Home All Counterclockwise by Ellen Langer (Book Review)

Counterclockwise by Ellen Langer (Book Review)

written by Laura L.C. Johnson 25 September 2009

Laura L.C. Johnson, MA, MBA, LMFT, LPCC is a Cognitive Behavior Therapist and the founder and executive director of the Cognitive Behavior Therapy Center of Silicon Valley and Sacramento Valley. She integrates positive psychology with cognitive behavior therapy and schema therapy, which have been shown to be effective for a wide variety of problems in hundreds of studies. Her clients learn skills to build positive emotions, optimism, and resilience while decreasing unhelpful thinking, behaviors, and emotions. Full bio. Laura's articles are here.

In Counterclockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility, Ellen Langer, a psychology professor at Harvard, says that “knowing what is and knowing what can be are not the same thing.” Langer’s research over the past 30 years has focused on how mindfulness – defined by Langer as actively noticing new things – can lead to new possibilities and allow us to improve our health and well-being. The psychology of possibility assumes “we do not know what we can do or become.”

BOOK REVIEW: Counterclockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility (Ballantine Books, 2009).

If One Dog Could Yodel

Langer writes that the mission of “the psychology of possibility” is to see if an outcome is possible, and then figure out how it can be pursued. Traditional research is based on probabilities and a fixed view of what was studied. We’d need to show that the majority of subjects have an effect in order to conclude the effect is real. In the psychology of possibility, only one participant is needed to prove something is possible. “If I can make one dog yodel, then we can say yodeling is possible in dogs,” writes Langer. Instead of trying to prove what is true for the majority, we look at how exceptional performance becomes possible.


Our Mindset Determines What Is Possible

In the counterclockwise study of 1979, Langer and her research team set up an experiment where two groups of men lived in a replicated world as if it were 20 years earlier. The “experimental” group lived as if 1959 were the present – they spoke in the present tense, wrote an autobiography as if it were 1959, and exchanged photos of their younger selves.

The “control” group lived in the same replicated world one week later, except they wrote their bios in the past tense, their photos were of their current selves, and they reminisced about the past.

It turned out both groups got “younger” but the experimental group had greater improvements on many measures of physical ability, health, and intelligence – and the experimental group was judged to look younger by people who were unaware of the study. Langer concluded that it is not our physical selves that limit us but, rather, our constricting mindsets about our physical limits, health and well-being and our social construction of what aging means.

Noticing Change Can Enhance Control

In another study, Langer and colleagues wanted to see if people could be taught to regulate their heart rate after focusing their attention on how it varies. They set up four groups: a “stability group” where participants measured their heart rate upon going to sleep and awakening; a “moderate attention to variability group” that measured their heart rate at two predesignated times; a “high attention to variability group” who measured their heart rate every three hours and were asked to pay attention to how it varied and what they were doing; and a control group that did not monitor their heart rate but did monitor their activities. The study found that the most mindful group, the “high attention to variability group,” did significantly better at controlling their heart rate. Langer concluded that noticing change can foster the learning needed to bring physiological responses, emotions and behaviors within our control.

Don’t Believe Everything You Hear

Mindless learning can get us to mindlessly accept ideas that we have been primed to learn outside of our awareness. For example, cultural stereotypes can work as primes.

In one study of math testing, when female Asian women were primed on their gender identity, their scores plunged but when they were primed on their ethnic identity, their scores soared.

In another study, a group of female room attendants were primed to view their work as exercise. After only four weeks, the “informed group” lost an average of two pounds and showed reductions in body fat and increases in muscle mass compared to the control. Langer suggests these findings might be explained as the direct influence of the mind on the body.

Expand Possibilities by Asking “How?”
Counterclockwise is filled with thought-provoking ideas based on research studies that ask questions about what can be. Langer’s work shows that when people think mindfully about what they are doing, they adopt more positive and empowering beliefs about themselves and they feel and perform better. Langer says that questioning presumed limits is the essence of the psychology of possibility: “if instead of asking whether we can change, we ask how we can do it, we can begin finding out.”



Langer, E. (2009). Counterclockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility. New York: Ballantine Books.

Howling wolf (yodeling dog) courtesy of Tambako the Jaguar
1959 Corvette Roadster courtesy of redvette
Speak no evil, hear no evil, See no evil (mindless) courtesy of Life in LDN
April 5, 2009 (Possibilities) courtesy of Amanda Niekamp

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