Counterclockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility, published in 2009 by Ellen J. Langer Ph.D, gives a riveting account of a total turn-around in health for a group of elderly gentleman—in just one week! Early in her career, 1979 to be exact, Langer put together a study to see if going back in time, say 20 years, could affect a person’s health. She ingeniously created a world where it was 1959, then took several nursing home residents to this setting for a week.
Great pains were taken to replicate an authentic 1959 lifestyle. An old monastery in Peterborough, New Hampshire was found for the project, and retrofitted with furniture, TV and radio programming, books, music, meals—everything circa 1959. Furthermore, the participants were given instructions that even their conversations must be conducted as though it were 1959. When the men first arrived at the site all their vital statistics had been taken, as well as their photographs. They were in tough shape and some of them could barely haul their suitcases inside.
Come the end of the week and it was a totally different scenario. These frail, old gentlemen were cooking for themselves and engaging in lively conversations with one another, visibly enjoying themselves. They were tested again. Across the board memory, hearing, vision, appetite, posture, gait, intelligence scores and dexterity had measurably improved. In comparing their appearances to the snapshots taken a week earlier, everyone looked considerably younger. But the improvement in dexterity was the one measure that really stunned me. Joint flexibility and even finger length improved: “Their arthritis diminished and they were able to straighten their fingers more.” Amazing!
That study, and subsequent studies over the years, have convinced Langer that “biology is not destiny.” She argues that it is not so much our physical selves that limit us as much as what we think—our mindsets and expectations—about our physical selves that does. And it’s not just our personal perceptions either, but cultural expectations as well. As we age, society assumes we will become old, sick, frail and afflicted with chronic conditions and diseases. Langer’s studies have led her to doubt conventional medical wisdom regarding the course any given disease is supposed to take.
When Langer speaks of mindful health she does not suggest that we forego practicing good nutrition and exercising, nor abandon medical recommendations, nor the exploration of alternative healing modalities. She simply stresses the importance of becoming the guardians of our own health. And she offers a new paradigm for staying well and vital at any age: The Psychology of Possibility. Don’t just accept and adjust. Explore possibilities. Find ways to improve.
“Counterclockwise” offers a great antidote to fear and self-fulfilling prophecy, not to mention all the worry and anxiety generated by the media, which bombards us with images of disease and ill health daily. And while it is a complex book, it still provides a basic, functional message: Take care of yourself. Don’t accept everything you’re told. Keep yourself open to the power of possibility. The possibility of rejuvenation, based on the studies in the book, indicates that not only is decrepitude reversible, it may well be preventable in the first place!
Posted by Raena Morgan