“Matters of the mind” – the final morning session of the Discovery Vitality Summit 2014 – offered delegates a look at the effects of mindfulness on significantly improving personal health and wellbeing, as well as our personal performance in the workplace and our potential to lead.
Dr Ellen Langer is an internationally recognised Harvard University academic, social psychologist, and author of several best-selling books, including The Power of Mindful Learning and Counterclockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility. Her thought-provoking presentation drew from decades of rigorous research to argue for the overwhelming need to reduce mindlessness in our day-to-day activities. “Mindlessness is pervasive. Most of us are not there most of the time,” she says. “We don’t taste what we are tasting, we don’t hear what we are hearing … We are frequently in error, but rarely in doubt.”
It is not enough to tell people to “be present”, says Dr Langer. That is empty advice because “when you are not there, you are not there to know that you aren’t there.” Rather, she says, “simply notice”. “When you notice new things, you are there, neurons are firing. It is good for every aspect of health and wellbeing.”
Mindlessness is operating in the present based on past experience, which sounds like commonsense, but Dr Langer argues that context is everything and that we are locked into pattern. “Our past is over-determining the present because we are trapped in a single perspective.” A good starting point is to question the things we think of as given or certain. “I was an A student – the person you all hated at school. But I realised that everything I knew was wrong. All you B and C students are better off because you know fewer wrong things than I know,” she jokes. “Everything we think we know is wrong in some context, and that should make us humble.”
For Dr Langer mindfulness is the process of actively noticing what is new, rather than anticipating what we expect and acting as we always have. “It is an active state of mind, characterised by novel distinction,” she says. “It is the antidote to an increasingly chaotic world.” Being mindful, she says, can greatly improve our health and wellness, boost creativity, strengthen our relationships, reduce stress – and even, she proposes, help us overcome illness and – the great killer – stress.
“We mindlessly follow rules and routines because we fear making mistakes,” she says. Rather, a mistake is a cue to be in the present. Dr Langer says we need to realise that a mistake in one context may be a success in another. “When something doesn’t work, you can mistakenly think that is the end of the game or you can reconfigure and ask what can I do with this new unexpected thing? If we are mindless we’re not able to take advantage of these opportunities.”
“No matter what we are doing, we are doing it mindlessly or mindfully – and the difference is enormous. Most of our suffering, psychological, and physical is the direct or indirect effect of mindlessness,” she says, adding that the time and money we spend trying to increase health and vitality would not be necessary if we were more mindful.
Drawing from 35 years of “study after study”, Dr Langer says, science and research have shown that being mindful can improve your health, happiness, creativity, innovation, charisma, leadership, productivity, and memory. She then outlined several examples that cover a broad spectrum of human endeavour from leadership and charisma to physical vigour and recovering from illness. She points to placebos as an indicator of this power of the mind – people getting better despite taking inert medicines, saying “we can heal ourselves in ways that most people can’t fathom.”
What does this mean for the future of healthcare and wellness? Why are we so sure we can’t improve on 20/20 vision or we can’t think ourselves thin? It is crucial to recognise the difference between ‘uncontrollable’ and ‘indeterminate’, she argues. “While we may not be able to control something now, this doesn’t mean we won’t be able to in the future. Once we realise this difference, all sorts of ideas open up.”
If you do just one thing, says Dr Langer, “remind yourself that everything is changing, certainty is a mistake. Certainty leads us to be mindless. When a negative thing occurs to you, open it up and rethink it. Our emotions are choices too.”
About Discovery Limited
Discovery Limited is a South African-founded financial services organisation that operates in the healthcare, life assurance, short-term insurance, savings and investment products and wellness markets. Founded in 1992 by the current Group Chief Executive Officer Adrian Gore, Discovery was guided by a clear core purpose – to make people healthier and to enhance and protect their lives. Underpinning this core purpose is the belief that through innovation Discovery can be a powerful market disruptor.
The company, with headquarters in Johannesburg, South Africa, has expanded its operations globally and currently serves over seven million clients across South Africa, the United Kingdom, the United States, China and Singapore. Vitality, Discovery’s wellness programme, is the world’s largest scientific, incentive-based wellness solution for individuals and corporates. The global Vitality membership base now exceeds 5.5 million lives in five markets.
Discovery is an authorised financial services provider. It trades on the Johannesburg Securities Exchange under the code “DSY”.
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