Heather Hansen

Rubber Bands & Possibility

“I dwell in possibility.” Emily Dickinson

So do I, for as long as I can remember. When I was a child, I was a voracious reader and my favorite books were about magic, fairies, and angels. As I got older, my favorite time of day was the morning, because at the beginning of the day so many things were possible. “So many adventures could happen today” from the song Forever Young was one of my favorite lyrics in 1984. And even in 1987, when I was a very chubby, socially insecure freshman in high school, I instinctively knew that more was possible. I sensed the power in the difference between what is and what could be. Little did I know that very year there were psychologists doing an experiment that would prove that power.

I majored in psychology, and while I used that education in my legal career rather than becoming a psychologist, I’ve always had a particular interest in psychological experiments. I want to maximize my own potential, and I like to know the science behind the tools I use to do so. Meditation and better breathing, for example, has lots of science to support it. So does spending time in nature, volunteering, yoga, traveling–they’ve all been proven to have real benefits to our health and our psyches. I read psychology experiments the way some people buy lottery tickets or shop at flea markets. I’m always looking for that treasure that will change everything.

This year, I discovered a study done in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 1987 that’s become that treasure. Here’s the gist. Imagine you’re in a room, at a table. You have paper, a pencil, a rubber band, a polygraph pen, and a hair dryer attachment. You’re asked to use the paper and pencil to rank the objects, and then you’re told you’ve made a mistake. But the pencil has no eraser. Is there a way to fix your mistake? If you were told that the rubber band IS a rubber band, you might not think so. However, if you were told the rubber band “COULD BE” a rubber band, would that expand the possibilities? Would you see that the rubber band also “could be” an eraser, since they are both made of rubber?

In the experiment, only 3% of those who were told that the rubber band IS a rubber band saw the possibility that it could also be an eraser. However, 40% of the group who were told that it COULD BE a rubber band saw the potential for it to also be an eraser. Everything changed with the difference between “IS” and “COULD BE”. Suddenly, there were possibilities to explore.

This experiment was was meant to show the power of mindfulness. For me, that’s not the only value of the study. The real value is the power of dwelling in possibility. If you think something IS, you’ve set your own limits. But if you think something COULD BE–now the fun can start.

When I see what’s possible for me, I’m more likely to achieve that possibility. That’s just how we humans work. It used to be that people believed it was impossible for the human body to run a four minute mile. For nine years, the record for running a mile was 4:01, and people said that IS the limit. But in 1954, after training his body with workouts and his mind with visualization (imagining what COULD BE), Roger Bannister broke that record. He ran a mile in 3:59.4 And soon after he showed people what COULD BE, others followed suit. John Landy shattered Bannister’s record just six weeks later, running the mile in 3:57.9 Within thirteen months, three runners had broken the four minute mark in one race. When we break past our IS, we can become what COULD BE.

This year, my mantra will be “What else is possible?” When I talk to my friends, employees, clients, siblings, my nieces and my nephew, I’ll speak in terms of possibilities. When I speak to myself, I’ll do the same. There will be no New Year’s Resolutions for me this year, but rather a commitment to those questions. What else is possible? What else could be?

I COULD BE a person who meditates every day.

I COULD BE less chained to social media.

I COULD BE someone who eats more mindfully.

I COULD BE a better aunt, sister, and friend.

In any situation, there COULD BE another option. What IS no longer has to confine me.  Let’s see what will happen when we explore those possibilities. On my website I’m going to have a 30 day Rubber Band Experiment. Every day, we will explore different things that we COULD BE. We can start by dwelling in possibility. A rubber band becomes an eraser. A less than four minute mile becomes possible. A chubby freshman becomes a woman who lost over 100 pounds and kept it off for 26 years. The possibilities are endless.

Heather Hansen

Subscribe to Heather’s newsletter, connect with her on social media or purchase one of her books.