You’re Only As Old As You Feel: Harvard Psychologist Ellen Langer Shows How Mental Attitude Can Potentially Reverse the Effects of Aging

You’re only as old as you feel, right? The plat­i­tude may be true. In a sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly ver­i­fi­able sense, “feeling”—a state of mind—may not only deter­mine psy­cho­log­i­cal well-being but phys­i­cal health as well, includ­ing the nat­ur­al aging process­es of the body.

Har­vard psy­chol­o­gist Ellen Langer has spent decades test­ing the hypoth­e­sis, and has come to some inter­est­ing con­clu­sions about the rela­tion­ship between men­tal process­es and bod­i­ly aging. In order to do the kind of work she has for decades, she has had to put aside the thorny “mind-body” problem—a long­stand­ing philo­soph­i­cal and prac­ti­cal impasse in fig­ur­ing out how the two inter­act. “Let’s for­get about how you get from one to the oth­er,” she tells CBS This Morn­ing in a 2014 inter­view above, “and in fact see those as just words…. Wher­ev­er you’re putting the mind, you’re nec­es­sar­i­ly putting the body.”

What hap­pens to the one, she the­o­rized, will nec­es­sar­i­ly affect the oth­er. In a 1981 exper­i­ment, which she called the “coun­ter­clock­wise study,” she and her research team placed eight men in their late 70s in a monastery in New Hamp­shire, con­vert­ed to trans­port them all to 1959 when they were in their prime. Fur­ni­ture, décor, news, sports, music, TV, movies: every cul­tur­al ref­er­ence dat­ed from the peri­od. There were no mir­rors, only pho­tos of the men in their 20s. They spoke and act­ed as though they had trav­eled back in time and got­ten younger.

The results were extra­or­di­nary, almost too good to be true, she felt. “On sev­er­al mea­sures,” The New York Times report­ed in 2014, “they out­per­formed a con­trol group that came ear­li­er to the monastery but didn’t imag­ine them­selves back into the skin of their younger selves, though they were encour­aged to rem­i­nisce.” The “coun­ter­clock­wise” par­tic­i­pants “were sup­pler, showed greater man­u­al dex­ter­i­ty and sat taller…. Per­haps most improb­a­bly, their sight improved” as well as their hear­ing.  Giv­en the seem­ing­ly mirac­u­lous out­comes, tiny sam­ple size, and the unortho­doxy of the exper­i­ment, Langer decid­ed not to pub­lish at the time but con­tin­ued to work on sim­i­lar stud­ies look­ing at how the mind affects the body.

Then, almost thir­ty years lat­er, the BBC con­tact­ed her about stag­ing a tele­vised recre­ation of the monastery exper­i­ment, “with six aging for­mer celebri­ties as guinea pigs,” who were trans­port­ed back to 1975 by sim­i­lar means. The stars “emerged after a week as appar­ent­ly reju­ve­nat­ed as Langer’s sep­tu­a­ge­nar­i­ans in New Hamp­shire.” These exper­i­ments and sev­er­al oth­ers Langer has con­duct­ed over the years strong­ly sug­gest that chrono­log­i­cal age is not a lin­ear clock push­ing us inex­orably toward decline. It is, rather, a col­lec­tion of vari­ables that include psy­cho­log­i­cal well-being and some­thing called an “epi­ge­net­ic clock,” a mech­a­nism that UCLA geneti­cist Steve Hor­vath has dis­cov­ered direct­ly cor­re­lates with the aging process, and may show us how to change it.

But while Hor­vath has yet to answer sev­er­al press­ing ques­tions about how cer­tain genet­ic mech­a­nisms inter­act, Langer has put such ques­tions aside in favor of test­ing the mind-body con­nec­tion in a series of exper­i­ments, which engage the aging—or peo­ple with spe­cif­ic conditions—in stud­ies that stretch their minds. By cre­at­ing illu­sions like the monastery time machine, Langer has found that per­cep­tion has a sig­nif­i­cant effect on aging. If we per­ceive our­selves to be younger, health­i­er, more capa­ble, more vibrant, despite the mes­sages about how we should look and act at our chrono­log­i­cal age, then our cells and tis­sues get the mes­sage. Not only can a change in per­cep­tion affect aging, but also, Langer the­o­rizes, obe­si­ty, can­cer, dia­betes, and oth­er chron­ic or life-threat­en­ing con­di­tions. Much of her research here gets spelled out in her book, Coun­ter­clock­wise: Mind­ful Health and the Pow­er of Pos­si­bil­i­ty.

“Whether it’s about aging or any­thing else,” says Lager, “if you are sur­round­ed by peo­ple who have cer­tain expec­ta­tions for you, you tend to meet those expec­ta­tions, pos­i­tive or neg­a­tive.” The social expec­ta­tion for the aging is that they will get weak­er, less capa­ble, and more prone to dete­ri­o­ra­tion and ill­ness. Ignor­ing these expec­ta­tions and chang­ing our per­cep­tion of what chrono­log­i­cal age means—and doesn’t mean—Langer says, seems to actu­al­ly slow or par­tial­ly reverse the decline and to ward off dis­ease. Those psy­cho­log­i­cal changes can come about through inter­ven­tions like car­ing for chil­dren, plants, or ani­mals and using mind­ful­ness prac­tices to learn how to be atten­tive to change.

You can read more about Langer and Horvath’s spe­cif­ic find­ings on aging, psy­chol­o­gy, and epi­ge­net­ics at Nau­tilus.

Note: you can get Langer’s book–Coun­ter­clock­wise Mind­ful Health and the Trans­for­ma­tive Pow­er of Pos­si­bil­i­ty–as a free audio­book through’s free tri­al pro­gram. Get more details on the free tri­al here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How Bak­ing, Cook­ing & Oth­er Dai­ly Activ­i­ties Help Pro­mote Hap­pi­ness and Alle­vi­ate Depres­sion and Anx­i­ety

How Mind­ful­ness Makes Us Hap­pi­er & Bet­ter Able to Meet Life’s Chal­lenges: Two Ani­mat­ed Primers Explain

How the Japan­ese Prac­tice of “For­est Bathing”—Or Just Hang­ing Out in the Woods—Can Low­er Stress Lev­els and Fight Dis­ease

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (4)
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  • Anita Owen says:

    Sounds inter­est­ing! I’ll give this a try.

  • Larry Lerner says:

    I’m 78 years old.I began per­form­ing stand up com­e­dy three years ago(less a year of sit­ting dur­ing Covid).
    My jokes con­sist of mak­ing light of being old along with with some of its atten­dant vagaries and I am lit­er­al­ly hav­ing the time of my life.
    If not now, when?

    P.S. My son post­ed a video of a per­for­mance I gave server­al months ago:
    YouTube Videos Lar­ry Ben­son Come­di­an.
    The laughs on me.

  • John Sullivan says:

    Absolute­ly. Every­thing writ­ten is true. As for myself, I’m 89 years of age this past Novem­ber, 2023. I was sur­prised when I read this arti­cle because it seems as if some­one copied my very thoughts and exis­tence. I always tell my body, that it will do as I think whether it likes it or not. Now, don’t get me wrong.. I’m not kid­ding myself when I say this. Mind over body is pos­si­ble if you real­ly believe it and of course being hon­est with your­self by fol­low­ing all the choic­es that make for a hap­py, ener­getic, healthy, thought­ful and one who has a spe­cial love for life. Lis­ten to your body and take it from there. Your body will lis­ten and respect your think­ing whole heart­ed­ly. We ful­ly know what our body needs. So, make those choic­es accord­ing­ly. From them, we get what we deserve. Being 89 does not both­er me, as I only think ahead to all those won­der­ful years that are wait­ing for me to be part of them. The oth­er day a Friend of mine said.. We don’t live for­ev­er. Of course, I had to say some­thing about that and it was sim­ply this.. I’m not sure of that, but by heck I’m going to try. In my mind, I always feel that immor­tal­i­ty is pos­si­ble.

  • Ella says:

    Read­ing these two com­ments is so love­ly! I am deeply touched by your enthu­si­asm for life.

    Please be and stay like this for­ev­er! You are bril­liant!

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