Big Ideas

Key to Engagement

How mindfulness leads to less stress, a longer life—and can even make you a better manager

by Kate Pavao

January 2015

Twenty-five years ago, Dr. Ellen Langer, a Harvard Professor and social psychologist, literally wrote the book on mindfulness. Today, as Langer talks about the recently published anniversary edition of Mindfulness, the topic is more relevant than ever.


“The amount of attention it's gotten is unbelievable,” Langer told Profit about the new edition. “So the world is ready for it, which is good. I think in some ways we're on the verge of an evolution in consciousness.”

Here, Langer reveals the secret to being part of this evolutionary moment, and how managers can change their attitudes and habits to have more success at work and in other important areas of life.

Profit: What is mindfulness?

Langer: Mindfulness, as I study it, is the simple process of actively noticing new things. As you actively notice new things, you come to see that you didn't know the things you thought you knew nearly as well as you thought you knew them. So that makes them interesting, and brings your attention naturally back to them. As you notice new things, that puts you in the present.

“Be in the moment” is a nice idea, but it's sort of an empty instruction. When you're not in the moment, you're not there to know you're not there. Actively noticing is the way to be there.

Profit: What are the advantages of being mindful?

Langer: One is that stress goes away, and that’s because events don't cause stress. What causes stress is the view you take of events. When people have a single-minded, negative view of an event, that's going to lead them to be stressed. It means that they believe that some event is going to happen, and when it happens, it's going to be awful.

Forty years of research has made clear to me that mindlessness is pervasive. It's more the rule than the exception. And it’s a killer for innovation.”

So if you were mindfully going to attack that, what you'd say is, “Well, what are some reasons it might not happen?” And you immediately become less stressed, because you went from it's definitely going to happen to it might not happen. And then let's assume it does happen. What are the ways this is actually an advantage? So by doing this exercise, recognizing that evaluations are in our heads, not in events, we are able to stay responsive to the world, but we're not reactive.

Profit: Does mindfulness impact engagement?

Langer: Actively noticing is the essence of engagement. A lot of people mistakenly wait to be engaged, when all you need to do is actively notice, and then you become engaged.

We did a study with people who said there was something they didn't enjoy: people who hated football, people who knew nothing about art, people who hated classical music, people who hated rap music. We had one group just do the activity, and asked another group to notice one new thing about it. We asked another group to notice three new things, and the final group was asked to notice six new things. What happened is the more they noticed, the more they liked the thing that they were noticing.

Active noticing makes you aware of the importance of context and perspective, and what we find is that it's literally and figuratively enlivening. When we make people more mindful, they live longer, and they become more excited whatever they're doing. Up to a certain point, mindful noticing is energy-begetting rather than consuming.

Profit: What should managers in particular keep in mind while working with their teams?

Langer: Mindfulness is very important for innovation. Right now, companies are using yesterday's solutions to solve today's problems. When we make workers more mindful, we get new solutions to new problems.

We did a study with symphony musicians where we gave one group the mindful treatment, asking them to make a musical piece new in very subtle ways that only they would know. The control groups were told to remember a performance they gave that they were very happy with, and just try to replicate it. Then what we did was to record the performances, and played it for people who didn't know anything about the study, who overwhelming preferred the mindfully-played piece. When everybody was doing his or her own thing, you ended up with superior, coordinated experience. That's because they're all in the same present moment.

Forty years of research has made clear to me that mindlessness is pervasive. It's more the rule than the exception. And it’s a killer for innovation. The major job of people in charge is to promote the mindfulness of everybody that's working for you rather than assume you know the best way get work done and they don't know. It's hard for your team to discover anything new when you think you already know how it's going to be.

We teach people to made a universal attribution, “I don't know, you don't know, nobody knows.” Then, interactions can flow more smoothly, and what happens is people come to see that confidence and uncertainty are very separate things.

Profit: Heading into the new year, how can executives and other workers start working on becoming more mindful?

Thought Leaderelanger-headshot

Harvard Professor and social psychologist
Dr. Ellen Langer is the author of Mindfulness.

Langer: New year's resolutions are ridiculous. It's much easier to be successful when you feel you've been successful, instead of thinking “Gee, I keep failing. Well, maybe this year I'll be successful.” People decide prematurely that there are things that they simply can't do. There's no science that exists that can prove that you can't do something. All the science can prove is that the way you've tried it hasn't worked.

People need to understand that what they're calling errors or mistakes and failures are just steps along the way, and that it's what makes life rich. People need to give themselves a break; if you've tried it this way and it didn't work, then try it another way. It's mastering that matters, not having mastered.

There's always a step small from where you are to where you want to get. Let's say you wanted to not eat a whole box of cookies. So try not to eat half a box. If that doesn’t work, don't eat a quarter. Everybody can eat a few crumbs less. And then that's your new starting point.

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