Counterclockwise, by Ellen Langer

Could thinking we are younger make us younger physically and mentally?

Ellen-Langer.jpgThis question is discussed in Counterclockwise, a new book by Ellen J. Langer. It’s available now on Amazon, here: Counterclockwise

Dr. Ellen Langer is a professor in the Psychology Department at Harvard University. In 1979, she and 4 graduate students undertook a study where a group of male nursing home residents in their late 70s and early 80s were taken on a week-long retreat, where they were asked to live like it was the year 1959, i.e. 20 years earlier.

The results were startling… the men appeared to become younger.

Langer writes about this and other research in Couterclockwise—I’ll describe this study here because she covers it in chapter one, the only chapter I have read so far. This chapter is available as a pdf from the book’s page on Amazon—here’s a direct link to it: Counterclockwise, chapter one.

The 1979-1959 study

Counterclockwise.jpgThe men stayed in a place done up to look like it was 1959. All magazines, newspapers, films and TV and radio programs dated from that year, and there were daily activities such as discussions of 1959 current affairs, held as though it was the present.

In numerous other ways the men were encouraged to feel it was 1959, such as by having ID photos of themselves from that time, and discussing the work they had been doing then as though it was the present.

The psychologists measured a range of indicators of chronological age (they had to invent them, because there actually are none) before and after the retreat, and found the men had appeared to become younger. The results were compared to ones from another control group of men, who also improved—who wouldn’t, after a holiday from a nursing home, with daily activities?

The changes in the experimental group compared to the control group were significant, however.

They showed greater improvement on joint flexibility, finger length (their arthritis diminished and they were able to straighten their fingers more) and manual dexterity. On intelligence tests, 63 percent of the experimental group improved their scores, compared to only 44 percent of the control group.

The experimental group also showed better improvements in height, weight, gait, and posture. They also looked noticeably younger after the study, compared to the control group, according to impartial observers looking at photos.

The book

Langer describes how the study came about, and how it was conducted, in chapter one of the book.

She then says the following:

This study shaped not only my view of aging but also my view of limits in a more general way for the next few decades. Over time I have come to believe less and less that biology is destiny. It is not primarily our physical selves that limit us but rather our mindset about our physical limits. Now I accept none of the medical wisdom regarding the courses our diseases must take as necessarily true.

If a group of elderly adults could produce such dramatic changes in their lives, so too can the rest of us. To begin, we must ask if any of the limits we perceive as real do exist. For example, we largely presume that as we age our vision gets worse, that chronic diseases can’t be reversed, and that there is something wrong with us when the external world no longer “fits” as it did when we were young.

Aah… a woman after my own heart!

Langer concludes this section with the following:

Mindful health is not about how we should eat right, exercise, or follow medical recommendations, nor is it about abandoning these things. It is not about New Age medicine nor traditional understandings of illness. It is about the need to free ourselves from constricting mindsets and the limits they place on our health and well-being, and to appreciate the importance of becoming the guardians of our own health. Learning how to change requires understanding how we go astray. The goal of this book is to convince you to open your mind and take back what is rightfully, sensibly, and importantly yours.

The psychology of possibility

Langer also writes about the psychology of possibility in chapter one… a way for both researchers and the rest of us to approach things by focusing on possibilities, rather than the status quo. She makes the point that psychologists have traditionally studied the “norm”, rather than exceptions that could show possibiliies. She says “Much of my own research is designed to test possibilities, not to find what is descriptively true. If I can make one dog yodel, then we can say that yodeling is possible in dogs.”

She goes on to say:

When faced with disease or infirmity, we may find a way to adjust to what is. In the psychology of possibility, we search for the answer to how to improve, not merely to adjust.

For example, most of us believe that between the ages of forty and fifty, our eyesight will start to decline. If instead we thought that perhaps our eyesight could improve over time—be better than when it was at its best—we might develop ways to make that happen.


…many psychologists presume memory loss is a natural part of aging. An older person who doesn’t have memory loss is seen as an anomaly instead of becoming a model for how we all might be.


I enjoyed reading chapter one very much—I think it would be valuable reading for anyone, whether or not they intend to go ahead and read the whole book.

I’ve never been a fan of thinking we are best off expecting and preparing for certain changes that are commonly said to come with being certain ages—I think these expectations become self-fulfilling.

My own reaction to things like eyesight problems, grey hairs and weight gain is to try looking for ways to reverse them, using the mind-body connection. I’m not the only one… I had an email recently telling me of someone who is starting to grow silky, coloured hair in place of grey, after setting the intention to do so (I’m not suggesting that grey hair is a disaster to be corrected, the person is exploring, I gather).

Ellen Langer’s research supports the idea that we create our own biology—as far as I’m concerned, this is a great development.

Too many of us believe the world is to be discovered, rather than a product of our own construction and thus to be invented.
~ Ellen J. Langer

Newsweek article

I’d also suggest if you are interested in any of this you check out Wray Herbert’s article in Newsweek: Just Say No to Aging? He writes about Counterclockwise, and has some interesting things to say.

Relevant links

Ellen Langer’s website and blog
Counterclockwise on Amazon

* * *
I’d like to thank Janni Lloyd for letting me know about this book’s arrival. Janni hails from Perth, Australia, and she writes about physical immortality here: Janni Lloyd. Thanks Janni!

Just a quick note regarding my last post… Frank would like me to let you know he very much appreciates the kind comments many of you left for him (and he is doing fine).

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Comments about any of this are very welcome!

42 thoughts on “Counterclockwise, by Ellen Langer

  1. Dot

    Lost of food for thought there. Perhaps we all ought to pick our ideal age and then surround ourselves with things and activities from that time, to keep thinking young? 1959 wasn’t the ideal time, sociologically. but there are plenty to choose from. Maybe my being stuck in the Sixties (in some ways) is helping me stay young. I also have the advantage of great genes for staying young, though. We have to counteract the assumptions of the rest of the world, not just our own.
    .-= Dot´s last blog ..Comment on My Mother Has Passed by Davina =-.

  2. Eliza

    This is exactly my frustration with the perception of what happens to a woman when she ages. She WILL have hot flashes. She WILL stop wanting to have sex. The list goes on. Argh … we do not have to accept those things as inevitable.

    I definitely agree mindset has a lot to do with not experiencing any of those things. But so is living a physically healthy and balanced life. You have to have both. You can just sit around thinking young, while abusing your body. You have to think young and be accountable to your health. Then? VA-VOOM … look out world! 🙂
    .-= Eliza´s last blog ..Understanding weight gain after 40 =-.

  3. Evelyn Lim

    I believe what you’ve shared here as truth. The thing is that a lot of our negative beliefs are built into our psyche. We may not be aware of them consciously. We need to unearth what these are and release them from having a hold on us.

    The song “Forever Young” is a soundtrack that I used to dance to. To being (and looking) seventeen forever!!

    .-= Evelyn Lim´s last blog ..Love The Man In The Mirror =-.

  4. Marelisa

    Hi Robin: We’re in sync, I was just reading about this book and the study at the New Hampshire Monastery (with the men being told to act as if it was many years before). I definitely agree that we need to let go of the mentality that age is related to decline. I’m actually able to jog more now than I ever have before, and I’m steadily increasing my endurance, so there!
    .-= Marelisa´s last blog ..The Silva Life System – Make Your Life Better, Better, and Better =-.

  5. Davina

    Hi Robin. This does make a lot of sense. This is what stood out for me… “An older person who doesn’t have memory loss is seen as an anomaly instead of becoming a model for how we all might be.” Seems we have been trained to look for the majority of cases to prove a point… to follow the crowd… “the majority rules”. You get the picture 🙂 It’s nice to be reading you regularly again Robin. Welcome back!

  6. Robin

    Hi everyone – it occurs to me that bloggers practise “the psychology of possibility” quite regularly!

    @Dot – ha – do you wear flower-power caftans? I agree – all the assumptions just have to go!
    @Vered – thanks Vered. I don’t think mainstream scientists and doctors think in terms of reversing ageing and disease, though – the drug companies wouldn’t like that!
    @Miguel – ha – yes, kids keep us youthful (or exhausted)
    @Chris – I’m sure they do! I’m sure learning interesting things about people.
    @Eliza – no, I don’t think so, either! And yes, mindfulness needs to be part of the picture – I like the VA-VOOM!
    @Evelyn – yes I quite agree – we can heal ourselves by unearthing and releasing thoughts and feelings holding us back. I think I prefer 25-30 to 17 – although for a long time now I have seen myself as 22. We were listening to that track recently.
    @Marelisa – Yes, we are in sync! Glad to hear about your jogging! haha!
    @Davina – hi there Davina – and thank you, it’s so nice to be welcomed back. You put Ellen’s point about possibilities very well, I think.

  7. Ribbon

    Hi Robin…
    Great post.
    I’m totally up for possiblities 🙂
    My life depends on it!

    I use Holosync technology as a meditation tool and as an aid for creating new neural pathways for a healthier me.
    I think it’s gold!

    I’m loving my life.
    Best wishes always
    Ribbon 🙂
    .-= Ribbon´s last blog ..thanking and thinking…YOU =-.

  8. Evita

    Hi Robin!

    This is fantastic and right up my ally. Can I tell you something…me and my husband have decided to stop celebrating our birthdays a couple of years agao. Most people who knew/know us think we are nuts, sad, etc (not seriously but you know what I mean)

    But here is how we look at it: life should be celebrated everyday and we should feel special everyday. We don’t eat cake nor do we want to or take on other’s traditions that don’t make sense to us. We also don’t want gifts for the sake of it.

    But, and here is the best part, we are not going to go by the numbers society gives us. If we feel 25 then we feel 25, if we feel 35 then we feel 35. The point is we make our mind set each day and so I totally believe this study and results!

    Biology has already proven that most of us are very different in terms of our biological age versus our calendar age. So why lock ourselves into constricting paradigms. Why not live out our own truth?

  9. Tess The Bold LIfe

    It is about the need to free ourselves from constricting mindsets and the limits they place on our health and well-being, and to appreciate the importance of becoming the guardians of our own health.

    I love it and have known this for a long time. It’s easy to forget how old I am when I’m with my children and grandchildren. I like to carry that energy with me everyday.

    I love what Evita and her husband do…no more birthdays…imagine that.

  10. Robin

    @Ribbon – hi Ribbon – I’ve never heard of Holosync technology! Sounds intriguing – glad you are loving life!
    @Evita – good to hear from you again, Evita. That all sounds very interesting – I love the way you make up your mind from day to day how you feel. I personally enjoy celebrating birthdays for the sake of a celebration of the person, but I have NEVER related to the focus many birthday cards (and people) have on a birthday meaning you are another year physically older.
    @Tess – yes – imagine! I know some people into physical immortality do not say their age anywhere, as they don’t want the label. I’m glad you make a practice of seeing yourself as youthful – you’d need to, to do your marathons, I’d imagine.

  11. Jenny Mannion

    Hey there Robin,

    Brilliant! Wow – of course this is exactly as I believe and her words esp. the ones from the end of the section on mindful health brought me a GREAT BIG smile. 🙂

    I am often told I look young (1 month til 4-0) and I think part of it is because I never worried about aging and never told myself message like “I’m gettin’ old” 😉

    In opening our minds we truly set ourselves free and can discover life is how we never ever imagined it… health emotional and physical becomes very easy to maintain.

    Thanks Robin – this looks awesome. Quite busy right now but would really love to read this book – will add it to my wish list. 🙂

    Lots of Love,
    .-= Jenny Mannion´s last blog ..Energy Balancing Technique to Aide in Healing for Children — A guest post by Dr. Mary Riposo =-.

  12. Cath Lawson

    Hi Robin – This is brilliant. I wasn’t liking some of the eighties clothes I’m seeing people wearing right now – I looked stupid enough in them last time. But if this could work for me, I could put up with batwing sleeves, or yellow shoes.

    I hear what you say about modelling ourselves on the wrong people. If we assume that certain parts of us should be deteriorating at a certain age, we’re not giving ourselves much of a chance to discover otherwise.

  13. Natural

    To begin, we must ask if any of the limits we perceive as real do exist.

    This is very true. I hate to say this, but I think sometimes people are looking for attention and when something bothers us physically, the first thing we do is limit ourselves..yes my knee hurts, but is it really that bad that you can’t climb 3 steps. they can walk a mile shopping, but can’t climb stairs. we break down faster because that’s what we tell ourselves, that we don’t work, so we act like it.
    .-= Natural´s last blog ..I am conductor, hear me cook =-.

  14. Robin

    @Jenny – Hi Jen – I’m glad you like this. I’d like to read it too – haven’t ordered it yet (I wonder what the shipping will be to Aust as it’s hardcover?)
    @Cath – Cath you really crack me up! What about those shoulder pads! – I think some of those looks might bring on anxiety rather than make us younger. Love your last sentence.
    @Natural – Hi Val – good point – many of us tend to jump to conclusions about what we can’t do.

  15. XUP

    I have a lot of trouble remembering how old I am. When I’m reminded I can’t even wrap my head around it — on all but the most superficial levels, I do not believe it. I conduct myself according to how old I really think I am; which is about 10 years younger in most cases — sometimes more. I don’t talk about how old I am and most people assume I’m the age I believe myself to be.

  16. Patricia

    I am just thinking about how much better I am now and happier than I was as a child – like just seems to get better and I am able to feel healthier too…nice write up and I enjoyed reading the first thought and ideas expressed.

    Good healthy thinking to you both
    .-= Patricia´s last blog ..Creative, Creativ, Kreativ =-.

  17. Wellescent Health Blog

    With healthy, active grandparents in their 90’s, I have come to realize that the easiest way to avoid aging is to spend your time living, doing what you love and avoiding putting yourself away on the shelf. My grandparents are inspiring that way because in their 80’s they helped to organize the community to build an old age home that they knew they would likely never live in. My grandmother walks 3miles/5km every day and at 92 my grandfather finally decided that he had more fun things to do than mow the lawn.

    That sure beats deciding to sit in front of the TV all day just because you wake up with aches and pains and don’t feel like doing things.
    .-= Wellescent Health Blog´s last blog ..Slowly Pushing Alternative Medicine to the Mainstream =-.

  18. Giovanna Garcia

    Hi Robin

    You have got my attention, I am going to look into Counter Clockwise. I am always open to learning more.
    Thanks for sharing.
    Giovanna Garcia
    Imperfect Action is better than No Action
    .-= Giovanna Garcia´s last blog ..Lessons from Eagles =-.

  19. Robin

    @Mama Zen – yes I think so!
    @XUP – hi XUP – it doesn’t really mean anything, does it?
    @Patricia – I’ve found myself get better with age, too. I wasn’t very fit or happy as a young adult.
    @Wellescent Health Blog – hi there WHB, and welcome to this blog! Your grandparents sound amazing!
    @Giovanna – I hope to read it soon, too.
    @Mike – hi there again Mike – it is powerful indeed.
    @Barbara – hi there Barbara and welcome to you! Age is indeed just a number!

  20. Jannie Funster

    I wanna be a grand-parent like Wellescent’s. I think the
    overall key is to keep moving and laughing, keep creating.

    I’m 45 – exactly in the middle between that 40 and 50 for glasses. And I stated wearing them a few weeks ago, for reading. I am really wondering what I could do to reverse this vision “loss” but what I could do? Eat more carrots? The eyes’ muscles tire, I think. Maybe if I got over to Melbourne and gazed upon the glory of the Humphead Maori Wrasse they would revert to my pre-glasses perfection? I bet!

    I’d like to meet with Cath and get all garbed up circa 1989. But would we have to get our hair all big too?


    Love ya, Robin!
    .-= Jannie Funster´s last blog ..Another video from my CD release show =-.

  21. Paul Maurice Martin

    Our surroundings and activities can make a big difference all right. I always felt and looked younger than my age and thought part of was working with elementary school children.

    That is, until I found at age 37 that I’d inherited an extremely rare disease. So life has some curve balls too.

  22. Robin

    @Jannie – they sound like awesome grandparents, don’t they? I should probably check on the health of our Mr Wrasse – and if he is still going I am sure he would enjoy being gazed upon (with or without glasses). The thought of you and Cath getting together to dress up 80s-style is a little scary! x
    @Paul Maurice – hi there Paul – I read about your condition on your blog – all the best with it. That’s interesting that you felt working with children made you feel young – I used to, and I think it might have just made me tired! Cheers!

  23. Mark

    I too love this. I believe that we are as old as we believe we are and that many of the norms of aging can be reversed or avoided depending on our thoughts. Every birthday celebration I tell myself and the world that I am now redefining this age! Our thoughts are so very powerful! Thanks for sharing your review, I will add this to my list.
    .-= Mark´s last blog ..How Do You Use Your Creativity? =-.

  24. Paul Maurice Martin

    “That’s interesting that you felt working with children made you feel young – I used to, and I think it might have just made me tired! Cheers!”

    I think it may only have been because I was kind of childish myself – ahem… I mean child-like…

    On the rare disease front, unfortunately they aren’t as rare as one would hope. That is, if you add them all up, they afflict many millions of people. But because any one of them affects only a small population, they’re also known as “orphan diseases” since little research is done on them. They are mainly based on genetics and without any known or suspected connection to psychology, generally striking people in the prime of life, with age of onset typically in a person’s twenties or thirties.

  25. Brian

    Hi Robin, I just stumbled across your site and am very intrigued. Thanks for the thorough post on Counterclockwise, the book is new to me; I’ll have to read the first chapter and see about picking up a copy. The idea of your mind making you feel younger is something I believe happens and it’s very interesting to see the results of how this can happen to others.
    .-= Brian´s last blog ..The Easiest Way To Lose Weight: Sleep More =-.

  26. Lane Savant

    A large part of “aging” is social pressure from people who just want you out of the way. People like governments and religions and embarrassed youth.

  27. Robin

    @Mark – I do the same! i.e. see myself as redefining the age.
    @Paul – hi again – ha ha I now what you mean. And here’s to eradicating ALL disease.
    @Jannie – thanks Jannie – I’m fine. For some reason I’m finding it difficult to write anything at the moment – but it’ll pass.
    @Brian – hi there and welcome to this blog! I see you have a lot about staying young on your site.
    @Lane – welcome to you too. Here’s to all people being equal!

  28. Tom Volkar / Delightful Work

    Robin I can always count on a mind stretching when I read your stuff. I’m grateful for that because I do believe in the mind body connection – yet I’m challenged physically in many ways all relating to my perception of growing older.

    “Too many of us believe the world is to be discovered, rather than a product of our own construction and thus to be invented.”

    Wow this quote will make me look at all areas of my life where I’ve leaned on the discovery process.
    .-= Tom Volkar / Delightful Work´s last blog ..Fear Cripples Authenticity =-.

  29. Barbara Swafford

    Hi Robin,

    WOW! I love this. I’ve always believed our minds are more powerful than we give them credit for, and the experiment Dr. Langer writes about, certainly proves it.

    Can you imagine the shock when the elderly people began to see improved health, etc? Those that conducted the experiment must have been ecstatic.

    This is phenomenal news. I’m off to download the PDF and read Mr. Herbert’s article as well.

    Thank you for sharing this, Robin.
    .-= Barbara Swafford´s last blog ..When The Conversation Stops =-.

  30. Christina Crowe

    Interesting article! Who would have known that thinking you are younger could create such a big impact?

    I’ll definitely keep this information in mind during my later years.

    Great post!

  31. Pingback: Who Are They To Say | Blogging Without A Blog

  32. Robin

    @Tom – being much the same age as you I can relate. I’m glad you find that quote powerful – she has put that idea very well. I think.
    @Barbara – THANKS for linking to this post, Barbara – it’s good stuff, isn’t it?
    @Christine – hi there and welcome to this blog! Glad you like the post!

  33. Raymond Insaan Abdullah

    Peace and Happiness to my Fellow Human Beings: We are in the midst of some of the most brilliant and far-reaching discoveries of human potential that we have ever witnessed. Hang on! There is much more to come from such inspiring persons as Dr. Ellen Langer and other giants in the fields of the new sciences of human excellence. One point on the negative side of all this beautiful and positive energy: There seems to be an overwhelming misconception about the possibility of getting older and leaving this experience–the so-called present life. I’ll make this short and get right to the point. Death is one of the most important experiences of life. When the time comes to proceed to that phase of our journey–if we have realized our full potential in this phase–we will experience something that we can’t begin to articulate and make any sense of its magnitude. Continue to be positive and open for what’s possible and don’t hold on so desperately to that which is slipping away: The Best is yet to come! Peace! Abdullah ibn Yasin

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