I recently heard Harvard Professor Ellen Langer present a keynote address on mindfulness, a topic she has studied for over thirty years. Her new book, Counterclockwise, summarizes decades of research on both mindfulness and the mindless use of labels. She discusses several fascinating studies that highlight how powerfully our thoughts impact our bodies.

One study, aptly named Counterclockwise, looked at how we label ourselves using the somewhat arbitrary designation of age. Two groups (experimental and control) of elderly men were sent on week long retreats. The experimental group was instructed to live for that week as if they actually were twenty years younger. They talked about current events from twenty years earlier as if they were happening in the present and were treated by staff like they were younger. By the end of the retreat, the men who essentially acted as if they were twenty years younger showed physical signs of enhanced youth, like greater flexibility, memory, and muscle mass. The powerful effect of labeling works to both enhance and diminish youth. For example, men who are physically reminded of their age by balding or gray hair, tend to show other signs of age, like disease, earlier than their non-balding, graying counterparts.

Most people have heard about the placebo effect: patients feel better after taking sugar pills that they believe are real medicine. Usually, we talk about the placebo effect in a dismissive way; it is seen as detracting from the real intervention or medicine. Ellen Langer turns this reaction on its head by begging the questions: Why does the placebo effect work? And what if we devoted our energy to understanding and enhancing the placebo effect?

Placebos work because we believe an intervention or medicine to be effective. Beliefs are a form of labeling: “yes, this intervention/medicine will help me.” If these labels, our beliefs, can impact our bodies in positive ways, why not harness that power?

Ellen Langer’s work made me realize the power of labels and the importance of being mindful of them, whether they be labels of age, disease, beliefs, likes, or dislikes. Labels start a chain reaction that can either enhance or detract from our lives; either de-motivate us or motivate us; either tire us or energize us.  I choose to be mindful and label intentionally and positively.