Contact us
From post-it notes to pandemics
15 July 2020

Are we living in unprecedented times of uncertainty or are we just more conscious of it? Harvard’s Dr Ellen Langer returned to the newly digitised AMP Amplify speaker series to provide insights into the value of mindfulness in the context of a pandemic.

With more than four decades of psychological research and experience under her belt, the “mother of mindfulness’” shared her insights on self-awareness, certainty, expertise, and opportunity. Here are some of her key takeaways including a tip on how to deal with stress during the pandemic.

#1 Mindfulness vs mindlessness

“Mindlessness we all have a sense of - being on autopilot. Your mind is inactive and you’re relying on categories and distinctions you drew in the past, so the past is determining who you are and what you are doing in the present. You’re trapped in a single perspective, but you’re oblivious to that. You’re oblivious to that fact that things change depending on context. We tend to follow rules and routines blindly, it doesn’t occur to us to even question them, so rules and routines govern our behaviour.

Mindfulness is an active state of mind that results from noticing. That’s all. You notice new things - it’s so simple that it almost defies belief. When you’re mindful, noticing leads the neurons to fire. You’re going to be happier, healthier, more attractive to other people, everything you do is going to be better and you even live longer. From this simple thing, just noticing new things.”

#2 1+1 Doesn’t always equal 2

“If I said to you, ‘How much is one and one?’ most of you are going to say ‘two’ because that’s what we mindlessly learn. But it turns out that one and one is not always two - if you take one wad of chewing gum and you add it to one wad of chewing gum, one plus one is one. Take a pile of laundry and add it to one pile of laundry - one and one is one, and so on.

In fact, in the real world, rather than the world of mathematical abstractions, one plus one probably doesn’t equal two as often as it does. So, when you’re asked a question and you think you know the answer, there’s probably another way of looking at it and finding that other way, that slightly different view is the essence of being mindful.

It’s pervasive - virtually all of us are mindless all of the time. We think we know but we don’t. That’s why we’re frequently in error but rarely in doubt.”

#3 When your glue isn’t sticking make a post-it note

“When we realise that facts are positions taken from a particular view, that facts depend on context - whether they are scientific facts or facts from anything else, then we stay situated in the present. If you knew what I was going to say next there’d be no reason to listen - and hence we often don’t listen to each other. 

One of the reasons we do all of this is because we are afraid of making mistakes. It turns out that a mistake in one context can be a success in another. Think about a company that was making glue that failed to adhere. What are you going to do with a glue that doesn’t adhere? Well they were very mindful, and they thought to make it a post-it note. While it was a failure as a glue, it was a success as a post-it note.

What does it mean to make a mistake? It means you are following some rigid path where you thought you knew exactly what to do, so you don’t pay any attention to how things change along the way, and then you come up short. At that moment the thing to do is to remember that the way you chose to do it was just one of several possibilities, it was just a decision to do it that way. And so you try again and you say to yourself “what can I do with this outcome?” so that you take this failure and you make it a success. And you do that often enough and you’re not afraid of making mistakes, you enjoy making mistakes because they tell you you’ve been mindless.”

#4 How to deal with stress in a pandemic

“One of the hardest things for people right now is dealing with uncertainty and it seems that everything is uncertain. The thing I want to make you aware of is however you dealt with uncertainty six months ago is the same way you should be dealing with it now. Everything is always changing; everything looks different from different perspectives.

It’s not as if all of a sudden we are with uncertainty, it’s that all of a sudden we are tuning into it.” 

#5 It’s a lack of expertise that keeps us engaged

“We all think that we’d like to be perfectly expert at whatever we do. Let’s say you’re playing golf and lots of people think, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if I could get a hole in one every time I hit the ball?’ Think about it - what would happen is there’d be no game. It’s the challenge, it’s the lack of expertise that keeps us interested in what we’re doing and then, by extension, keeps us interesting to other people.

So, all we have to do is shift some of our thinking and our expectations from thinking we know to recognising we don’t know - that nobody knows. We tune in, we actively notice new things, our neurons start to fire, people find us attractive. We feel uplifted, we feel engaged. We can do this during COVID-19, when COVID-19 passes, it doesn’t matter. When we do this, then we change the engrained behaviours that sap our health, our confidence and vitality from our lives. 

If we increase our mindfulness, we increase our effectiveness, our health and our wellbeing. The good takeaway is that it’s all so easy. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t all being right now to be as mindful as we can virtually all of the time.”

If you’re interested in the AMP Amplify digital speaker series you can register for future talks on the Amplify website.