COUNTERCLOCKWISE: A proven way to think yourself younger and healthier

Ellen Langer has to be one of my favourite researchers, psychologists, writers, and people.  I love her work and she is an amazing person.  To sit down with her over a peppermint tea (me) and martini (her) was a delight.

We spoke for two hours about life and challenges, mindfulness, personal traumas and professional highlights.

Diving into her books is still a pleasure; like diving into the mind of someone who challenges thinking, removes the blinkers, and wonders ‘who put the box there in the first place’.  Ellen’s research and career have been those of irreverence and I love that.

So, if you haven’t yet picked up Counterclockwise maybe now is the time.

First published in 2010 the book has been around a while, yet it is still one that needs to be on your reading list.

The foundation of the book is Dr Langer’s ground breaking “counterclockwise” study, sometimes known as the monastery study. Back in 1979 she took 70+ year old gentlemen away to ‘live’ as if it was 1959 for a week.  If you haven’t read it, then I won’t spoil the ending for you.


Ellen uses the term ‘mindfulness’ yet she does not refer to mindfulness in its now more common term; i.e meditation.  She focuses on what happens when we mindlessly buy into things, categories or concepts that potentially restrict us.  She studies the psychology of possibility, which is exciting in itself.

The focus of this book is more on health, and how we construct rules around it; how a diagnosis can take away hope, how a category we suddenly put ourselves in can play out in our behaviour and that of others.

Key Messages

I love some of Ellen’s key quotes, such as we need to “put the mind and body back together so that we are just one person again.” And, “I want to be clear, I am not arguing against medical tests.  I am arguing against mindless reliance on them and the mindless state that they can lead to.” And the one that she is famous for….”when we are mindless we are not there to notice we are not there.”

Yet the story that really shows how Ellen’s mind works (and there are a few in this book!) is the one about her friend who had 106 stitches in her leg.  This is special, and I quote….

“I was on a walk with two friends and one recounted a horrible experience she had had several years earlier.  I missed the reason for her mishap but tuned in when she said she had been standing on top of a porcelain toilet.  It cracked, she slipped and the porcelain nearly severed her leg, resulting in 106 stitches. She said she’d learned her lesson.  I asked her what the lesson was, and she replied, “Don’t stand on porcelain toilets.” Perhaps, but I suggested that the lesson could be any of the following: “Be more cautious,” “Don’t try to fix things yourself.” “Make sure you’re not alone when attempting something new,” “Don’t attempt anything new,“ “Wear heavy clothes when fixing things,” “Don’t be afraid to try new things because the body is amazing the way it heals itself,” “I can take a hit and not be defeated,” or “Lose weight so toilets can hold me.”

This is classic Ellen, so for more, please pick up the book!

Making Positive Change

In this book Dr Langer challenges us to think about things we often think we have no control over, and provides research and evidence to support that in many cases, we mindlessly accept we have no control based on social norms and constructs.

In 1961 Yale psychology Neal Miller found people could manipulate their ‘autonomic nervous system’ – a system previously thought to be outside of our control.

If we can mentally change our blood pressure or heart rate, it is possible we can control many more things about our physical and mental health.

Dr Langer proves that the magic lies in being aware of the ways we mindlessly react to cultural cues, and Counterclockwise shows how we can actively challenge these ingrained behaviours by making subtle changes in our everyday lives.

You can purchase Ellen Langer’s book Counterclockwise here.

“Take a brilliant, creative social scientist, without any respect for conventional wisdom and you get Ellen Langer. She is a fantastic storyteller, and Counterclockwise is a fascinating story about the unexpected ways in which our minds and bodies are connected.”

– Dan Ariely, Ph.D., author of Predictably Irrational

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