Counterclockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility
by Ellen J. Langer. Random House, 2009
When she was in her 20s, Harvard University psychologist Ellen J. Langer fainted occasionally, and doctors said she might have epilepsy. She decided to take the matter into her own hands, mentally “catching” herself sooner and sooner when she felt faint, until the fainting disappeared. That empowering experience set the tone for her remarkable 30-year career, much of which she has spent figuring out how to help people take almost miraculous control over their lives.

Her 1989 book Mindfulness, summarizing a decade of ingenious experiments, became an instant classic. Now, in her new book, Counterclockwise, with more of those experiments under her belt, she presents a more thoughtful and thorough look at the power of mindful thinking: “the simple process of actively drawing distinctions.”

Langer says by changing the way we observe and label our experience—specifically, by becoming more aware of the variability we often mindlessly ignore—we can improve our health and quite possibly prolong our lives. In a recent study that makes the point, Langer and a Harvard colleague, psychologist Alia Crum, told cleaning personnel in Boston hotels that the considerable exercise they got every day in their job satisfied government guidelines for living an active lifestyle. Their activity levels did not change, but their perspective did, and they soon lost more weight and body fat than control subjects did.

Langer attributes outcomes such as this one to the placebo effect: when people are persuaded to think mindfully about what they are doing, they adopt more positive and empowering beliefs about themselves, and they feel and perform better.

The book’s title refers to a study conducted in 1979 in which two small groups of elderly men were housed for a week in quarters simulating the world of 1959. Members of one group were told to imagine themselves living in that time and that “you will feel as well as you did in 1959.” The other group was told merely to talk about that year and that “you may feel as well as you did.”

Signs of aging decreased in both groups, with greater gains for the experimental subjects—an effect, perhaps, of the difference in the instructions they received. Subjects in both groups also gained weight (a desirable outcome), with the experimental subjects gaining more. This change makes the study results difficult to interpret, however, because weight gain alone makes elderly people appear more youthful.

That said, Counterclockwise succeeds in presenting powerful ideas about largely untapped human abilities, grounded in a body of fiendishly intriguing research.

Note: This article was originally printed with the title, "Reviews and Recommendations."