(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.
Ameer Belal says
Thanks Kathy for useful information that you provided, We need such info from time to time in our life. I enjoyed reading and I registered in your newsletter.
Go ahead , great job
I’ve been following your blog for a few months and just wanted to say that I just love the content. I’m 42 and married with a 3- and 7yo. Your blog is very relevant to my life and is consistently uplifting. 🙂 Thanks for the link to Ellen Langer. I just ordered one of her books.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Cicely! Nice to meet you…and I’m so glad to know you are finding my blog uplifting and helpful. There is a lot of good happening in the world but I do think we need to remind each other of it all the time so that we can stay optimistic about our lives and the world. As a mom of young ones I’ll bet that makes it especially important. And which book did you get by Ellen Langer? I’d love to hear your thoughts on it once you’ve read it and if you have the time. Thanks for checking in and saying hi! ~Kathy
Judy Freedman says
A great post. I try to practice mindfulness during my life after 50. It helps me stay in the present moment and appreciate all that I have now.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Judy! Thanks for your comment. And I completely agree about mindfulness. It benefits me too in all sorts of way. Interestingly enough, Langer actually views mindfulness in a way that she says is not related to what many of us think of it being–but IMHO it is connected because anything that keeps us from be “mindless” is help to be more mindful. ~Kathy
Carol ("Mimi") says
Yes. The new title does ‘grab’ the reader more immediately. The words “power of possibility” make the title more compelling.
Kathy Gottberg says
Thanks Mimi! Like I said, I’ve never changed the title of a blog post before (in 7 years!) But I could tell that my readership was significantly lower on this post. Thank you for your feedback. ~Kathy
Roxanne Jones says
Your posts are always thought-provoking, Kathy–and this one’s no exception. Thank you for sharing Langer’s work. I like to think of myself as an optimist, open to the possibilities that life offers when things are going well and when there are challenges. Langer provides a framework or context for that (and gawd knows we need it these days!). I just wish that more people who need to open their minds would read her work–and your post!
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Roxanne! Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. I think I have my spam blocker figured out now so I hopefully (fingers-crossed) won’t have any more trouble with people’s comments disappearing. And I am glad you appreciated Langer too. She has some really amazing work and guess what? I will be writing more about her in the future. So much there I want to share and it was impossible to stick it in only one post. Stay tuned for Part II. ~Kathy
Still the Lucky Few says
I enjoyed this post, and learned so much. We do live in troubling times, when political and social changes seem to turn on a dime. Keeping up is almost impossible! Carol W. offered some challenging ideas, and I read your response with great interest. Thank you both for these insights.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Diane! I agree. There is a LOT going on in the world today and of course our own lives are very busy and complicated. That’s why I find it helpful to explore new ways of thinking of things from people I read and hear that have something interesting (and positive) to offer. And Langer is the first one to recommend that we all question what others are saying and what others “recommend” we do. If I can be part of that it always makes my day. Thanks as always for your comment. ~Kathy
I agree that mindset, and choosing to focus on the positive, makes a huge difference! Thanks for sharing this thought-provoking and inspiring post!
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Donna! Glad to hear you found it thought-provoking! I certainly don’t expect everyone to agree with me, but it I can get us all taking the time to “think about what we think about” then I am happy! Thanks for stopping by. ~Kathy
This is interesting Kathy. I think many people like to label and pigeon hole people and ideas and like to use generalities. Like looking at the headline but not reading the story. It is uncomfortable for many to not feel in the know and accepting not knowing what they don’t know is too much.
I think of a cancer diagnosis and everyone from the postal carrier to your BFF telling what they know for sure and yet cancer is unique to every person so there is no for sure.
As always, very thought provoking!
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Haralee! Thank you for providing a bit of personal experience to this post. Langer is BIG on saying if you have a medical issue be SURE and go to a doctor. Just never assume that they know everything, especially when it comes to your own body. As you say, everyone is unique and different things work for different people. She is also big on always getting second opinions and the more diverse the better. She believes that is the only way we can make correct decisions for ourselves. Her perspective on health and aging are very interesting and I plan to share more of her ideas next week on my blog post. I agree that it is uncomfortable for many of us to think there is ONE BIG ANSWER that will solve everything but as you know, life is far more complicated. WE might as well enjoy the ride! Thank you again for your comment. ~Kathy
Sue from Sizzling Towards 60 & Beyond says
What a wonderful post Kathy and I love the idea of the Psychology of Possibility! If we don’t know anything for sure then that opens up so many possibilities. Really enjoyed your post and thoughts of Prof Langer.
Sue from Sizzling Towards 60 & Beyond
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Sue! So glad you appreciated some of these thoughts and am happy to introduce you to Prof Langer. I am always happy to find someone knew as interesting as her and it’s fun to share ideas with everyone. Thanks for your comment! ~Kathy
Carol Wuenschell says
Can’t let this one go, unless you make it clear that you are talking about the psychology of self-realization and not about everything we think we know on all fronts. Those people who believe in climate change do so because they are convinced by the 97% of the world’s climate scientists who are making the negative claim that if we keep on pumping carbon into the air at the current rate, some seriously bad things are going to happen. The climate change deniers are the ones who are gambling humanity’s future on the possibility that 3% of climatologist outliers who say everything will be fine are the ones who are right. The scientists are knowledgeable people who base their convictions on empirical evidence. If 97% of them say one thing, I’m not prepared to bet against it on a possibility that they might be wrong.
Science consists fundamentally of the use of empirical evidence to try to understand our world, because it’s the best tool we have. Scientists have made mistakes, but overall they have been right far more than they’ve been wrong. All our technology is based on science and the last time I looked, it worked. And yet an honest scientist would agree that we don’t know things with absolute certainty. Scientists, ideally at least, are open minded — always alert to the possibility that they might be wrong. You make observations, you form hypotheses, you test them and observe the results. That’s how it works. But how many times do you have to drop the rock before you believe that gravity is real? Would you step off a cliff on the possibility that this time you might float gently to the bottom? So you really believe the only reason you would fall is because you believe you will fall? Please, if you’re going to test that one, do it with a step-stool. Not a cliff.
And on the political front, please forgive me if I make a plea on behalf of scientists, experts, and accurate facts. This country desperately needs to get back to a place where the great majority of people accept a certain minimum set of common facts. Having everyone just believe whatever they want to believe is in danger of destroying our democracy — and possibly worse. And a certain person in a position of great power and responsibility is feeding the problem on an almost daily basis. It has occurred to me to “hope” that everyone may come to their senses if this person does something with bad enough consequences. That they might stop and say, “Gee, how did we get to a place where we gave power to someone like that?” I put “hope” in quotes because I’m seriously afraid that the only kind of consequence that would be bad enough to do that would involve significant immediate and dramatic loss of human life. I really don’t want that.
I remind myself often: Earth abides.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Carol! Thank you so much for bringing up what I am sure is on the minds of other people as well. If you know me, then you know that I too am deeply concerned about climate change, the political process, the changes in our health care system and all sorts of things. I spent time yesterday calling and tweeting Senators about the Health Care issue. What I hope you, and everyone realizes, is that looking for the good no-matter-what does not mean that we pretend that things are already good or ignore or hide from the problems we see (or have.) What I am suggesting is that in spite of it all, we still remain optimistic for our future, the future of all children today, and the world itself. After all, I’ve seen some of those dystopian movies that are so bleak and dismal that I wouldn’t want anyone I loved to live like that (or to be around myself.) I just refuse to give up, I refuse to give in… And I will not let hate or fear win at least in my world.
With that said, my information about the scientists in this article comes from the perspective of Professor Langer. She is a highly regarded scientist herself so that gives her the right to speak about giving anyone carte blanc over what might happen in the future. She never says that we should ignore science or that science is wrong–only that everything needs to be questioned. As Langer says, “knowing what is and knowing what can be are not the same thing.” That is not denying what we see and know about what is happening today. People are dying of cancer, pollution kills, the planet is heating up like crazy, prejudice in our world is rampant, and all sorts of dreadful things still occur. But the psychology of possibility means there are still things we can do, and change is possible. I would never deny that gravity exists but it wasn’t that very long ago that people insisted that man would never fly in airplanes let alone fly to the moon. While I suppose people who like to point out the problems have their right to do so, and I certainly can’t change their mindset if that is what they want to do, I plan to be on the side that says, “still, in spite of this, I will continue to work for what I believe to be possible.”
Again the choice is ours to make. And I like your saying, “Earth Abides!” It will, regardless of what happens. And isn’t that in itself a positive thing?
Thanks again for raising questions, Carol. I think you and I are on the same side with many things…our approach to where to go from here is just different. Ultimately I think it will take all of us to get to where we hope to be. ~Kathy
Gary Lange says
Great Kathy. Thanks for the reminder to look at things differently: “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… 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.”
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Gary! I hope you know that some of these thoughts came out of our conversation last weekend. Maybe not quite in the way that you thought, but similar. And as friends, I do believe that reminding and encouraging each other to take the high ground “no matter what” is good best for us, for everyone around us, and the planet herself. I’m not saying things don’t look messy or even ugly sometimes, I’m saying we must look at the deeper possibility. I’m doing my best–and you? ~Kathy
Susan Mary Malone says
OH, this so tweaks me, Kathy! The psychology of the possible. Ahh! And isn’t it so very true–we can be 100% sure about virtually nothing. Which truly opens up the world.
This reminds me of Quantum Physics, and the finding that at their core, the laws of the universe are not fixed at all, but mutable.
Now, what shall we create?
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Susan! I think you are also aware of the work of Byron Katie, aren’t you? Langer reminded me so much of her because a fundamental premise of Katie is, “Do you absolutely know that is true?” She tells us to ask ourselves that question whenever we are deeply mired in our own thoughts (especially the painful ones!) But doing that or exploring the power of the possible we do something similar. And YES, this is also very similar to the idea of Quantum Physics. Things change on the microscopic level based upon our perception of them. Recognizing that on the macro scale is a bit trickier but still there. Thanks as always for your thoughts. ~Kathy
Mona McGinnis says
This is a quote that I often go to – “It is true, we do not know what is happening in the deepest sense. And if we can stay with that not knowing, and trust it, and enjoy it, we will be able to experience our life in some fundamentally different way. That is our miraculous power,” by Katherine Thanas.
I’m learning to stay open to the possibilities which really begins with recognizing that there are other possibilities.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Mona! Thank you so much for that quote. I am unfamiliar with Katherine Thanas but her insight is very powerful. I think I will look her up. We all need support to continue to bring the “good” into the world and she sounds like she is right there with us. ~Kathy
I think our mindset plays a huge part in things Kathy – choosing to look at the positive and looking for the potential in things is so much more rewarding than being a negative Nellie and assuming things won’t get better. I saw a little thing on FB today that strongly affirmed that our thoughts are what impact our behaviour – how we choose to think about a situation hugely impacts our reaction to it and how we handle it. I’m aiming at going for the positive wherever possible these days.
Kathy Gottberg says
Hi Leanne! I have been reading your blog for a long enough time now to know that you agree with this post and the ideas put forward by Ellen Langer. But even then, I do find myself needing to be reminded–not so I just sit here and think positive thoughts–but so I don’t want to stick my head in the sand and complain to everyone I know!!! It’s not always easy to “be the light” for myself and others but together I believe that we can always make things better. Thanks for your comment. ~Kathy