Ever bump into someone at a department store and say “sorry,” only to realize you’re apologizing to a mannequin? Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer has. It was the early 1970s, and the concept of mindfulness was barely a glint on the horizon of Western consciousness, but Langer’s experiences made her wonder: Are most people walking around in a perpetual state of zombie-like inattention, and if so, is there another way to be? That’s how she embarked on a life-long study of mindfulness, bringing the research sensibilities of Western psychology to bear on the ancient art of “being here now.”
- Mindfulness can be defined simply as “actively noticing new things,” and it doesn’t require a meditation practice.
- Mindfulness begets better learning outcomes and more creative products.
- To increase mindfulness, stay open to new information and get comfortable with not knowing.
Mindfulness can be defined simply as “actively noticing new things,” and it doesn’t require a meditation practice.
Have you ever received the less-than-helpful feedback that you should try to be in “the moment,” and wondered exactly how to do that? Meditation probably comes to mind, because many people think mindfulness is synonymous with meditation. They take a “no pain, no gain” approach to mindfulness by trying to sit still through lengthy daily meditation practice. Meditation can certainly be a means of achieving mindfulness, but how long do the benefits last? Plus, anything that requires “practice” tends to be something people don’t want to do. Achieving mindfulness, though, doesn’t have to be a grind.
“Mindfulness, as we study it, is a simple process of noticing new things, and, as you notice new things, that puts you in the present. That makes you sensitive to context and perspective, and it’s a process of engagement.” (Ellen Langer)
Mindfulness is actually just the “act of actively noticing new things,” and it can be achieved while you’re out and about in the world, not only sitting quietly in meditation. Think of the last time you laughed at a joke, for example. To laugh, you have to engage with your environment, notice new things and be sensitive to context. That’s mindfulness.
Mindfulness begets better learning outcomes and more creative products.
Research suggests most people are “mindless” much of the time. Mindlessness is marked by criticism and a failure to acknowledge alternative perspectives. It’s letting the past dictate the present, adhering to rigid rules that no longer apply, and focusing on the final product to the detriment of the creative process. When you don’t know something, mindlessness dictates that you pretend you do know. It’s hard to be curious if you’re already pretending to know everything.
“There is a strong connection between mindfulness and learning – and a strong connection between mindlessness and not learning.” (Celisa Steele)
The mindful antidote is to make a “universal attribution for uncertainty” by saying, “I don’t know. You don’t know. Nobody knows.” Mindfulness is confident – and uncertain. Mindfulness and creativity go hand-in-hand. When you’re aware of new information, your final creative products tend to be better.
To increase mindfulness, stay open to new information and get comfortable with not knowing.
To stay mindful in daily life, make a conscious effort to notice new things. When you walk out the front door, try to notice three new things about the outside world. When you come back home, try to notice three new things about your partner.
“People think that the more they know, the better they’ll do. And there’s no evidence for that.” (Ellen Langer)
In today’s information-heavy world, people put pressure on themselves to know everything, assuming that they’ll do better in life if they have more information. But there’s actually limited evidence that more information always leads to success. Stay confident, but uncertain. It’s OK not to know.
About the Podcast
Ellen Langer is author and co-author of over 200 research papers on the subject of mindfulness. She’s a social psychologist, Harvard professor, Guggenheim fellow and author of 11 books, including Mindfulness; The Power of Mindful Learning; On Becoming an Artist; and Counterclockwise. The Leading Learning podcast offers insights and perspectives for learning professionals. Co-hosts Celisa Steele and Jeff Cobb co-founded Tagoras, a consultancy that serves the professional development, continuing education and lifelong learning markets.