Jennifer Aniston gained her fame as Rachel in the popular sitcom Friends. But in a soon to be released movie titled Counterclockwise, she will portray a Harvard psychology professor. The professor, Ellen Langer, became famous for her groundbreaking research on health and aging.
In a 1979 age-defying research study, described in her book Mindfulness, Langer placed a group of elderly men in a setting that convinced them the year was actually 1959.
The magazines, newspapers and music the men saw and heard were all 20
years old, and the men themselves were told to behave and talk as if it
were 1959 rather than 1979.
Over the course of a week, signs of aging appeared to reverse and the
men looked visibly younger. Their joints became more flexible, their
posture straightened, and the lengths of their fingers, which typically
shorten with age, actually increased.
These startling results supported her belief that we are more empowered
than we are led to believe. If we believe in the exceptional and the
possible rather than the expected and probable, the results can be
unexpected healing and healthy change.
This approach to what she considered the positive power of mindful
health led to her studying two groups of residents of a nursing home.
One group was encouraged to make decisions on their own as to their
meals, room décor and entertainment. They were also held responsible for
implementing these decisions.
Another control group of residents had the same options of food and
entertainment to choose from, but they were served and attended to by
Results a year and a half later found that the first group was more cheerful, active and alert.
More importantly, they were much healthier, as less than half as many of
the more responsible and engaged group had died than had those in the
Explanations for these results are attributed to the power of making
choices and the increased sense of personal mastery and autonomy it
gives you. Langer calls it being “mindful” versus being “mindless.”
Langer believes that if our mind is proactive and thinking in a healthy
way, then our body will be healthier as well. We could change our
physical health by changing our minds.
Underlying this research is an approach to studying behavior which
empowers us. Rather than focus on deviant conditions and what can be
done to help people function normally, this research looks to highlight
the exceptional. It is focusing on what is possible, not what is
This is a model of mental and emotional well-being which is embraced by
the emerging field of positive psychology. Just as the medical field has
expanded to include a model for wellbeing and holistic medicine, the
field of positive psychology has expanded. In addition to treating
disease and mental illness, psychology has expanded to identifying
models for success, developing personal strengths and pursuing authentic
UP UNTIL THE past decade psychological studies on anger, anxiety and
depression outnumbered studies on joy, happiness and life satisfaction
25-1. This past decade there has been a growing, enthusiastic group of
academic psychologists who are looking to shift the balance.
There has been investment in new psychological research, dedicated
positive psychology programs and global conferences on applications of
positive psychology. It is a shift from a disease model to a model of
Well-being is often defined by our physiological ability to recover from
stress. Physiological stress begins when anger and fear trigger the
sympathetic nervous system. This activates the glands and organs that
defend the body against attack. It is called the fight-or-flight system
in which heart rate and blood pressure increase.
This heightened state of arousal narrows our cognitive focus and makes our body tense.
Barbara Fredrickson’s broaden-and-build theory suggests that positive
emotions can speed recovery from, or undo, this state of physical
tension by activating the parasympathetic nervous system. This can occur
by eliciting positive emotions. The parasympathetic nervous system
helps promote balance, healing and well-being. It slows heart rate,
lowers blood pressure and relaxes muscles.
Fredrickson discovered this by setting up a study which purposefully
induced stress in participants. Students were asked to speak publicly
and she measured their physiological state while preparing for the
speech. They all exhibited increased sympathetic nervous system
activation (sweaty palms, increased heart rate, increased blood
pressure). After five minutes of this heightened state of arousal,
participants learned that they didn’t have to give the speech after all.
This relief from the stress did not quickly return people to a more
The participants were then divided into three groups to measure their
recovery. One viewed a sad video, another a happy video, and the third
group did not view anything.
She then measured the amount of time it took each person to recover from the anxiety about the possible speech.
Results indicated that positive emotions triggered the sympathetic
nervous system and led to a much quicker return to a resting state than
experiences of neutral or negative emotions.
In addition to undoing negative emotions and physiological stress,
Fredrickson maintains a broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions.
She claims that positive emotions broaden people’s attention and
creative thinking, build personal resources and trigger well-being and
This has applications in therapy as well as personal life. When upset or
anxious about something, your body will tense and your emotional
cognitive energy will narrowly focus on that stressor. The approach
suggested by Fredrickson and positive psychology is to refocus and find
an activity that changes your emotional state. Such a change will help
you recover physiologically, but also allow you to broaden your thinking
in more creative ways to readdress what is stressing you.
The studies of Langer and Fredrickson point to an organic approach to
our well-being. Our mind-set and emotional state are integral to our
physiological well-being. By being more mindful, by refocusing on
positive emotions, we can improve our health and psychological
resilience. It transforms us for the better and sets us on path to
flourishing and healthy longevity.
Essentially we need to remember we are more empowered than we are taught to believe.
As Langer claims in her most recent book, Counterclockwise, “Too many of
us believe the world is to be discovered, rather than a product of our
own construction, and to be invented.”Dr. Mann is a Jerusalem-based clinical
psychologist and certified life coach who helps teenagers and adults
achieve positive goals.
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