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Take Notice

Foster mindfulness through observation

Today, I’ve asked Ellen Langer to share her tip of the week.

I was once at a horse show, and a man asked if I’d watch his horse while he went to get it a hot dog. 

I scoffed. I have a PhD. My whole life, I had been a straight-A student. I even memorized what was underneath the pictures in textbooks to ensure getting my A’s. If there was one thing I knew, it was that horses are herbivores. A hot dog? Pshaw.

He returned, presented the hot dog on his palm, and to my surprise, the horse ate it. It was at that moment that I realized everything I knew could be wrong.

From where did my mindlessness derive? I think it all went back to middle school. Memorization and the teaching of absolutes (horses don’t eat meat) can lead to mindlessness. 

We are all mindless much of the time, even though we don’t realize it. But there is a solution: mindfulness without meditation. Mindfulness, as I study it, is the simple process of actively noticing new things.

When we notice new things, we recognize the inherent uncertainty in everything. We realize how much we don’t know. We come to appreciate different perspectives and ambiguity.

In a recent experiment, my collaborators and I randomly assigned summer campers to two conditions. Half the campers were interviewed about themselves and their camp experience by an adult who was instructed to “pretend that you are interested in their answers”—in other words, to be mindless in their reactions. The other half completed the same interview with an adult who instead was instructed to be mindful and try to notice the children’s emotional state and body language, especially the ways in which each camper differed from the others.

After the interviews, the campers who had a conversation with a mindless adult thought less of their own abilities, even if only positive content was discussed. In contrast, those who interacted with a mindful adult felt better about themselves and their performance at camp. They also liked and trusted the adult more. And they inferred that the mindful adult liked them more.

When you pay attention to kids, treating them as the individuals they are, you model mindfulness. You’re teaching children how to understand others, that a certain behavior makes sense from that person’s perspective or else they wouldn’t have done it.   

Don’t ask your children how their day was. A rote question deserves the one-word response it often gets.

Do encourage children to search for more than one answer to questions. Searching for multiple answers helps you recognize the limitations of knowledge. And ask kids to teach you something they think you don’t know—both of you will learn something new.

Mindfully yours,
Ellen Langer

Ellen Langer is a professor of psychology at Harvard University. Sign up for her new free experimental weekly mindfulness Zoom sessions for children or adults here.