Uncertainty has huge value. It helps expand each one’s intellectual knowledge. On the other hand, presumption of knowledge reduces interest, attention and consequently engagement. If we take into account the amount of new information that the globalized world makes available, there’s a lot to see and learn.
The problem is that people “are frequently mindless”, says Ellen Langer, 71, psychology professor at Harvard University. “The state of mindlessness can have a high cost,” she said during her “Mindfulness, the power of possibility” lecture at the Plenae launching event in São Paulo.
Mindlessness causes decisions to be made based on past experiences without taking current context into account. “You act like an automaton, a robot,” says Ellen. Not every decision is simple. Being flexible is more important than following rules and routines that may no longer make sense. Knowledge transformation is dynamic. To keep up with context changes of situations that seem similar to those that occurred in the past, perceptions need to be sharp.
The key resides not in having certainty, but to always keep an open mind. “The value of uncertainty is truly huge: when we’re uncertain, we pay more attention,” says Ellen. “The neurons are stimulated. Concentration increases. Many times, it may show that we didn’t know things as well as we thought.” Focusing on the present helps with more specific decisions. “After all, there isn’t a single solution for everything,” said the psychologist.
One exception: “The fact of knowing what’s happening at the moment does not mean engagement.” On the contrary, having lots of certainties is the first step to making mistakes. “Paying attention is so easy, but we spend 70% of the time mindless, according to research,” says Ellen.
The psychologist believes that physical debilitation is a subsequence more of mindset than a natural function of the aging process. For example, at age 20, when somebody hurts their wrist and feels pain, they end up going to a doctor. Pain is indicative that something is wrong. At age 75, it’s common for someone to feel pain and think it’s natural. As if pain were part of age. Unconsciously in doing so, the person gives up on health and prepares for decline.
In a study, she noticed that bald men had a greater incidence of prostate cancer, but there was no physiological connection between both facts. However, loss of hair is associated to aging, which changes people’s propensity to care for their health.
To remember that you also felt pain and made mistakes when you were younger can be the first step to not define yourself as old. This entire process reduces stress levels, promotes health, optimism and vitality – factors that ensure better aging. “Having rules and routines is important,” she says, “but it’s not the only solution. Stability is an illusion, but many doors open when you embrace uncertainty.
Click here to watch the full lecture.