William James, the father of modern psychology, hypothesized that the relationship between emotion and behavior was a two-way street and that behavior can cause emotion and emotions can impact behavior. Specifically, he believed that smiling could make you feel happy and frowning can make you feel sad.
Through decades of research, we now know that William James was on to something. Research has shown that by acting as if you are a particular type of person, you become that person. Psychologist and author, Richard Wiseman, calls this the “As If" principle (Wiseman, 2013). In 1981, Ellen Langer, a Harvard Professor and expert in mindfulness, conducted what is called a “counterclockwise” study. She recruited a group of men in their 70s for a "week of reminiscence" at a retreat outside Boston.
Before the study started, Langer tested the men's strength, posture, eyesight, and memory. She then encouraged the men to act as if they were 20 years younger. When they arrived at the retreat, they were treated as though they were at least twenty years younger. No one assisted them with their luggage. Their rooms did not have individual devices like the rails or other movement aids they had at home. Surrounded by various objects from the 50s, including a black-and-white television and a vintage radio, Langer informed the participants that for the next few days all of their conversations about the past had to be in the present tense and that no conversation could mention anything that happened after 1959 (Langer, 2014).
Within days, Langer could see the dramatic effect of behaving “As If.” The change in the participants was dramatic. They were walking faster and were more confident. Within a week, several of the participants had decided that they could now manage without they're walking sticks. Langer took various psychological and physiological measurements throughout the experiment and discovered that the group showed improvements in dexterity, the speed of movement, memory, blood pressure, eyesight and hearing. Acting as if they were young men had knocked years off their bodies and minds.
Langer has conducted dozens of research studies, and all of the results share one theme: Mindfulness can change your life. The purpose of her experiments wasn’t to show how an artificial environment affects behavior but to show the possibilities. Sometimes the limitations that we accept aren’t real. They are created by our beliefs and expectations. Through mindful interventions, they can be reversed.
Why wait to be that person you always dreamed of being? Here is an example, of what it means to act ‘as if”. Most of us would acknowledge that there is a strong connection between the mind and the body. Too often we do not deliberately activate bodily functions to change our emotions. For example, observe how we hold our bodies when we are confident.
Most of us stand up taller, shoulders back, feet firmly on the floor maybe a little more apart. Next time when you need a bit more confidence, recall how your body feels when you at your most confident and mirror those positions. When you do this, you may start to feel more confidence to face the challenge ahead.
Langer, Ellen. (2014) Mindfulness in the Age of Complexity. Harvard Business Review.
Wiseman, Richard. (2013). The As If Principle. Free Press.
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