Ellen Langer was recently a guest on the show “On Being.” A social psychologist and well known researcher, Langer is considered the mother of mindfulness. During her interview with Krista Tippet’s, she described how 80% of what she owned was destroyed by fire. When the insurance agent came to her house, he told her that s it was the first call they had ever received where the damage was far more significant than the reaction of the caller. As Langer noted, ‘...It’s already taken my stuff, whatever that means. Why give it my soul. You know, that — why pay twice?’ Which is what people so often do. Something happens, you have that loss, and then you’re going to now throw all your emotional energy at it. So you’re doubling up on the negativity.
Langer went on to describe how tragedies can in fact have some very positive outcomes. Living in a hotel while her home was being repaired after the fire, she went out on Christmas Eve, returning to find her room filled with presents from the maid, wait staff, parking valet etc. It was marvelous. When you strip away all the mindless insecurity, people, are quite something....so I reflect on that. I couldn’t tell you anything that I had lost in the fire....but at this point, I have that memory that was more than positive.
Those affected by chronic conditions can quickly name how it’s negatively impacted their life. How often do we ask, what are the positives that have come from this diagnosis and even more importantly, how negative do we really need to be? As Langer noted Epictetus, the ancient Greek philosopher, said, “Events don’t cause stress. What causes stress are the views you take of events.”
Langer researches the impact of chronic disease on those who are dealing with it . "When I started the Counter Clockwise book, I looked at chronic versus acute illness, and I couldn't find a definition for chronic. You know, did you need to have the symptoms 24/7, three hours a month? There was no definition. But it mattered enormously because when people see that they have a chronic illness, they believe that there's nothing they can do about it. And so then we set out to study this in various ways, not the least of which is once you start paying attention to when you have the symptoms and when you don't, three things happen.
"The first is you see you don't have it all the time, so it's not quite as bad as you thought. You know, people are depressed, they think they're depressed all the time. No one is anything all the time. People who are dyslexic, it turns out that most words, over 90 percent of the words, they're reading they tend to read correctly, yet they define themselves by their illness.
"So what happens is first you see you're not as bad as you thought you were. Second, by seeing that sometimes it's better, sometimes it's worse leads you to ask the question — well, why? And you may well come up with a solution. And the third, even if you don't, that whole process is mindful, and the 35-or-so years of research we've done shows that that kind of noticing new things leads to health and longevity." Thinking ‘Counter Clockwise’ to Beat Stress
Bottom line: We can mindlessly think about how dreadful our chronic condition is, allowing a diagnosis to suck out our soul, or we can mindfully engage in our life being aware that the words and ideas we attach to situations changes everything.