Financial Mindfulness exclusive interview with Dr Ellen Langer – Part 2

Financial Mindfulness exclusive interview with Dr Ellen Langer

Financial Mindfulness exclusive interview with Dr Ellen Langer – Part 2.

We continue with our exclusive interview with the world-renowned Professor Ellen Langer. Part 1 can be found here

Financial Mindfulness:

So, what is the difference between mindfulness and positive thinking?

Dr Langer:

“Positive thinking says things are positive, by definition. Mindfulness says outcomes are neither positive or negative, they are what they are.”

“If you compliment someone and they take that as ‘oh aren’t I wonderful’, then they become vulnerable to an insult.”

“But if the compliment is neither good nor bad, then the person complimented is pleased, but better able to deal with changes in the other person.”

“When you understand that outcomes can end in any number of ways, it would be foolish to always see the negative version.”

“I have been told I mark the edge of the optimism continuum!”

Financial Mindfulness:

You’ve said it’s not about meditation, why is that?

Dr Langer:

“Mindfulness is very different from meditation. Meditation is not mindfulness, meditation is a process, a program one goes through to achieve post meditative mindfulness.”

“It’s fine, it’s not mutually exclusive with the work I do and I did some early work in meditation but mindfulness as we study it is more immediate, not better or worse.”

“You can more easily work mindfulness into companies, schools and so on without people having to spend 20 minutes twice a day to meditate.”

“To be mindful is to stay aware of what’s going on, once you recognise that things are not always as thought, then you naturally stay tuned in.”

“It’s when you believe 1+1 always equals 2 and always will be, and can be nothing else that you don’t pay attention to the context.”

“So now every time someone asks how much is 1 and 1 you’re going to pay attention to the context, are they talking about piles of laundry?”

Financial Mindfulness:

Can you think of dangerous assumptions we make when our brains are on ‘autopilot’?

Dr Langer:

“What happens when you are on autopilot is you are presuming everything is going to stay the same.”

“Let’s say you’re driving on ice and the car starts to skid, what do you do? You ask this of people older they’re going to tell you that you gently pump the brakes to get control of the car.”

“That was the right thing to do before there were anti-lock brakes. Now there are anti-lock brakes the right thing to do is to firmly hit those brakes, hard. What you were taught is not only ineffective its likely to cause accidents.”

“Things are changing all the time, all things, and most advice was good then and may not be so good now. So, understand that change is inevitable.”

Financial Mindfulness:

Why has mindlessness become so pervasive?

Dr Langer:

“Because that’s what schools teach – they teach absolutes, they teach that 1+1 is 2 and always will be 2, rather than realise that the right answer always depends on the context.”

“So, I tell the story I was at a horse event. I’m a straight A student, right? This man asked me if I could watch his horse for him cos, he wants to get his horse a hot dog.”

“Well, I thought ‘that’s ridiculous, I’m Harvard-Yale all the way through nobody knows better than me horses don’t eat meat! Period. End of story’. Well, he comes back with a hot dog and the horse ate it.”

“And then I realised everything I thought I knew could be wrong. My As were hindering me rather than helping me.”

“Everything you think you know could be wrong in some context. Every time you think you’re wrong, it could be right in another context.”

“We don’t look for that though. Every time people make mistakes, they try to go back to the original plan, as if that original plan was handed down from the heavens, rather than that original plan itself was just a decision, which means there was uncertainty.”

“There are many things in place out there that teach us to look for absolute right answers, and as soon as we accept things as absolute, we’re setting ourselves up to be mindless.”

Financial Mindfulness:

How can being mindful during the pandemic help us?

Dr Langer:

“I wrote about something about people who have a view of defensive pessimism, that they are hurting themselves and should switch to mindful optimism. Defensive pessimism is assuming the worst and expecting the worst, but hoping for the best.”

“That’s problematic in two ways. First, you tend to get what you expect.”

“The second is around the idea of ‘hope’. Everyone around the world thinks hope is a good thing. I don’t. Being hopeful is better than being hopeless, but hope has built into it an expectation of failure.”

“You don’t get up in the morning, go into the kitchen hoping that you’ll get a cup of coffee. You just walk in and expect to get a coffee and you have the coffee.”

“Negative expectations lead us to be stressed and stress makes us more vulnerable to all disease.”

“If you assume an attitude of mindful optimism it doesn’t mean you have your head in the sand, or you’re not paying attention to things, it means you make a plan.”

“So, we have a pandemic. My plan is I’m going to keep social distance, wear a mask and wash my hands as frequently as I need to and then I just go about my business.”

“If you do that, as a result you’re building up the resources so should something happen you’re going to be stronger and better able to deal with it.”

“There’s a little expression that says ‘no worry before it’s time’ – it’s very important for your physical and your mental health.”

“Also, we need to remember life consists only of moments. This might sound a little like it’s from a Hallmark card, but there’s something deeper in it: remember your life is about moments. That’s all it is and where there’s a pandemic, whether you’re at home or work all you have is that moment.”

“If you make that moment matter, then it all matters.”

“A mindful approach means I can find real advantages to living in a pandemic and I think if we stop and become more mindful, most of us can.”

“An example is Zoom meetings.”

“I’m loving the zoom meetings, not just because I don’t have to worry about my choice of shoes and pants that day, but when I’m zooming with a large audience, I see everyone and they’re just a foot away from me. Whereas when I’m lecturing to a large group I’m here, and the audience is removed by being over there – normally it doesn’t feel as personal.”

“Zoom also gives me the names of everyone in my lecture, so if I have to ask you a question, I don’t have to make believe I remember your name, I just look and I see your name.”

Financial Mindfulness:

How can mindfulness help us with our working lives during the pandemic?

Dr Langer:

“One of the things I argue about a lot, although I haven’t written much about it, is we have many business gurus who push the idea of ‘work-life balance’.”

“It’s a bit like hope – hope is better than being hopeless but not as good as just assuming everything will be fine. Work-life balance is better than work-life imbalance.”

“But there’s a better way, which is work-life integration.”

“One of the strong advantages of all this working from home is more integration of our lives into work.”

“I’ve given lectures where my dogs have been barking and I’ve been talking to people and their young children walk in on them and so what? It’s all part of life and helps us integrate our home and our work life.”

“One of the big mistakes people make about work is putting up with feeling so stressed at work and I don’t think that that’s a good thing, I don’t think doing something 40 hours a week and being stressed is good for you.”

“So, in many respects the pandemic is a time to figure out what you enjoy, what you miss, what you don’t miss, and then you go forward with this opportunity that you wouldn’t have had, because you would have been in your typical routine.”

“So, try to enjoy your job. Sure, you can’t always be eating out of restaurants. I haven’t eaten out since Covid and I’m enjoying cooking enormously.”

“You come to learn that life isn’t going to rise or fall on one meal, so what if one meal turns out to be awful, who cares?!”

“Be aware of the possibilities and move on to enjoying the next moment!”

Financial Mindfulness:

Dr Ellen Langer, it’s been a pleasure, thank you.

Dr Langer:

Thank you, it’s been lovely talking with you. Stay safe.

Financial Mindfulness exclusive interview with Dr Ellen Langer – Part 1

Financial Mindfulness exclusive interview with Dr Ellen Langer

Financial Mindfulness exclusive interview with Dr Ellen Langer – Part 1.

Financial Mindfulness had the good fortune in March 2021 to secure an exclusive interview with the world-renowned Professor Ellen Langer, the first woman ever tenured in psychology at Harvard University, in the United States. She has written over 200 research articles and six books on the illusion of control, aging, decision-making, and mindfulness theory.

Dr Langer is also known as ‘the mother of mindfulness’ and is regarded as a major influence in the positive psychology movement.

Her next project is a paper on mindful economics.

We started by asking Dr Langer, who remains a brilliant and quick mind at 73, about her new project, the current trend towards so-called mindlessness as a backlash against the mindfulness movement.

Financial Mindfulness:

Can you please explain your term ‘Mindful Economics’ and why you think it is the next revolution in economics?

Dr Langer:

Standard economics and my own research has agreed that most people tended to have been mindless most of the time.  Economics has largely studied the aggregate effects of mindless individuals while I have been studying individual mindfulness as a cure to mindlessness for more than forty years, and shown how it leads to better individual health, longevity, well-being, and decision making. So now what if entire groups of people become mindful? How would that effect the economy and society as a whole? That’s where mindful economics comes in. Mindful economics is the new approach to studying how mindfulness can spread and impact an entire society. It revolutionizes economics by upending long-held assumptions that had been based on the behaviour of mindless people such as the scarcity of resources, stable preferences, forecasting, and optimization, and suggests new ways forward towards unlimited progress and wealth in the context of an uncertain reality.

Financial Mindfulness:

There’s a lot of talk about ‘mindlessness’ as something that we need in life to switch off a bit because of how much pressure is on people nowadays. Does ‘mindlessness’ have a place?

Dr Langer:

“No, no, no! I have to strongly disagree. It’s important to recognise mindfulness is the essence of engagement and enjoyment. If you’re having a good time should you limit it? I think not.”

“The instances you should be mindless, are: one if you’ve figured out the very best way of doing something and two, if circumstances don’t change – and things are always changing.”

“People have said to me ‘what if you are in the park with a kid and the kid goes into the street, shouldn’t you just mindlessly just drag the kid back?’ My response is no.”

“First, if you were mindful before, the kid wouldn’t have ended up in the street in the first place, you would have gotten cues earlier on. And second, what you want to do is notice in subtle way whether cars are turning right or left so u know which way to pull the child out of the street.”

Financial Mindfulness:

So what is mindfulness and what isn’t it?

Dr Langer:

“People often confuse mindfulness with thinking, and thinking itself has gotten a bad rap. The problem is not the thinking per se, it’s the worrying about thinking successfully, thinking: can I figure it out? And what’s going to happen if I can’t figure it out?”

“Mindfulness is just noticing. The process of just noticing feels good, and it’s energy-begetting not energy-consuming and is literally and figuratively enlivening.”

Financial Mindfulness:

What about the usefulness of mindfulness when it comes to money? A lot of people are suffering with financial stress – in epidemic proportions. Do you have a view on that?

Dr Langer:

“Stress itself is mindless, what people are doing when they’re feeling very stressed and worrying about money is being mindless.”

“Events themselves don’t cause stress, what causes stress is the view you take of an event and stress requires a belief that something is going to happen, which is illusory – because we cannot predict – and second that when it happens it’s going to be awful.”

“So, if you say to yourself ‘what are some reasons something bad might not happen?’ because you understand that maybe it will, maybe it won’t.”

“If you say ‘what are the advantages of it happening then you can see them – because there are always advantages. Then you end up in the position, maybe it will happen, maybe it won’t – and whatever happens, things will be fine.”

“So as an example, we go out for dinner, and the food is good – wonderful. But oif we go out for dinner and the food is awful – wonderful, because I won’t eat so much, and presumably I won’t gain weight.”

Financial Mindfulness:

Why is it important to be mindful about money?

“Remember, being mindful about anything is literally and figuratively enlivening. Being mindless with respect to anything is holding the world still, when it’s naturally varying, so it buys you nothing.”

“The question seems to be so what should people do because they’re so stressed about money? The stress is based on an assumption that they know something bad is going to happen. But you can’t know the future.”

“Sure, people think: ‘what if I lose my job? I’ll have to give up my job, I’ll have to give up the house and I won’t be able to feed my family!’”

“All of that is just guessing. If that person said to him or herself: ‘what are reasons I won’t lose my job?’, then the stress tends to dissipate. Some people are going to lose their job and worrying about it doesn’t buy you anything.”

“If there are things you can do to prevent losing it, do them.”

Financial Mindfulness:

Financial stress can have aspects to it that are very much ‘auto-pilot’ thinking, like not opening mail. What can be done about that?

Dr Langer:

“Surely, not opening your mail is not being engaged with the world and with reality. Unless you make a decision up front to do that.”

“You could be in the middle of an important interview and in the middle of the interview you realise your money in the meter has run out.”

“So, you have to think should you end the interview prematurely to go and put money in the meter or not. It depends on your finances.”

“I probably wouldn’t, but I’d have to be aware I may get a ticket – that was the price of the interview.”

Financial Mindfulness:

What about impulse spending, where people are spending money to make themselves feel better?

Dr Langer:

“Is that always a bad thing?”

“Of course, it can depend on your finances or it can depend on how depressed you are. Whether it’s worth it or not. When you come home if you see ‘my goodness I went crazy, you probably can return most of the items.’”

Financial Mindfulness:

Some of what you say makes us think that mindfulness is a bit like curiosity. Is that right?

Dr Langer:

“Mindfulness is very similar to curiosity, with one important difference, if I’m curious what’s happening out the door of my house and I open the door I see what’s there.”

“Curious has a right answer and an end point. Mindfulness doesn’t because anything can be examined from multiple perspectives and it’s all changing, all of the time.”

“It’s an explicit awareness of uncertainty. Uncertainty is not the exception.”

“A mindful person comes to learn over time how to exploit the power in uncertainty.”

Financial Mindfulness:

How do we switch mindfulness on each day? How do you switch it on?

Dr Langer:

“I don’t know that I turn it off! So, here’s some simple ideas. Whatever you are doing, look for different ways of doing it. When you wake up in the morning, if you live with somebody, ask yourself three ways that this person is different today from the way they were yesterday?”

“You go into the kitchen, the lighting will seem a little different, the coffee is going to taste a little different, notice the differences.”

“When you look for differences in the things you think you know, you come to see you didn’t know it at all.”

“It’s like with the example of what does one plus one equal? We think we know that it’s always two. But it’s not.

“Sometimes the answer is one. If you have one pile of laundry and you add another pile of laundry, you get one bigger pile of laundry. But it’s still one plus one equals one.”

Financial Mindfulness:

How can you tell what a mindful person looks like?

Dr Langer:

“Some years ago, we did an exercise with magazine salesmen where they were taught to sell the magazines in two ways, one was mindless – where they told learn the script, memorize it and then go and give the pitch and the other was a mindful approach.”

“The mindful salesmen were told ‘learn the pitch, but make it ‘new’ in very subtle ways every time you make it’.”

“After they spoke to the client, somebody else arrived and asked the person to evaluate the salesperson and it turned out when somebody was mindful, they were evaluated as more charismatic. They also sold more magazines.”

“In lots of cultures people have expressions like ‘the lights are on, but nobody is home’. You know when someone’s not ‘there’, so you should know when they are there.”

“There’s lots of research that shows that when people are mindful, they’re more charismatic, they’re seen as more authentic and trustworthy.”

“They’re also more open to seeing things as they are. They can see that one plus one sometimes equals one.”

“I had these findings from a study of nursing home residents and we gave them mindful choices to make, the long-term result was that people making mindful choices actually live longer. So, I gave this talk about life and death with these findings – you know, you can live longer.”

“Somebody in the audience asked ‘is that always a good thing?’”

“It occurred to me, that’s true, maybe not in certain contexts.”

“A mindful approach generally though can see why something you might have thought was bad is actually good in some contexts.”

Part 2 can be found here.