Mindfulness (25th anniversary edition)


By Ellen J. Langer

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The revolutionary book that showed how mindfulness can be applied to every aspect of our lives

The highly innovative findings of social psychologist Dr. Ellen J. Langer and her team of researchers at Harvard introduced a unique concept of mindfulness, adapted to contemporary life in the West. Langer’s theory has been applied to a wide number of fields, including health, business, aging, social justice, and learning. There is now a new psychological assessment based on her work (called the Langer Mindfulness Scale). In her introduction to this 25th anniversary edition, Dr. Langer (now known as “the Mother of Mindfulness”) outlines some of these exciting applications and suggests those still to come.


"Ellen Langer's insights span every field of human endeavor, including not least my own."

—Atul Gawande, MD, Author of Complications, Harvard Medical School

"All of us who write books about psychology for a popular audience are aware that we stand on the shoulders of giants, and Ellen Langer is one of those giants."

—Malcolm Gladwell, Author of Blink

"No one in the history of psychology has done more than Ellen Langer in showing the power Mindfulness can give us over our health and happiness."

—Philip Zimbardo, Stanford University, Author of Shyness

"Ellen Langer's research changed the face of psychology. Langer was able to take an ancient esoteric concept into our daily life, with endless possibilities in health, learning, and human welfare. And beyond the immediate practical benefits of her research, she also made the cosmos smile."

—Daniel Ariely, Duke University, Author of Predictably Irrational

"Always ahead of her time, Ellen Langer's persistence and willingness to challenge orthodoxy, her attention to variability within population groups, her rigorous studies of the dance between mind and body, and her alternative approaches to regeneration and healing are now being confirmed by neuroscience. I follow her work very carefully."

—Bruce Price, MD, Harvard Medical School

"A landmark work of social psychology."


"One simply can't finish this book and see the world in the same way."

—Alan Dershowitz, Harvard Law School

"Dr. Langer's seminal work on mindful behavior has broad implications for aviation safety and the development of proper roles for humans vs. machines."

—Clay Foushee, Chief Scientific and Technical Advisor Federal Aviation Authority

"A life-enhancing alternative . . . the antidote to the rigid, reactive, repetitive patterns that keep the best of us sealed in unlived lives. Langer gives scientific heft to a fascinating and undervalued phenomenon. A thought-provoking read that deserves a wide general audience."

—Kirkus Reviews

"Extremely provocative for students. This book cannot be read mindlessly."

—Robert Abelson, Yale University

"Even professional colleagues who have long admired Langer's creative and ground-breaking research will be unprepared for the bold and startling conclusions that derive from her findings."

—Daryl Bem, Cornell University

"A Google Ngram search will confirm what every psychologist knows: the concept of 'mindfulness' has skyrocketed in popularity among enlightened people, and that boost can be attributed to the groundbreaking research and book by one of the most creative psychologists alive, Ellen Langer. There's no better way to appreciate the source of this indispensable idea than to consult the original manifesto in its twenty-fifth anniversary edition."

—Steven Pinker, author of How the Mind Works, Harvard University

"Langer not only challenges us to reach for our untapped reserves, she also shows ways to make this possible."

—Paul Baltes, Max Planck Institute for Human Development and Education, Berlin

"Whether you're an educator, homemaker, business person, mental health worker . . . differently abled or abled, young or old, there is something in this book for you."

Deaf Community News

"Langer demonstrates a rare capacity both to see what is extraordinary about human events and to envision even more enlivening human possibilities."

—Lee Ross, Stanford University

"One is reminded, reading these pages, of Freud's Psychopathology of Everyday Life and of Hannah Arendt's The Banality of Evil. Like those pioneering books, this one 'naturalizes' a human scourge—everyday functional stupidity in this case—and makes it not only comprehensible but also subject to change."

—Jerome Bruner, Author of Actual Minds, Possible Worlds

Copyright © 1989, 2014 by Ellen Langer

Many of the designations used by manufacturers and sellers to distinguish their products are claimed as trademarks. Where those designations appear in this book and Da Capo was aware of a trademark claim, the designations have been printed in initial capital letters.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher. Printed in the United States of America. For information, address Da Capo Press, 44 Farnsworth Street, 3rd Floor, Boston, MA 02210

Cover design by Alex Camlin

Text design by Cynthia Young

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Langer, Ellen J., 1947– Mindfulness / Ellen J. Langer. — Second Da Capo Press edition, 25th anniversary edition.

pages cm

"A Merloyd Lawrence book." Includes bibliographical references and index.

ISBN 978-0-7382-1800-7 (e-book)

1. Attention. 2. Consciousness. 3. Thought and thinking.

4. Mental efficiency. I. Title.

BF321.L23 2014153—dc


Published as a Merloyd Lawrence Book by Da Capo Press

A Member of the Perseus Books Group


Da Capo Press books are available at special discounts for bulk purchases in the U.S. by corporations, institutions, and other organizations. For more information, please contact the Special Markets Department at the Perseus Books Group, 2300 Chestnut Street, Suite 200, Philadelphia, PA, 19103, or call (800) 810-4145, ext. 5000, or e-mail special.markets@perseusbooks.com.

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

To the memory of my mother and grandmother


Preface to the 25th Anniversary Edition

1. Introduction


2. When the Light's On and Nobody's Home

Trapped by Categories

Automatic Behavior

Acting from a Single Perspective

3. The Roots of Mindlessness

The Mindless "Expert"

The Sacrilegious Poodle

Mindlessness and the Unconscious

Belief in Limited Resources

Entropy and Linear Time as Limiting Mindsets

Education for Outcome

The Power of Context

4. The Costs of Mindlessness

A Narrow Self-Image

Unintended Cruelty

Loss of Control

Learned Helplessness

Stunted Potential


5. The Nature of Mindfulness

Creating New Categories

Welcoming New Information

More Than One View

Control over Context: The Birdman of Alcatraz

Process Before Outcome

Mindfulness East and West

6. Mindful Aging

Control and Survival

Reversing Memory Loss

Outgrowing Mindsets

Stretching the Limits of Age

Growth in Age

Putting Age in Context: An Experiment

7. Creative Uncertainty

Mindfulness and Intuition

Creativity and Conditional Learning

Distinctions and Analogies

8: Mindfulness on the Job

Welcoming the Glitch

Second Wind


The Power of Uncertainty for Managers

Burnout and Control

9. Decreasing Prejudice by Increasing Discrimination

A Patient by Any Other Name

The Painted Cast

Mindfully Different

Disabling Mindsets

Discrimination Without Prejudice

10. Minding Matters: Mindfulness and Health

Dualism: A Dangerous Mindset

The Body in Context

Addiction in Context

The Traditional Placebo: Fooling the Mind

The Active Placebo: Enlisting the Mind

Epilogue: Beyond Mindfulness




About the Author

Preface to the 25th Anniversary Edition

In the 1970s, as social psychology was experiencing what was called "the cognitive revolution," studying the kinds of thoughts people were having, I began to wonder whether people were thinking at all. Decades of research later, I have found that the answer is a resounding "NO." Mindlessness is pervasive. In fact I believe virtually all of our problems—personal, interpersonal, professional, and societal—either directly or indirectly stem from mindlessness. The current social psychological literature on priming shows how often certain cues in the environment, unbeknownst to us, trigger our reactions. Our emotions, intentions, and goals can be evoked with minimal stimulus input and virtually no cognitive processing. We may dislike someone simply because she or he shares a first name with someone we once disliked. Without realizing it, we mimic others so that our motor behavior unintentionally matches that of strangers with whom we work on a task. Beyond that, there is the vast literature on stereotyping, which shows that single cues like gender or race can activate a whole series of assumptions and overshadow countervailing information. These and myriad other studies show that people are passively responding to cues in the environment rather than actively making choices.

Today our awareness of mindlessness and ways to counter it, however, is widespread. Twenty-five years after the publication of this book, it's hard to open a magazine or listen to the radio without the mention of mindfulness. While I believe we still have a great distance to travel, I also believe that we are in the midst of a revolution in consciousness.

Over the past four decades I have tried to do my part in promoting this revolution. Drawing on the research described in the original edition of Mindfulness, I explored the concept further in contexts such as learning, creativity, business, and health. One of the studies in the original edition that has been replicated widely is the experimental retreat that re-created earlier times (discussed on pages 100–111 of this edition). Similar retreats, which have been shown to increase both physical and mental abilities, have now been conducted in England, South Korea, and the Netherlands. The very positive results encouraged me to make the benefits of the retreat (now known as the "counterclockwise study") available to more people by offering them to all adults (see langermindfulnessinstitute.com). Being in this novel environment was so powerful that even the control group that reminisced for the week improved, although less so than the experimental group. We are also exploring the effects of similar retreats for women with breast cancer and veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Once we are sure our methods are sound, these too will be available to a wider audience.

While the nursing home study, conducted with Judith Rodin (described on pages 82–84 of this edition)—in which people were given mindful decisions to make and a plant to take care of—helped usher in a deluge of mind/body research, the counterclockwise study tested a more extreme mind/body unity theory. Here I was not just investigating whether the mind has an enormous influence over the body. Rather, I began to question whether research would reveal many more useful findings if we considered the mind and body as one. As such, wherever the mind is, so too is the body. If the mind is fully in a healthy place, the body will be healthy as well. This research sheds light on both the placebo effect and spontaneous remissions.

A more recent experiment testing this mind/body unity theory, called the "chambermaid study," involved women who did heavy physical work all day. When asked whether they exercised, they claimed they did not. We then suggested to half the group that they view their work as exercise, like going to the gym. They were told that making beds, for example, was like working out on the machines at the gym. No other changes were made. As a result of the change in mindset the experimental group, but not the control group, lost weight and showed a decrease in waist to hip ratio, a decrease in body mass index, and a drop in blood pressure—all as a function of changing their minds to see their work as exercise.

Another test of this mind/body unity concerns vision. I decided to study this because vision improved for the seniors in the original counterclockwise study. We have all taken the Snellen eye test at the doctor's office, which uses a chart that consists of letters in black and white that become progressively smaller as we read down the chart. What most of us don't realize is that as we read down the chart, it creates the expectation that soon we won't be able to see the letters. To test whether our vision is influenced by this expectation, we reversed the chart so the letters became progressively larger as we read from top to bottom, creating the expectation that soon we would be able to see them. With this change in expectation, we found that the research subjects were able to see more letters accurately than they could before. Also, knowing that most of us expect to have trouble seeing about two-thirds of the way down the standard eye chart, we created another chart that began a third of the way down. Now, at two-thirds down, the letters are much smaller than those at that point on the usual chart. Again, the people in the study could see more than they could before.

In yet another series of studies on vision, we took text from a book and, for one group of readers, changed the font size of the letter "a" to one that was imperceptibly small every time it appeared. We did the same for the letter "e" for another group. The third group read the chapter in the original font. Imagine reading the following words: b.ck; pl.ce, bre.k. After enough of these you'd likely come to see that the period stood in place of "a." After being conditioned to see that period as an "a" or an "e," the participants took a regular eye test. Not only were they able to read the conditioned letter ("a" or "e") when it was almost imperceptibly small, they were able to read many of the other letters in the eye chart as well when the font was very small.

Thinking further about the vision research, I realized how bizarre some of our medical practices are. To test vision in a potentially stressful environment by reading static letters in black and white without any meaningful context and then be given a number that represents our level of vision seems almost absurd to me. I don't know about you, but when I'm hungry I see the restaurant sign sooner than when I'm not. I see things in motion differently from things that are still. I see some colors better than others. But more than any of that, my vision, like everything else, varies over the course of a day. Sometimes I see better than other times. Numbers hold things still while things are changing. When we are given a single number for our vision, our expectations are set as if in stone. Mindfulness suggests otherwise.

Research like these vision studies highlights the dangers of setting limits for ourselves. For instance, I've asked my students: What is the greatest distance it is humanly possible to run in one spurt? Because they know the marathon is twenty-six miles, they use that number to start and then guess that we probably haven't reached the limit, so they answer around thirty-two miles. The Tarahumura, of Copper Canyon in Mexico, can run up to two hundred miles. If we are mindful, we don't assume limits from past experience have to determine present experience.


Mindfulness involves two key strategies for improving health: attention to context and attention to variability. Context can make a dramatic difference. As we have seen in the counterclockwise studies, by re-creating a time when we felt vital and healthy, we come to see that we can be vital once again. The second strategy involves paying attention to variability. When we observe changes in our symptoms, we may be able to gain more control over chronic illnesses for which we currently assume no control. By noticing when our symptoms are better or worse, then asking why that may be the case, two things happen. First, we go from thinking we have the symptoms all the time to realizing we don't, and second, when we ask why symptoms are greater or less under any given circumstances, we may be able to control those circumstances. The search for underlying causes in itself is mindful and as such helps us feel better whether or not it yields a solution.

A mindful approach to our health is particularly effective for "chronic" conditions. For example, consider depression. When people are depressed they tend to believe they are depressed all the time. Mindful attention to variability shows this is not the case, which itself is reassuring. By noticing specific moments or situations in which we feel worse or better, we can make changes in our lives. If every time that I speak on the telephone to Bob I feel worthless, for example, the solution may be obvious.

Some of our most recent research on attention to variability was conducted with pregnant women. They were asked to notice the changes in the sensations they experienced during the course of their pregnancies. Through questionnaires and self-reports during pregnancy, we found that after training in mindful attention there was significant improvement in feelings of well-being and decreased feelings of distress. We also found that the babies of women who were generally mindful, as shown on the Langer Mindfulness Scale, had higher Apgar scores (ratings of well-being immediately after birth).

Attention to context and variability may be effective for our interpersonal lives as well. Whenever we call someone by some dispositional name—"lazy," "inconsiderate," "self-centered"—we are treating that person as if she or he has an incurable condition, overlooking any evidence to the contrary. As I have pointed out in this book, behavior makes sense from the actor's perspective, or else she or he wouldn't have carried it out. When we find ourselves being judgmental, we are being mindless. You may be trying to be reliable, someone who can be counted on, but others see you as rigid; when you see yourself as spontaneous, others may think you are impulsive; you may be trusting but are seen as gullible; and so forth. By simply questioning why we may have sensibly behaved as we did or the reasons for the behavior of others, we see the motivations behind them and also realize that, like our symptoms, they change from time to time and place to place. With this more respectful view of others, our relationships are likely to improve. When we complain that our spouses have changed, it may be that what has changed is not their behavior but rather our understanding of it. If we are mindful, we're more aware that what looks displeasing in one context may be pleasing in another. Indeed, we have found that the more mindful people are, the more satisfied they are with their relationships.

The importance of mindfulness in interpersonal relationships extends beyond our friends and family. In the workplace it may seem that some people are smart or skillful or competent and that others are not. Some "have it," and others just don't. As a result, we believe that the latter group needs to be told what to do, and we give up all that they might teach us.

What would happen if everyone were equally respected and encouraged to be mindful? We tested this with symphony orchestras, which are generally hierarchical. In one orchestra each player was told to make the piece of music she or he was to play new in very subtle ways that only that player would recognize. The other orchestra was to try to replicate a past performance of the same piece of music that its members felt was particularly good. The performances were taped and then played for audiences unaware of the experiment. In addition, all of the musicians were given a questionnaire asking them how much they enjoyed their performance. Audiences overwhelmingly preferred the mindfully played piece, and the musicians preferred playing it mindfully. The importance of this work for group process occurred to me only when writing up the research paper. One might think that if everyone essentially did it "their own way," the result would be chaos. (They were playing classical music, not jazz.) Nevertheless, when everyone did it their own way, making it new in very subtle ways, each person became more present in the same moment, and the result was a superior coordinated performance.

Our stereotypes may hide other people's talents from us. As a result they can suffer feelings of inadequacy, and we lose all they could contribute to a group's performance.

The successful leader may be the person who recognizes that we all have talents and who thus sees her or his main job as encouraging mindfulness in those being led. What is it about leaders that makes them effective? In one study we considered women and leadership. Women have the special problem that if they act like men and are strong, they may be disliked, but if they act in a traditional female way, they may be seen as weak. We had women learn a persuasive speech that they gave until they knew it cold (mindlessly). We videotaped it each time they gave it. Half of them were instructed to behave in a strong male-like or caring female-like way when they gave the speech. We showed the final overlearned, mindless version to some people, and to others we showed an earlier version in which the women paid attention to their style of delivery, the mindful version. The results were clear. All that mattered was whether or not they were mindful. When mindful, whether male- or female-like in their demeanor, they were evaluated as charismatic, trustworthy, and genuine—important characteristics of good leaders. Simply put, people find us more attractive when we are mindful.


  • "A landmark work of social psychology."
  • "[Langer] has shown us the power of mindfulness."
    Psychology Today
  • "Mindfulness is the book which changed it all."
    Female First
  • "More relevant now than ever before."
    Blogging on Business

On Sale
Oct 14, 2014
Page Count
272 pages

Ellen J. Langer

About the Author

Ellen J. Langer, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Harvard University, is the author of Personal Politics (with Carol Dweck), The Psychology of Control, and Mindfulness, which has been published in ten countries. She is also coeditor of Higher Stages of Development and Beliefs, Attitudes and Decision Making. She is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and numerous awards including the Award for Distinguished Contributions to Psychology in the Public Interest of the American Psychological Association.

Learn more about this author