Why a positive attitude can help you live longer

Older people in a sack race
image: iStock / Getty

Wherever you put your mind, your body will follow.” 

These are the words of Harvard psychology professor, Ellen Langer, as she addressed a packed audience of people eager to learn of her profoundly life changing insights into slowing, and even reversing, ageing. 

In 1979, she conducted a novel experiment into ageing – a ‘counterclockwise’ study, as it has become known as.

She invited a group of people in their seventies and eighties to live in an old monastery in New Hampshire for a couple of weeks. Only, there was one caveat. They had to pretend that it was 1959!

She set the scene for them. The TV set was black and white and it played shows and ‘live’ news broadcasts from 1959. There was an old vintage radio that played 1950s music. Life magazine issues from 1959 were spread out on the table. The décor was 1950s.

They were asked to immerse themselves fully in 1959, even converse with one another as if they were 20 years younger and their now adult children were college students. 

The immersion in 1959 was so full that they discussed world events from 1959 as if they were just happening now, like the launch of the first US satellite, Explorer 1, which had set out to survey the cosmic environment around Earth. She even arranged a screening of James Stewart’s ‘new’ movie, Anatomy of a Murder.

Before arriving at the monastery, they had each taken a full complement of cognitive and physical tests, including vision, hearing, gait, height, weight, posture, even fingernail length. These would be tested again after the stay.

At the end of the stay, the results astounded Langer and her team. Every person had made dramatic shifts in their test results. They were stronger, more flexible, had improved vision and memories, and even improved taste sensation. They even scored higher on intelligence tests. Some had even experienced marked reversals in arthritis in their fingers. They were even taller, a consequence of the fact that their posture had shifted and they were now able to stand straighter.

Unaware of the nature of the experiment, four independent volunteers were shown before and after photos of the participants and perceived the ‘after’ selves to be two years younger, yet less than two weeks had elapsed between the photos.

As far as all tests showed, they had grown younger in less than two weeks. When they arrived at the monastery, some of them were so frail and crippled with arthritis that they shuffled off the bus and walked to the front door using canes. Ten days later, those same people played an impromptu game of touch football on the same ground they had laboured over less than two weeks earlier. It seemed like a miracle, yet it wasn’t cutting edge anti-inflammatory medication that got them there. It was attitude and what they focused upon.

Langer showed that ageing, rather than being a one-way street of fixed decline governed entirely by a persons’ genes, is flexible, changeable, can be accelerated, slowed, or even reversed.

Langer’s work of over 40 years ago is now backed up by copious amounts of science in various fields, however most of the general public is largely unaware of the simple strategies and mindset shifts we could all employ to help us live longer, healthier lives.

For example, Yale researchers quizzed 660 people on their attitudes about ageing, around whether they thought of ageing as something that makes them less useful and less able to enjoy life. When followed up over 20 years later, those who had the most positive attitudes about ageing had lived seven and a half years on average longer than those with a negative attitude.

Contrast this with a common medical statistic that we can typically enjoy an extra 4 years if we reduce our cholesterol and blood pressure.

A European study of 999 people even found that those who had more optimistic attitudes had a 77% lower risk of death from heart disease and 45% lower risk of death from any cause.

And a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that “on average, a person reporting frequent cognitive activity… was 47% less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease than a person with infrequent activity.”

Ellen Langer’s research teaches us that we should open our minds to possibilities rather than fixing them on what we think is impossible. Do this, and we can improve our health no matter what age we are.

There are small shifts all of us can make today that mean we don’t need to pretend like it’s 1999. For one, pay attention to your language. Adapt it so you use less dramatic or heavy language. Swap some words for lighter or more positive ones.

The words we use are not just heard by others. They’re heard by our own biology and their meanings help to shape some of our physiology and movement.

For example, some people have a tendency to say that they feel exhausted when they’re really tired. Even omitting the words ‘exhausted’ or ‘tired’ some of the time can help shift a mindset and even how a person feels, physically. 

Instead of, “I feel exhausted \ tired,” for example, try “I think I’ll have a short rest to help myself rejuvenate a bit,” avoiding the label altogether.

Instead of, “I could never do that,” try something like “I’m going to have a go anyway” on for size.

A younger posture and gait – making an attempt to hold and move your body differently, even for small amounts of time – can also turn back the clock. Langer’s volunteers were asked to try to stand and walk as if they were 20 years younger. It took a bit of practice, but just opening their chests a little and pulling their shoulders back and trying to stand up straight actually widened their shoulders and made them taller, as well as improving their flexibility.

Instead of groaning when we get up after being seated for a long time, Langer’s volunteers were encouraged to get up silently.

We sometimes buy into what we think we should be like when we reach a certain age, but it’s our mindset that’s buying into it, not necessarily our biological reality. However, so long as the mindset stays fixed on our seeming limitations, our biological reality will follow along.

Even though Langer’s research involved people over the age of 70, the insights apply to adults of all ages, whether you’re in your 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s or more. The rate at which we seem to age is not just set in our genes. It is influenced by a range of factors, from diet, exercise, to mindset and behaviour. You have much more control of the dice than you think.

Have a go, even if just for today. Think about what you might do, what language you might adapt, how you might act, even if you can stand or even walk a little bit like you did a few years ago. And if you feel a wee bit better, try it again tomorrow, and the next day.

Who knows … you may indeed turn back the clock a wee bit.


If you want to read about Ellen Langer’s full study and her recommendations for shifts in language and mindset, her book is called ‘Counterclockwise’. Amazon.com Amazon.co.uk Amazon.ca Amazon.com.au

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  1. Vida Green on March 31, 2022 at 9:27 pm

    Loved this article, I’m 80 in 2 weeks. Look10 yrs younger ( told that even buy my GP) but recently I started thinking gosh 80 that’s old. And you no what I started to feel old. So thank you , I’m now back to positive thinking. Thank you David…

  2. Thomas on April 2, 2022 at 3:39 pm

    Hi David, one of my favourite quotes is from Buddha, which is “The mind is everything, What you think you become”. I think this is very apt for this article but for life in general as well I suppose. I really do believe that your attitude and mindset are equally if not more than important than things such as diet, exercise, stress etc. in determining how long and well you live. Thank you for the article and all the excellent books you’ve written.

  3. Sallie on April 4, 2022 at 8:08 am

    That’s brilliant to read, David. I, at 62, believe in being as young as I can be, I even skip along the road sometimes, like a little girl, when I’m a really in a silly,joyous mood,

  4. Frank on April 5, 2022 at 11:53 pm

    Hi David,

    Thanks for this article and the reminder of how powerful our minds are in determining how we see reality. I appreciate it and feel more optimistic. I’m going to make an effort to think about what I’m optimistic about on a daily basis now.

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