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.
Can you please explain your term ‘Mindful Economics’ and why you think it is the next revolution in economics?
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.
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?
“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.”
So what is mindfulness and what isn’t it?
“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.”
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?
“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.”
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 stress can have aspects to it that are very much ‘auto-pilot’ thinking, like not opening mail. What can be done about that?
“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.”
What about impulse spending, where people are spending money to make themselves feel better?
“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.’”
Some of what you say makes us think that mindfulness is a bit like curiosity. Is that right?
“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.”
How do we switch mindfulness on each day? How do you switch it on?
“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.”
How can you tell what a mindful person looks like?
“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.