Last week someone I know turned 50. As I added my good wishes to his Facebook page, I spotted another birthday greeting posted there—the inevitable “You’re only as old as you feel.” Ha! I thought. Easy to say at 50. Wait until you hit 60 and points north. Aging is, unfortunately, all too real, no matter “how you feel.”
God’s sense of irony being what it is, that very day I got an e-mail from another friend pointing me to an article about a Harvard psychologist whose experiments suggest the reassuring old bromide might, in fact, be literally true.
A New York Times article described Dr. Ellen Langer’s “counterclockwise” experiment. Langer had a group of men in their 70s spend a week together at a retreat house decked out as if it were 20 years earlier—no modern music, magazines or other media, no technology that wouldn’t have existed then, no mirrors. The men were asked to imagine themselves two decades prior—a time when they were young and vital—and to behave as if it were then.
At the end of five days, the subjects were measurably stronger, had fewer aches and pains, and scored better in tests of vision, hearing and mental functioning. Observers said they even looked younger. Langer plans to replicate the experiment next spring with women suffering from stage 4 breast cancer to see if attitudes, expectations and the power of mind can affect something as intransigent as a tumor.
Langer is a respected academic, but her work correlates with New Age beliefs that the universe will give you whatever you want—whether health, money, love or a new Jaguar—if you put your intentions out there in the right way. According to this school of thought, it’s all about vibration and attraction.
I find the idea intriguing, but suspect. Could I really obtain a diamond as big as the Ritz if I think about it the right way and really, really want it? Isn’t that the definition of wishful thinking?
On the other hand, it’s easy to see how the power of mind may work on a less-than-mystical level. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has landed the perfect job seemingly from out of nowhere, simply by putting the right feelers out there. Years ago, when I frequently drove to New York City, I used to envision and imagine easily finding a parking space. Often enough, I did. Wishes fulfilled, indeed.
Whether you can use the same mechanism to think (or vibrate?) your way out of serious health issues is an open question. Perhaps Dr. Langer’s next experiment with the breast cancer patients will offer clues.
Certainly, you could never stop aging itself by means of attitude adjustment. The years do tick by. But maybe you could feel better, happier—“younger”—even as your chronological age advanced.
I’d like to know what happened to the men in the counterclockwise study after they left the retreat house. Did they retain those improvements or not? Perhaps the gains were a momentary artifact of all the attention they were receiving and the artificial environment?
Still, maybe we should party like it’s the ‘90s and find out for ourselves.