I subscribe to The Atlantic, so I'm going to take the liberty of copying in a great piece from the online The Atlantic, "How to Know That You Know Nothing."
(Maybe it's available to non-subscribers, but not knowing for sure that it is, I thought I'd take the advice put forth in the piece and realize that since I'm not confident that I know, I might as well share it this way.)
This shows that Harvard psychology professors can sound a lot like Zen masters. Which isn't really all that surprising, since Zen possesses a lot of psychological wisdom.
If there’s one thing we might regret at the end of life, it’s that we missed out on moments that mattered—not because we weren’t physically there, but because our mind wandered off to some unknown place.
In this episode of How to Build a Happy Life, we explore why it’s uniquely challenging to “live in the moment,” how we limit our own curiosity by assuming that we know best, and why the illusion of stability pulls us from living every day fully, and in the moment. A conversation with the Harvard University psychology professor Dr. Ellen Langer helps us think through a daily struggle: How do I stay present?
Arthur C. Brooks: A big part of happiness is learning to live in the moment. What does that actually mean? And more importantly, how do we do it? It turns out that living in the moment, or at least being fully alive right now has two components: mindfulness and curiosity.
You need to figure out a way to focus on the present, to be really experiencing your current time frame, as opposed to thinking about the past or thinking about the future. Now, there’s a reason that that’s hard to do. The human brain makes it possible for us to be in other time periods than in the current moment. I can imagine that I’m in the future, practicing future scenarios in my life. That’s called prospection. That’s about living in the future.
Other people tend to think about the past a lot, and one of the things that we know from research on the elderly is they tend to be kind of retrospective, thinking about the past. The problem is, if you’re excessively prospective and/or retrospective, it can crowd out your ability to be alive right now.
Dr. Ellen Langer: Lots of people confuse what I do with meditation, but meditation is a practice; mindfulness is the result of that practice. The mindfulness that we study is immediate. It’s simply noticing new things. And in the process of noticing new things, that puts you in the moment. You have all these people who say “be in the present,” and that’s great, but it’s an empty suggestion. And even simpler than this, if one deeply appreciates uncertainty—recognizing everything is always changing, everything looks different from different perspectives, so you can’t know. And when you recognize that you can’t know or you don’t know, you tune in. When you think you do know, you don’t pay any attention.
Brooks: The big theme that I really want to talk about here is how to enjoy our lives more. One of the things that you emphasize in your work a lot is that we don’t enjoy our lives enough, because we’re not actually there. What does that mean?
Dr. Langer: Over these 40-some-odd years, we find that mindlessness is pervasive. Most of us are not there, and they are not there to know they’re not there. You know, the only way some people realize they experience this is imagine you’re driving and you want to get off at exit 28, and all of a sudden, you see you’re at exit 36. So then you say, Wow, where was I? What I mean by “you’re not there” is that you are more or less behaving like a robot. Everybody has had that experience.
You know, you are miserable, and somebody says, “Hi, how are you?” And you say, “Fine, thank you.” And you’re not aware of it, and you’re not trying to hide it. Most of what we do is done on, as it’s called, automatic pilot, but the mindlessness goes far beyond that.
I wanted to write a book a long time ago, Arthur—I never wrote this one—that was called Is There Life Before Death?, because I found, you know, all these people worrying about life after death. Many people come alive, sadly, after they get some terrible diagnosis or they have a stroke or they find out they have cancer. When I speak to people who are miserable or whatever, I simply tell them that all you need to do is take care of the moment, just right this second. And if you keep doing that, then over the course of the day, you know, you’ve had a fine time.
Brooks: Why is it that we’re so distracted from the present? What is distracting us from actually noticing things around us?
Dr. Langer: Well, we have an illusion of stability. We think things are staying still. So if you’ve seen it once, you’ve seen it; you don’t need to keep paying attention to it. But there’s something I think that needs to be added, which will explain why people keep doing this. Many people pretend because they think they should know. They think, You know, so therefore, I don’t want you to know that I don’t know. And here’s the big secret for everybody: Nobody knows. You change from making a personal attribution for not knowing—I don’t know, but it’s knowable. Therefore, I’ll pretend; I’ll feel stupid, insecure—to a universal attribution: I don’t know. You don’t know. Nobody knows. Okay, so now let’s find out together and explore together. If you think you know something, there’s no reason to pay attention.
Anything can be made exciting; anything can be made boring. I picked up these kids—this is back years ago, when it was okay to pick up hitchhikers. And I was in Italy, and they were wearing nyc T-shirts, so you knew they weren’t from New York.
And so I picked them up, and I asked them, “How did you like New York?” And one of them answered right away and said, you know, he didn’t like it at all. It was boring. There was nothing to do. There are few places, to my mind, that are more exciting. And if you took me and you put me in the middle of a wheat field, I probably would look at it like, Well, it’s all the same, but not to a farmer.
Brooks: Let’s go to the future. So, you know, one of the things that I talk an awful lot about with Marty Seligman is prospection, and Marty believes that we shouldn’t be called Homo sapiens. We should be called Homo prospectus.
One point, he had this dispute with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, where the Dalai Lama was talking about mindfulness, and he said, No, Your Holiness, it’s natural that we live in the future, especially people who are ambitious and go-getters. And it’s actually important because we have to practice future scenarios, et cetera. How can we live enough in the future to be successful but, at the same time, enjoy our lives? How do we get that balance right?
Dr. Langer: I think that everything that you’re doing because of the future is based on a mistaken notion about predictability. Prediction is an illusion. Now, I know Marty doesn’t believe that. Let me convince your audience just quickly. I do this with my advanced decision-making class, and I say to them, “I’ve been teaching a version of this class for the last 40 years. I’ve never missed a class. What is the likelihood I’m going to be here next week?”
It’s a small class; we go around the room. These are Harvard kids, so they don’t say 100 percent. They say ridiculous things like 97 percent, as if there’s some calculation, but essentially they’re all saying I’ll be there. Now I say, “Okay, I want each of you to give me a good reason why I won’t be there.” The first one always says, “Well, you’ve been doing it for 40 years; you’ve been there. You deserve the time off.” The next one says, “Your dog has to go to the vet.” The next one says, “You’ve got a flat tire.” And they easily come up with things.
Then I say to them, “Okay, what is the likelihood I’m going to be here next week?” And it drops to 50 percent. And when you fully realize that we don’t know, that you can plan all you want for some future event and then something else will happen that pulls you away. But if the planning for the future is giving you a happy present, that’s fine; there’s nothing lost by it. When you stick to your predictions, you’re limiting yourself rather than expanding your universe of possibilities.
Brooks: From your perspective, goal setting is valuable to the extent that it enhances the quality of your life right now.
Dr. Langer: At the moment, yes. And I think that what we want to do, and the way I describe being mindful, is to be rule, routine, and goal guided. Most of us are mindless, so we’re rule, routine, and goal governed. You don’t want to have a rule that says you do something at time one—that’s when you’re committing to that rule—when at time two, it’s totally irrelevant. Recognize that outcomes are in our heads. They’re not in events.
A simple example, you know, if you and I go to lunch and the food is good, that’s great. You and I go to lunch and the food is awful. That’s great. Presumably, I’ll eat less, and that’ll be better for my waistline. If I take the view that the event is good or bad, then I’m in this position where I do everything I can to get the good, and I run away as fast as I can from anything bad. And once I recognize that the good/bad is in my head, I can be still and just enjoy whatever happens.
Brooks: So you and I are going back to the classroom in person for the first time in a super long time, and let’s say that your fall class, weirdly unexpectedly, goes really, really poorly. What’s your strategy then, because you’re not going to get stressed?
Dr. Langer: I have a one-liner that friends of mine put on their refrigerators, which is “Ask yourself, is it a tragedy or an inconvenience?” Too often we respond to things. You know, if the class didn’t go well, Oh my God, my life’s going to be—no, of course not. Let’s say you and I are going out and we have a bad conversation and it’s Oh my God, that’s going to destroy the relationship! No. No relationship is going to be made or fall apart based on one situation. No life is going to depend on failing one test or giving one bad class.
Brooks: Ellen Langer. What a joy. What a gift that you’ve given to our audience today, and what a gift that you’ve given me. So thank you very much.
Dr. Langer: It’s my pleasure, Arthur. Stay well.