"What we have learned to look for in any situation determines mostly what we see."
Dr. Ellen Langer, professor of psychology, Harvard.
Sometimes my husband is obstinate, bordering on pig-headed. One time, forty-two years ago, my husband left dog poop on the floor for a week (I never forget a good story).
I am not pig-headed. Nor am I obstinate. What I am is consistent and firm.
Sure, I left the dog poop on the floor for a week too. But even though I can’t remember the exact circumstances – it had something to do with who should be the one to clean up his mother’s dog’s doo-doo, I am quite sure that I was simply being true to my convictions.
If I take a step back and observe this situation closely from several different angles, I see my behavior is a little nutty.
I’m not talking about leaving the excrement on the floor, though that is quite an odd thing to do. The even weirder thing, from a scientific viewpoint, is how very partial I am toward myself. Dr. Ellen Langer calls this self-preferential bias a type of “mindlessness.”
We are unfair and incongruent in our assessments of each other’s behaviors and characteristics. Please allow me to hammer in this double standard:
I may refer to myself as “persevering,” but call you “stubborn.” I am assertive and forceful, you are domineering. I am prudent, you are guarded. I am helpful, you are enabling.
Bottom line, we can improve our relationships – become more forgiving and appreciative, bring out the best in others, and be happier if we learn to become less mindless, more mindful. These days being mindful has several different meanings.
When Langer talks about becoming more mindful, part of what she means is being fully aware of our sensations, beliefs and perceptions; noticing our inconsistencies, becoming more observant of what we are doing.
Suppose you realize that someone, let’s call her Anita, is bugging you. What are you saying to yourself, what are your beliefs and perceptions about Anita’s behavior?
Ah, yes. Anita is “impulsive and flighty.”
But hold on. Become a little more mindful. Look at what Anita is doing from a less unfavorable, less biased, more nuanced angle. Might it be that Anita could just as well be showing “spontaneity and openness to new experiences?”
Now you see from this different perspective that perhaps Anita doesn’t need a total overhaul after all. You are more accepting, even appreciative. Maybe you even see Anita as attractive, someone you would like to have as a friend.
We can also better bring out the best in others by being more mindful. That's been a long-time wish of mine.
I can start my practice with someone I generally like, but who occasionally annoys me.
Notice those little spurts of frustration, contempt, or disgust in my encounters. Observe my automatic negative perceptions of this person’s behavior.
Then I can put myself to thinking of a more favorable, less biased perspective. Consider the strengths that could be underlying this person’s imperfect traits.
Mindfulness not only allows me to reframe my perspective of others, but also allows me to see myself from others’ perspective. That insight may also allow me to better influence others.
Suppose I want to go out to lunch today with Donna. I think to myself, “Donna is really rigid; she won’t go. Worse yet, she’ll insult me for even asking. She plans her life weeks in advance. She’s probably doing nothing more than washing her hair.”
But as I practice more mindfulness, I realize that Donna’s rigidity when seen from a more favorable, less biased perspective is her organization and forethought – very valuable traits. I can appreciate that.
Now I realize how I (and this invitation) may look from her vantage point, I see that it could be viewed as “flighty and thoughtless.”
If I want Donna to accept my invitation for lunch today, I’d better not just call her up and say in an irritated voice, “I suppose you can’t have lunch today, can you?”
A more mindful approach would be to acknowledge and appreciate her thoughtful planning. Then I might inquire if she could squeeze in an unexpected opportunity to get together.
Donna may or may not agree to my invitation, but she is more likely to view my invitation and me more generously. If she declines, I am also less upset and angry with her. Our relationship will not be harmed.
Researchers have studied what most causes people’s biggest highs and lowest lows. In both cases, it’s relationships. Using Langer's approach to being less mindless could be a game-changer for the lows and set the stage for more highs (and for more wisdom, more on that later).
How might we journey to The Good Life by becoming less mindless in our relationships with others?