Fostering the inner life
If on an airplane, you spot a woman busily painting in
watercolor, you have probably seen Ellen Langer, PhD.
Langer has trained herself to paint pretty much anywhere, an
experience that allows her to produce her scores of distinctively
whimsical portraits of people, dogs, chairs, tango dancers and
“It took me a while not to be self-conscious, but now I
paint wherever I am,” says the Harvard University psychology
professor and researcher, whose paintings are shown in galleries
in Provincetown, Mass., and New Hope, Pa.
Overcoming the fear of what others think is one of the
obstacles to living a mindful, creative, authentic life, says Langer.
Her definition of mindfulness is “the simple process of looking
for novelty,” she says, whether it’s noticing five ways your friend
looks different from the last time you saw her or writing about
the images you conjure up from smells you notice when your
eyes are closed.
“Once you recognize that you don’t know whatever it was
you thought you knew, it becomes interesting again,” she says.
In her research over the last 40 years, Langer and her
students have found that this strategy influences artistic and
other outcomes. In one study, she and her team instructed
symphony members to play pieces they had played many times
before — first,
in the way they’d
always played them,
and then, in subtly
different ways that
only they would
overwhelmingly preferred the mindfully played pieces, and
musicians preferred playing them that way.
Which brings us back to her art. Langer never considered
herself artistic, until 17 years ago, at age 50, when the
combination of a personal whim and a dare from a friend
enticed her to pick up the paintbrush and apply her “novelty”
concepts to the canvas.
Now she can’t stop, and she loves sharing her findings,
captured in part in her book “On Becoming an Artist:
Reinventing Yourself through Mindful Creativity” (Ballantine,
“People are living sealed lives,” she says, dominated too
much by outside influences and too little by inner ones. “I try to
help them break that seal.” n
See Langer’s work at www.ellenlanger.com/art.
Overcoming the fear of what others think can help people live more creative lives, says
Harvard researcher Dr. Ellen Langer (below), who nourishes her artistic side through her
paintings, including “Conga Line” (above).