Iʻve been reading Counterclockwise by Ellen Langer. Her main topic is the concept of mindfulness. For whatever reason, that word ʻmindfulnessʻ bugs me; I think because it sounds ʻnew age-yʻ or something and some new age concepts just bug me. However, I do agree with many things she writes about, and I appreciate the research studies she has included in her book to support some of her statements [of course, most people donʻt discuss any contrary research studies in their books, so that needs to be taken into consideration].
Anyway, one thing she wrote about is the correlation between optimism and recovery from coronary artery bypass surgery, and other studies about attitudes affecting recovery. She wrote "This improvement is not a function of a patientʻs tendency to deny that he was ill. Those who hold optimistic beliefs actually pay greater attention to their recovery, and in so doing they aid the recovery process and help anticipate complications. This optimism is highly correlated with mindfulness (and also may be causally related)" (p. 64). Mindfulness means to be aware, to focus slightly more attention on something that one may do otherwise. So, if someone is paying greater attention to their recovery, what might they be doing differently than those who donʻt? I would suggest that attention also means that a person could have more of a will or drive to recover, and perhaps those who donʻt place as much attention on their recovery are less inclined to get better, for whatever reasons. These could be familial, environmental [yucky surroundings], not really having much to look forward to when one has recovered, or other things. Langer doesnʻt really address these things. Does optimism follow from personality and/or environmental factors, or the reverse - do environmental factors and personality lead to more optimism, and thus, better recovery?
I donʻt think it is a one-to-one relationship; there are likely to be other variables involved than simply being optimistic means more will recover from something. I think mindfulness, or attention, is very important to oneʻs health and well-being, but to attribute optimism and attention as directly or as primary contributors to recovery from surgery seems inaccurate. How much ʻmindfulnessʻ is necessary to show better recovery? How much optimism? Where is the line on the continuum for those concepts? Certainly, our psychology is very important in our lives; mind & body, after all, do impact each other. But, other variables are important, as well.
Langer also discussed that when someone is told that they have cancer and are given a low prognosis for recovery [you have X months to live], then many people accept that and this can lead to a doctor-fulfilling prophecy [she calls it a self-fulfilling prophecy, but I wonder; doctors words influence many people]. She wrote "When we learn the correlational finding - say, that cancer kills - and mindlessly accept as necessarily true, then a diagnosis of cancer may unwittingly lead us to see ourselves as victims of self-fulfilling prophecies" (p. 65).
Certainly, unwittingly believing what anyone says could have a negative impact on us. A curious question comes out of this ʻcancer is a killerʻ issue, too: why do so many people ask the doctor "How long do I have?" Langer also discussed how many doctors are asked this question, and yet, they really are reporting statistics, and there are always outliers on statistics. Perhaps some people have a ʻdeath wishʻ and thatʻs why they ask the question "How long do I have?" That would be an interesting study to me: to learn more about why people ask that question.
So, yes, mindfullness, or attention, is very important. There is an old saying, you get what you focus on. But, I think, too, that there are other variables or factors that Langer doesnʻt address in her story about cancer or recovery from surgery. If someone is of older age, and all they have to look forward to is returning to a nursing home where they have little to say about their world [Langer also discussed control for nursing home residents and how much that can impact their lives and longevity], then there probably is a good reason why they may not recover well... They may be focusing on what they donʻt have to look forward to, and thus, are not that interested in ʻrecoveryʻ.
Our brains and minds are so fascinating, and researchers are attempting to tease out the different components of what makes us tick [or not]. I appreciate many of Langerʻs observations and the value that mindfulness has in our lives, but itʻs not always mindfulness that is relevant in a given situation.
Langer, Ellen 2009. Counterclockwise: Mindful health and the power of possibility.