(originally titled: The Only Thing We Know For Sure Is That We Don’t Know Anything For Sure) Most of you who read my blog know that I am an optimist. I also believe in the power of positive thought. The way I see it, positive thought is different from positive thinking because just thinking of things doesn’t always affect them. But when you change your thoughts (or mindset) about things, it usually spurs the actions that lead to change. So imagine my delight when I came across the work of Ellen J. Langer who not only reinforces that idea about “thoughts,” but also offers research to support them. Calling on what she labels the “psychology of possibility,” Langer says that it “first requires that we begin with the assumption that we do not know what we can do or become.” In other words, the only thing we know for sure is that we can’t know anything for absolute certain.
Now before you start immediately searching for things you think you know for sure, let me offer a bit of background on Ellen Langer. Langer is a professor in the Psychology Department at Harvard University who has written about the subjects of possibility and mindfulness for over 40 years. This highly educated social psychologist has authored eleven published books and over 200 research articles and is still going strong.
But let’s get back to ideas about whether we can know something “for certain.” Langer suggests that rather than coming from the status quo or the assumption that we know something, she argues for a starting point of what we would like it to be. From there we can then begin by asking ourselves “how” rather than merely, “can” we? This encourages us to try things we may not have considered before. Once there, even if we fail to achieve our result, all we know for sure is that the previous way we tried was not successful. As Langer says, “we still do not know that it can’t be.”
For example, if we have a physical challenge or disease, most people learn to accept the diagnosis or find ways to adjust to what is. Instead by using the psychology of possibility, Langer suggests searching for ways to improve rather than merely adjust. “But,” says Langer, “knowing what is and knowing what can be are not the same thing.” Using the word “can” sets boundaries. Using “how” opens doors.
Langer tells a great story about how this idea came to her at the horse races. By her own admission, even though she is a highly educated Harvard Professor and scientist, she knows very little about horses except for what she has read. She got into a conversation with a jockey who was standing next to his horse. At some point, he asked her to hold his horse while he went and got the horse a hotdog.
What? Horses don’t eat hotdogs! That’s exactly what Langer told herself as the jockey returned with a hot dog and the horse ate it right in front of her. That’s when that simple observation rocked everything she thought she knew about everything. Clearly, at least one horse does eat hotdogs. And if one does, that opens the door to the possibility that other things we “are certain we know” are not as cut in stone as we maybe previously thought.
Langer reminds us that most of the time when research is done it focuses on the average or the majority as proof that something is absolutely true. It ignores or discounts anything that doesn’t “conform to the experimenter’s hypothesis” and sees any variations as unwanted noise in the data. So instead of saying, “hey, if one horse likes hotdogs, then maybe my horse would like them too,” most of us mindlessly agree with the study or expert and say, “No, horses just don’t eat hot dogs.”
That absolute mindset is particularly dangerous or limiting when we receive news or information that we find troubling. Do we automatically listen to what an “authority figure” like a doctor tells us as absolute, or do we keep our minds open to the possibility that there might be something we can do, and that there are likely a few examples of others who have triumphed in that situation? But because those singular or remote possibilities are just “unwanted noise in the data,” we might not seek them out. Still, we are the ones who decide. Do we keep looking for those outliers offering possibility? Or do we accept the first, often the most convenient, or the most authoritarian perspective we come across? Again—we are the ones who get to decide.
I get it. Change can be scary and none of us likes to believe we live in an uncertain, let alone an unpredictable world. But whenever we try to impose stability on a world that is constantly changing, something has to give. And that something is most often our willingness to believe unusual things are possible.
Langer says, “There are many cynics out there who are entrenched in their beliefs and hold dear to their view of the world as fixed and predictable. There are also people who, while not cynical, are still mindlessly accepting of these views. A new approach to psychology and to our lives is needed because the naysayers—those who demand empirical evidence—are winning. It is they who have determined what is possible and what’s achievable, to our collective detriment.”
Let me offer an example. I currently live in a country that is faced with challenges on the national and political scale that can appear troubling. Yet if I take the approach of the power of possibility as suggested by Langer, I have to ask myself—what is the good to be found in this situation? Can good come from it? A couple of very positive pieces coming out of our current administration are the large number of groups who are rallying for the first time ever. Millions of women are starting to get involved in politics in ways never seen before. Those who believe in climate change are independently making commitments to do what is necessary to save our planet. And those who typically have only supported the conservative side of business are now standing up to promote equality (and health care) for all. Like Langer’s words and writing say, we don’t know everything and we really don’t know for sure that the current issues facing our country aren’t some of the most necessary steps to lead us to a higher and better place for us all.
Whenever we begin searching for the possible instead of just accepting what we already think we know, especially when negative, we move out of mindlessness and into what Langer calls mindful. In her opinion, being mindful isn’t about meditation. Instead, she believes it is staying open and curious to what is new right in front of us in every moment—and refusing to see it as we have before. That includes the simple things like our husband’s smile, the political news of the day, or cancer. Newness. Possibility. Hope. Potential. One horse eating a hot dog.
Langer says, “We don’t consider that what’s true here need not be true over there. If we don’t think to think about our ideas, we can’t update or improve them. It won’t occur to us to question how we know what we know, what facts we base it on, and whether the science that produced those facts is suspect.” She concludes with, “The hefty price for accepting information uncritically is that we go through life unaware that what we’ve accepted as impossible may, in fact, be quite possible.”
There are lots of actions we can do and Langer’s works are filled with them. But primary is holding the belief that nothing is an absolute in this world unless, and that’s a big statement, unless we believe it is. So our political climate might look messy or disastrous from one perspective, our health might be facing a huge challenge, our financial or relationship troubles might seem insurmountable, but that is because we are looking at them based upon what we think we know—not on what is possible.
SMART Living is never finding the one perfect solution to living a happy life filled with meaning and purpose. Things change. We change. Instead, my goal here is to be a finger pointing at possibilities. Do I just suggest, “Think positive?” Not at all. Like Langer, I believe that when we view things optimistically and mindfully, we actually pay greater attention to all the possibilities, and then are better able to cooperate in the process. As usual, it is SMART to remember that we don’t know everything absolutely for sure.