Member Portal

Think yourself well? Yes, you can!

This post highlights Dr. Ellen Langer’s theory of “mind-body unity.”  I have no affiliation with Dr. Langer (wish I did!). I just happen to be a fan, who thoroughly enjoyed her recent book, “The Mindful Body: Thinking our way to chronic health.” 

For those who aren’t familiar, she’s sometimes referred to as the ‘mother of mindfulness’ and she holds the distinction of being first female tenured professor of psychology at Harvard.

Her book is filled with research supporting her premise that “the mind is the primary determinant of the body’s health, and that simple interventions to change the way we think can dramatically improve our well-being.”

The following are just a few of Dr. Langer’s studies which I hope you’ll find as compelling as I did:

  • The “Counterclockwise” study, conducted in ‘79, involved immersing a group of elderly men in an environment that recreated the world as they knew it from ‘59, complete with fashion, music, and news from that era.
    • What transpired was nothing short of remarkable: the participants showed improvements in physical strength, cognitive abilities, and overall well-being. By simply adopting a mindset of youthfulness and possibility, these individuals defied the limitations traditionally associated with aging, highlighting the power of perception to shape our health and longevity (1).
  • The ‘Chambermaid” study, conducted in ‘07, shed light on the impact of perception and mindset on physical health. In this study, they observed a group of hotel chambermaids who were unaware that their daily work activities already met the recommended levels of exercise for maintaining good health. By informing half of the chambermaids about the health benefits of their job-related activities and encouraging them to view their work as exercise, Langer aimed to test whether changing their perception of their job would lead to measurable health improvements.
    • The results were striking: the informed group showed significant reductions in weight, blood pressure, and body fat over the course of just a few weeks, compared to the uninformed group. This study highlighted the profound influence of mindset on health outcomes and underscored the importance of perception in shaping our well-being (2).
  • Langer also conducted a study on sleep. The intervention simply involved programming a bedside clock to alter the amount of time the participants thought they’d sleep, irrespective of their actual sleep duration.
    • When the clock was sped up so participants thought they’d slept for 8 hours but had actually only slept for 5 hours their reaction times were quicker compared to their performance when they knew they’d had only 5 hours of sleep.
    • Conversely, when they slept for 8 hours but thought they’d only slept for 5 their performance was worse than when they had slept 8 hours.
    • This study underscores how much our perception of how long we've slept, and not just the actual number of hours, matter (3).
  • In a study on prediabetes, Langer and Aungle (4) saw how diagnostic labels influence both patient, and healthcare provider, behaviors. They found that being given the ‘scary’ prediabetic label can actually play a role in the development of diabetes!
    • Dr. Langer notes that this study highlights the dangers of mindlessly accepting labels instead of actively questioning them, especially in the realm of health and wellness.  As she says “preformed labels encourage us to overlook our idiosyncratic experiences, which for the most part, are never as fixed or absolute as their labels suggest.” Furthermore, I wholeheartedly agree with her statement ‘the prediabetic should realize there is nothing inevitable about getting diabetes, provided they make small changes to their lifestyle.” 

What do these studies mean for us on our quest for optimal health and wellness?
Our health is profoundly influenced by our psychology, encompassing our thoughts, emotions, beliefs, and behaviors. This interconnected relationship between mind and body underscores the immense potential for achieving optimal health through psychological well-being. 

Five practical steps you can take today to improve your health:

  1. Embrace a mindset of possibility at any age
    Channel your inner ‘the little engine that could’ mindset; adopt the, ‘I think I can, I think I can’ mantra, and do your utmost to hold on to hope, no matter the circumstances.
    Instead of falling victim to our typically negative belief/thought pattern which is that things can only get worse, start to focus on what and how you can improve.
    FYI - I’ve worked with people who’ve said they feel better now at 65 compared to how they felt  at 25!  It’s true, and it’s very possible.

  2. Engage in the practice of mindfulness
    Engage in mindfulness practices such as meditation or deep breathing exercises to cultivate present-moment awareness and foster a sense of inner calm.
    Note, contrary to popular belief, mindfulness is NOT about ‘quieting your mind’ it’s about being conscious of your thoughts, and having the capacity to choose your thoughts.

  3. Practice gratitude
    Take a few moments each day to reflect on the things you're grateful for. Cultivating an attitude of gratitude can shift your focus from what's lacking to what's abundant in your life.

  4. Unleash your body’s natural capacity to be, and feel, well (not just ‘not sick’!)
    The essence of functional medicine can be summed up by Sidney Baker’s brilliant assertion which is that we’re either dying of too much of something we don’t need and/or not enough of something we do need.
    I recommend working with someone to help you discern what’s going on with you, and to support you as you establish the appropriate balance to facilitate health and wellness.

  5. Remember, good health is accessible to all through nurturing a positive and proactive mindset It is not solely determined by external circumstances (diet/lifestyle) or genetics.

With mindfulness, self-awareness, and a commitment to whole body health, we can unlock the inherent capacity within each of us to thrive and flourish.