive alternatives

 (for example, “being reflective” versus “being  spontaneous”).

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Among other effects, increased mindfulness appears   to reduce the depression associated with old age.  Larry Perlmuter and I looked at whether we could  decrease depression as well as increase self-knowledge  and memory through a behavioral monitoring tech-  nique.2 This technique, in which subjects take note of

the choices they make in daily activities, had already  been shown to be an effective way to increase mind-  fulness.3 It rests on an assumption about the nature of  choice: The opportunity to make choices increases our  motivation.

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Had the rich stranger in Chapter 2 who needed a three-by-seven-foot   piece of wood simply unhinged his own  front door, observers of the scavenger hunt might have  thought, “What a creative solution!” Many, if not all,  of the qualities that make up a mindful attitude are  characteristic of creative people. Those who can free  themselves of old mindsets (like the man on the train),  who can open themselves to new information and surprise,   play with perspective and context, and focus on  process rather than outcome are likely to be creative,  whether they are scientists, artists, or cooks.

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We can look at the world and ask how things  differ (make distinctions) or how they are the same  (make analogies). The first approach results in the creation   of new categories, the second usually involves  shifting contexts, both of which we have described as  mindful activities. We have discussed the mindful nature   of novel distinction-making at some length. Thinking   by analogy is equally important to both mindfulness  and creativity.

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The supreme accomplishment is to blur the line  between work and play.

ARNOLD TOYNBEE

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In each of these cases, a mindset of fatigue was  lifted by a shift in context initiated by someone else-the

 investigator or a friend. Mindful individuals use the  phenomenon of second wind to their own advantage  in a more deliberate way. Staggering different kinds of  paperwork, changing to a different work setting, and  taking a break to jog or make a phone call are all ways  to tap latent energy by shaking free of the mindset of  exhaustion.

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In Getting to Yes, Roger Fisher and William Urey  suggest ways that negotiators can generate within their  own minds the kind of perspectives brought by outsiders   from different disciplines: “If you are negotiating a  business contract, invent options that might occur to a  banker, an inventor, a labor leader, a speculator in real  estate, a stockbroker, an economist, a tax expert, or a

socialist.”-‘

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If a manager is confident but uncertain–confi-  dent that the job will get done but without being certain   of exactly the best way of doing it–employees are  likely to have more room to be creative, alert, and self-starting.   When working for confident but uncertain  leaders, we are less likely to feign knowledge or hide  mistakes, practices that can be costly to a company.  Instead, we are likely to think, “If he’s not sure, I guess  I don’t have to be right 100 percent of the time,” and  risk taking becomes less risky. Employees are more  likely to suggest process and product changes that could  be beneficial. Admission of uncertainty leads to a search  for more information, and with more information there  may be more options.

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Because people perceived as bright and knowledgeable   tend to become managers, the sense that the  boss knows the answer is pervasive and asking questions  is potentially intimidating to employees. If managers  make clear that they see certainty as foolhardy, it is  easier to ask questions based on one’s own uncertainty.  Questions provide a good deal of information for managers.   Moreover, if managers seek out information from  employees to answer these questions, both will probably   become more mindful and innovative.

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Many of us know the energizing effects of a new  job. There is an excitement in learning new things,  mapping out a new territory. As the job becomes familiar,   however, enthusiasm and energy wane. Burnout  sets in when two conditions prevail: Certainties start  to characterize the workday, and demands of the job  make workers lose a sense of control. If, in addition,  an organization is characterized by rigid rules, problems  that arise feel insurmountable because creative problem-solving   seems too risky. When bureaucratic work settings   are of the “we’ve always done it this way” mentality,   burnout is no stranger.

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Once the staff understood that their justification  for these solutions were much weaker than they had  thought, they were able to find other ways of solving  the problems. By returning some control to the residents,   they made their own jobs easier. For example,  they came to realize that there was no firm reason to  believe that a blind man couldn’t learn to smoke safely.  In fact, he already knew where and how to smoke  without danger. They just had to give him a chance.

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In a recent experimental   investigation conducted at Lewis Bay Head Injury   Facility, we offered the nurses and other caregivers  a similar kind of mindfulness training. With the resultant   change of outlook, and a renewed sense that new  solutions were possible, the staff in this demanding and  potentially depressing situation showed a significant  increase in morale and job satisfaction.

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In combating  prejudice, then, the issue is not simply how we might  teach the majority to be less judgmental, but also how  we might all learn to value a “disabled” or “deviant”  person’s more creative perceptions.

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Most of us are brought up to find the answer rather  than an answer to questions. We do not easily come

up with several alternatives. By requiring that the children   in the first group give several different answers to  each question, we were also requiring them to draw  mindful new distinctions.

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One of the slides, for example, pictured a woman  who was a cook. She was identified as deaf. The experimental   group was asked to write down four reasons  why she might be good at her profession and four  reasons why she might be bad. The control group was  asked to list one good and one bad reason. This group  was asked six additional questions requiring only one  answer in order to keep the number of answers constant.   Several questions were asked of this kind about  different professions. Amanda’s note: good ideas for developing integrative thinking.

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A second part of this training in discrimination  presented problem situations and asked the children  “how” they might be solved. They were to list as many  ways as they could think of (experimental group), or  they were simply asked whether they could be solved  (control group). For instance, when viewing a woman  in a wheelchair they were either asked in detail how this  person could drive a car or simply asked, Can this  person drive a car?

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A third exercise in making distinctions involved  finding explanations for events. We gave the children a  slide and a short written description of what was happening   (for instance, a girl spilling coffee in a lunchroom).

 The experimental group was told to think up  several different explanations for the situation while the  control group again considered only one explanation.  The number of explanations required for each set of  questions increased throughout the training for the experimental   group. The same number of slides was presented   to every child.

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Our thoughts create the context which determines our  feelings.

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Part of the reason they fail is that all the positive  aspects of the addiction still have a strong appeal. The  relaxation, the taste, the sociable quality of stopping  for a cigarette remain tempting. A more mindful approach   would be to look carefully at all these pleasures  and to find other ways of obtaining them. If the needs  served by an addiction can be served in other ways, it  should be easier to shake.

One day, at a nursing home in Connecticut, elderly  residents were each given a choice of houseplants to  care for and were asked to make a number of small  decisions about their daily routines. A year and a half  later, not only were these people more cheerful, active,  and alert than a similar group in the same institution  who were not given these choices and responsibilities,  but many more of them were still alive. In fact, less  than half as many of the decision-making, plant-minding   residents had died as had those in the other group.  This experiment, with its startling results, began over  ten years of research into the powerful effects of what  my colleagues and I came to call mindfulness, and of its  counterpart, the equally powerful but destructive state  of mindlessness.’

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The costs of mindlessness, and the potential benefits   of increasing mindfulness, became particularly clear  to me while conducting research with the elderly. In  1976, with Judith Rodin, a colleague from Yale, I explored   the effects of decision making and responsibility  on residents in a nursing home.’ We divided the residents   into an experimental and a control group. Those  in the experimental group were emphatically encouraged   to make more decisions for themselves. We tried  to come up with decisions that mattered and at the  same time would not disturb the staff. For example,  these residents were asked to choose where to receive  visitors: inside the home or outdoors, in their rooms,  in the dining room, in the lounge, and so on. They  were also told that a movie would be shown the next  week on Thursday and Friday and that they should  decide whether they wanted to see it and, if so, when.  In addition to choices of this sort, residents in the  experimental group were each given a houseplant to  care for. They were to choose when and how much to  water the plants, whether to put them in the window  or to shield them from too much sun, and so forth.

This group was contrasted with members of a comparison   group who were also given plants but were told  that the nurses would take care of them. Those in the  comparison group were not encouraged to make decisions   for themselves but were told that the staff was  there to help them in every way possible. For example,  if they wanted to visit with people inside the home or

outside the home, in their room, in the dining room,  or in the lounge, we suggested that they tell a member  of the staff, who would help them arrange it. We tried  to make the issues between the two groups as similar  as possible except for the distinctions about who was  responsible and in control.

Before the experiment began and three weeks after  it ended, we used various behavioral and emotional  measures to judge the effect of this encouragement.  Measures of behavior (like participation in activities of  the nursing home), subjective reports (how happy residents   felt), and ratings by the staff (how alert and active  they judged the residents to be) all showed clear and  dramatic improvement for the group that had been  given more responsibility.

Eighteen months after the study, we went back to  the nursing home and took the same measures. The  residents who had been given more responsibility still  took more initiative, and were significantly more active,  vigorous, and sociable than the others. When Judith  Rodin gave a lecture at the nursing home, she found  that those who participated actively and asked the most  questions came from the experimental group. At that  time we also measured the residents’ physical health.  While, before our study began, the health evaluation  ratings of the two groups (based on their medical records)   had been the same, eighteen months later the  health of the experimental group had improved while  that of the comparison group had worsened. The most  striking discovery, however, was that the changed attitudes   we had initiated in these nursing home residents

resulted in a lower mortality rate. Only seven of the  forty-seven subjects in the experimental group had died  during the eighteen-month period, whereas thirteen of  the forty-four subjects in the comparison group had  died (15 percent versus 30 percent).

Because these results were so startling, we looked  for other factors that might have affected the death  rates. Unfortunately, we cannot have known everything  about the residents prior to our experiment. We do  know that those who died did not differ significantly  in the length of time that they had been in the institution   or, as pointed out, in their overall health status  when the study began. The actual causes of death that  appeared on the medical records varied from one individual   to another in both groups. Thus, the larger  number of deaths in the comparison group was not the  result of a certain disease being more prevalent in one  group than in another. The changes brought about by  the experiment in the lives of the residents did seem to  lead, literally and figuratively, to more living. When we  look closely at our “treatment”-encouraging choice  and decision making and giving residents something  new to look after-it seems appropriate to see it as a  way of increasing mindfulness. These results have been  confirmed by much research since that time.

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