How to Know That You Know Nothing

Arthur Brooks and the Harvard psychology professor Dr. Ellen Langer discuss the importance of curiosity and living in the moment—and how an illusion of stability may be holding you back from exactly that.

Woman in crowd with haze around her
Mark Peterson / Corbis / Getty / The Atlantic
Updated at 12:45 p.m. ET on November 12, 2021.

If there’s one thing we might regret at the end of life, it’s that we missed out on moments that mattered—not because we weren’t physically there, but because our mind wandered off to some unknown place.

In this episode of How to Build a Happy Life, we explore why it’s uniquely challenging to “live in the moment,” how we limit our own curiosity by assuming that we know best, and why the illusion of stability pulls us from living every day fully, and in the moment. A conversation with the Harvard University psychology professor Dr. Ellen Langer helps us think through a daily struggle: How do I stay present?


This episode was produced by Rebecca Rashid and hosted by Arthur Brooks. Editing by A.C. Valdez. Fact-check by Ena Alvarado. Sound design by Michael Raphael.

Be part of How to Build a Happy Life. Write to us at howtopodcast@theatlantic.com or leave us a voicemail at 925.967.2091.

Music by Trevor Kowalski (“Lion’s Drift,” “This Valley of Ours,” “Una Noche de Luces”), Stationary Sign (“Loose in the Park”), and Spectacles Wallet and Watch (“Last Pieces”).


This transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Arthur C. Brooks: A big part of happiness is learning to live in the moment. What does that actually mean? And more importantly, how do we do it? It turns out that living in the moment, or at least being fully alive right now has two components: mindfulness and curiosity.

You need to figure out a way to focus on the present, to be really experiencing your current time frame, as opposed to thinking about the past or thinking about the future. Now, there’s a reason that that’s hard to do. The human brain makes it possible for us to be in other time periods than in the current moment. I can imagine that I’m in the future, practicing future scenarios in my life. That’s called prospection. That’s about living in the future.

Other people tend to think about the past a lot, and one of the things that we know from research on the elderly is they tend to be kind of retrospective, thinking about the past. The problem is, if you’re excessively prospective and/or retrospective, it can crowd out your ability to be alive right now.

Dr. Ellen Langer: Lots of people confuse what I do with meditation, but meditation is a practice; mindfulness is the result of that practice. The mindfulness that we study is immediate. It’s simply noticing new things. And in the process of noticing new things, that puts you in the moment. You have all these people who say “be in the present,” and that’s great, but it’s an empty suggestion. And even simpler than this, if one deeply appreciates uncertainty—recognizing everything is always changing, everything looks different from different perspectives, so you can’t know. And when you recognize that you can’t know or you don’t know, you tune in. When you think you do know, you don’t pay any attention.

Brooks: The big theme that I really want to talk about here is how to enjoy our lives more. One of the things that you emphasize in your work a lot is that we don’t enjoy our lives enough, because we’re not actually there. What does that mean?

Dr. Langer: Over these 40-some-odd years, we find that mindlessness is pervasive. Most of us are not there, and they are not there to know they’re not there. You know, the only way some people realize they experience this is imagine you’re driving and you want to get off at exit 28, and all of a sudden, you see you’re at exit 36. So then you say, Wow, where was I? What I mean by “you’re not there” is that you are more or less behaving like a robot. Everybody has had that experience.

You know, you are miserable, and somebody says, “Hi, how are you?” And you say, “Fine, thank you.” And you’re not aware of it, and you’re not trying to hide it. Most of what we do is done on, as it’s called, automatic pilot, but the mindlessness goes far beyond that.

I wanted to write a book a long time ago, Arthur—I never wrote this one—that was called Is There Life Before Death?, because I found, you know, all these people worrying about life after death. Many people come alive, sadly, after they get some terrible diagnosis or they have a stroke or they find out they have cancer. When I speak to people who are miserable or whatever, I simply tell them that all you need to do is take care of the moment, just right this second. And if you keep doing that, then over the course of the day, you know, you’ve had a fine time.

Brooks: Why is it that we’re so distracted from the present? What is distracting us from actually noticing things around us?

Dr. Langer: Well, we have an illusion of stability. We think things are staying still. So if you’ve seen it once, you’ve seen it; you don’t need to keep paying attention to it. But there’s something I think that needs to be added, which will explain why people keep doing this. Many people pretend because they think they should know. They think, You know, so therefore, I don’t want you to know that I don’t know. And here’s the big secret for everybody: Nobody knows. You change from making a personal attribution for not knowing—I don’t know, but it’s knowable. Therefore, I’ll pretend; I’ll feel stupid, insecure—to a universal attribution: I don’t know. You don’t know. Nobody knows. Okay, so now let’s find out together and explore together. If you think you know something, there’s no reason to pay attention.

Anything can be made exciting; anything can be made boring. I picked up these kids—this is back years ago, when it was okay to pick up hitchhikers. And I was in Italy, and they were wearing NYC T-shirts, so you knew they weren’t from New York.

And so I picked them up, and I asked them, “How did you like New York?” And one of them answered right away and said, you know, he didn’t like it at all. It was boring. There was nothing to do. There are few places, to my mind, that are more exciting. And if you took me and you put me in the middle of a wheat field, I probably would look at it like, Well, it’s all the same, but not to a farmer.

Brooks: Let’s go to the future. So, you know, one of the things that I talk an awful lot about with Marty Seligman is prospection, and Marty believes that we shouldn’t be called Homo sapiens. We should be called Homo prospectus.

One point, he had this dispute with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, where the Dalai Lama was talking about mindfulness, and he said, No, Your Holiness, it’s natural that we live in the future, especially people who are ambitious and go-getters. And it’s actually important because we have to practice future scenarios, et cetera. How can we live enough in the future to be successful but, at the same time, enjoy our lives? How do we get that balance right?

Dr. Langer: I think that everything that you’re doing because of the future is based on a mistaken notion about predictability. Prediction is an illusion. Now, I know Marty doesn’t believe that. Let me convince your audience just quickly. I do this with my advanced decision-making class, and I say to them, “I’ve been teaching a version of this class for the last 40 years. I’ve never missed a class. What is the likelihood I’m going to be here next week?”

It’s a small class; we go around the room. These are Harvard kids, so they don’t say 100 percent. They say ridiculous things like 97 percent, as if there’s some calculation, but essentially they’re all saying I’ll be there. Now I say, “Okay, I want each of you to give me a good reason why I won’t be there.” The first one always says, “Well, you’ve been doing it for 40 years; you’ve been there. You deserve the time off.” The next one says, “Your dog has to go to the vet.” The next one says, “You’ve got a flat tire.” And they easily come up with things.

Then I say to them, “Okay, what is the likelihood I’m going to be here next week?” And it drops to 50 percent. And when you fully realize that we don’t know, that you can plan all you want for some future event and then something else will happen that pulls you away. But if the planning for the future is giving you a happy present, that’s fine; there’s nothing lost by it. When you stick to your predictions, you’re limiting yourself rather than expanding your universe of possibilities.

Brooks: From your perspective, goal setting is valuable to the extent that it enhances the quality of your life right now.

Dr. Langer: At the moment, yes. And I think that what we want to do, and the way I describe being mindful, is to be rule, routine, and goal guided. Most of us are mindless, so we’re rule, routine, and goal governed. You don’t want to have a rule that says you do something at time one—that’s when you’re committing to that rule—when at time two, it’s totally irrelevant. Recognize that outcomes are in our heads. They’re not in events.

A simple example, you know, if you and I go to lunch and the food is good, that’s great. You and I go to lunch and the food is awful. That’s great. Presumably, I’ll eat less, and that’ll be better for my waistline. If I take the view that the event is good or bad, then I’m in this position where I do everything I can to get the good, and I run away as fast as I can from anything bad. And once I recognize that the good/bad is in my head, I can be still and just enjoy whatever happens.

Brooks: So you and I are going back to the classroom in person for the first time in a super long time, and let’s say that your fall class, weirdly unexpectedly, goes really, really poorly. What’s your strategy then, because you’re not going to get stressed?

Dr. Langer: I have a one-liner that friends of mine put on their refrigerators, which is “Ask yourself, is it a tragedy or an inconvenience?” Too often we respond to things. You know, if the class didn’t go well, Oh my God, my life’s going to be—no, of course not. Let’s say you and I are going out and we have a bad conversation and it’s Oh my God, that’s going to destroy the relationship! No. No relationship is going to be made or fall apart based on one situation. No life is going to depend on failing one test or giving one bad class.

Brooks: Ellen Langer. What a joy. What a gift that you’ve given to our audience today, and what a gift that you’ve given me. So thank you very much.

Dr. Langer: It’s my pleasure, Arthur. Stay well.


Brooks: Each week on the show, we like to pay homage to our listeners and their unique insights on happiness. We put out a call to action for listeners to answer this question: When is the last time you remember being truly happy?

Listener submission: Hey there! My name is Ben; I live in Washington, D.C. Well, what is happiness? I’ve found bliss and peace while doing kind of really engrossing sports like skiing or kiteboarding. I’ve found joy and elation on the peaks of mountains after hiking them, and the kind of runner’s high that comes after exercise and accomplishment. Happiness is a longer struggle, though. Happiness is a couple good days with friends, appreciation from people who it matters to be appreciated by. It’s things going right when you weren’t sure if they would or not. It’s a clean apartment. It’s balance in your life, both physically and mentally, and in terms of your expectations. I don’t know if there is any one time when I would say that I’m truly happy. Happiness is when I am where I need to be and balanced and lifted up by the foundations that facilitate that happiness.


Brooks: Today’s exercise is called intention without attachment. Now, you’ve been hearing from Dr. Langer that mindfulness is critically important for living a good and balanced life, and it’s also incredibly important for happiness, in no small part because when you’re not mindful, you’re missing your life.

Mindfulness, according to Dr. Ellen Langer, is not an exotic thing. She defined it as simply noticing new things—being fully present and noticing things that are happening around us. You want to be mindful on the train, put down your phone. Stop thinking about the future. Put your hands in your lap. Look out the window and say, Huh, trees. Now, you can get into much more sort of transcendental or meditative understandings of mindfulness, but that’s a good way to remember it.

There’s a problem, however, if mindfulness is your only goal. Happiness also relies on prospection. It is the living in the future that’s connected to a lot of other psychologists’ research, and when you’re optimistic about the future, that prospection is really important to happiness as well. These two ideas, they seem kind of in tension, don’t they? You want to be mindful, but you want to be prospective at the same time. So I ask myself, Can I be both a goal-oriented person and a mindful person? Or do I have to choose? Or is there some way that I can get both? Well, the answer is that you can get both.

No. 1, use learned optimism to dream up and set long-term goals. So say to yourself, for example, “Ten years from today, here’s what I want my life to look like.” What does it look like? Make it really clear in your mind; write them down. Learned optimism to set long-term goals.

Here’s step two: Now break those goals into sub-steps to get to that 10-year goal. Or maybe it’s a five-year goal. You decide what your time frame is, but to get to it, Where do I need to be one year from now? Where do I need to be in one month to get to one year? Where do I need to be in one week to get to one month? Break your big goal into a bunch of little goals with respect to time.

Now here’s step three. Here’s where the mindfulness comes back: Live in day-tight compartments—that sets a goal for being fully alive over the next 24 hours. By the way, I didn’t make up this term “day-tight compartments.” That was [popularized] by a self-improvement author from the ’30s named Dale Carnegie. And this was one of his pieces of advice, to live in day-tight compartments. If you want to be happy, you have to be alive. If you’re going to be alive, you have to notice what’s going on. And to do that, you can’t always be living in the future.


Correction: This episode misstates the origin of the term day-tight compartments. Dale Carnegie popularized the phrase, but it was created by William Osler.