by Larry Matson

Thirty years ago, Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer conducted a study in which she took a group of elderly dependent men and placed them for one week in a setting that depicted their lives 20 years earlier. Every detail was accounted for, from the décor to the TV shows, magazines, news, etc. The men were instructed to think and act as if it was 20 years earlier and they were 20 years younger. They were expected to do everything for themselves. When they expressed doubt about doing something, they were told to take their time and work with the other guys to get it done.

The purpose was to study the impact of the men’s mindset on their capabilities. Called the “Counterclockwise Study,” it became a dramatic example of the power of our beliefs and expectations. The men actually became younger in body, mind and spirit in just one week. They became more optimistic, had more energy; their health and disease outcomes improved; they stood taller, walked faster, and spoke with more confidence. They got stronger and more flexible; showed improvements in manual dexterity, memory and cognition. The resistance in their bodies and minds was released. Their expectations rose and their abilities improved. So, what happened? How was this possible?

It happened because the men began to think differently. Their beliefs and expectations changed. Their focus shifted from what they couldn’t do to what they might be able to do. Like most elderly in our society, they had become victims of “learned helplessness” from not doing things for themselves. The more that was done for them, the more helpless and dependent they became. The inevitable result: they did less, got weaker, and lost confidence in their abilities. They began to believe that they couldn’t take care of themselves any longer.

In one time-warp week, their mindset changed from being helpless to helpful, mindless to mindful, doubtful to confident. They realized that they could do much more than they thought. And their bodies and brains adapted to their heightened expectations and actions. They even had a slow-motion touch football game at the end of the week. Could any of us get similar results? Obviously, the study group was placed in an ideal setting to observe the optimal results in the minimal time. Their thinking and their expectations were changed for them, but it shows us what is possible simply by changing our mindset about what we can do. Any of us can revert to a younger mindset and see positive results, but we have to do it for ourselves. It’s a process of gradually becoming more mindful of everyday experiences, not accepting negativity, raising expectations and building confidence. It doesn’t happen overnight but it does happen, and it gets easier with time because of the intrinsic rewards.

A few rules from the study to begin transforming your mindset:

 Check your thoughts often – mindful means aware of the present moment; interrupt negative thoughts and reframe positively.

 Surround yourself with positive people – everyone was positive and supportive in the study; distance yourself from negative people.

 Lend a helping hand whenever you can – when you help others, it helps yourself.

 Challenge yourself to do things you didn’t think you could do – this is how we build confidence.

 Ignore the barriers that keep you from trying – our society promotes learned helplessness, especially in women and older folks.

 View obstacles and setbacks as challenges – the voice in the back of your mind loves setbacks and tells you to give up; tell it where to go and try a new approach.

 Be active physically and mentally and try new things – brain and muscle cells work better with greater and more varied use.

 Reset your body and mind daily – five minutes of stillness and a 30-minute walk can help restore hormonal balance so you feel more positive.

These are not New Years resolutions but rather a way to live, think and be — every day. It’s a mindset that will refresh body, mind and spirit, and keep you younger along the way. So, follow the lead of the counterclockwise men: take charge, raise your expectations and just think of the possibilities.

Larry Matson, EdD, CHWC, is a health and wellness coach from Greeley and co-author of Live Young, Think Young, Be Young … at Any Age The counterclockwise study is described in a book by Ellen Langer, Counter Clockwise.