Mindfulness is something we’re hearing a lot about these days. It’s a way of focusing non-judgmentally on the here-and-now, without letting your mind wander into the past or future. Supposedly, it’s a way to bring more health and joy into your life. But is the hype true? Can mindfulness make you happier?
1. Mindfulness Helps You Stay In The Moment
Researcher Matt Killingsworth of Harvard was driven to put mindfulness to the test. After all, mindfulness is all about staying in the present moment and not judging it. But a lot of times, in the here-and-now, we’d rather be doing other things!
Let’s say that you’re sitting in traffic – and it’s rough. Surely you’d rather be parasailing on the beach, so wouldn’t daydreaming about your favorite sport, taking your mind away from the traffic, have a positive effect on your commute?
Killingsworth was so curious about this issue that he built app that would answer that question!
Placing the app in the hands of 15,000 people all over the world, people with a wide variety of ages, beliefs, and jobs, Killingsworth programmed the app to buzz people at random times of day and ask these questions: (1) what they are doing, (2) are they enjoying it, and (3) were their minds were wandering while they did it?
For those whose minds were wandering (about 47%), the app then asked them what they were thinking about and what their happiness level was.
The amazing findings showed that the people who were focused on what they were doing – EVEN IF THEY DIDN’T LIKE IT – were happier than the people whose minds were wandering.Humans are happiest when we stay in the moment, and that’s what mindfulness is all about. Click To Tweet
Now it’s documented.
Even if your mind wanders to a better place, you’re more likely to be happy if you stay in the moment, and that’s what mindfulness is all about.
Here’s my take on mindfulness, married to Killingsworth’s data: The big difference that mindfulness can make is that it teaches you to stop wasting your energy judging the situation as good or bad. You’re in the moment, you’re doing whatever you’re doing, and there is no sense getting riled up about it. The only person you’re hurting with the drama is – yourself.
So, at least for the 15,000 people who took this test, it’s safe to say that if they practiced mindfulness, they’d be happier. We’ve got the data.
You can watch Killingsworth explain his process and results in his TEDxTalk, here:
2. Mindfulness Helps You Tap Into Joy And Wonder
Why do we want that big house, nice clothes, exotic vacation, or whatever else we dream of? Because we think it will make us happy. Melli O’Brien (also known as Mrs. Mindfulness) claims that she learned mindfulness in the real world, without any religious affiliation attached to it, and that mindfulness helps you tap into the joy and wonder that you long for, even before you get the big house, nice clothes, and exotic vacation.Mindfulness helps you tap into the joy and wonder that you long for. Click To Tweet
In her blog post entitled, “New Research Shows that Mindfulness is the Secret to happiness,” O’Brien shared several studies about mindfulness.
Besides pointing to the Killingsworth study, she reveals two other critical works that back up the idea that happiness comes from within, not from money, external conditions, or even what you’re doing at the moment.
When people have enough money to get their basics taken care of, money won’t make them happier. You can view the results of that study here.
Dr. Mihaly Chentmihalyi coined the word “flow” to mean that peak state of human existence when everything’s working. In this state, life seems to work better and circumstances seem to support you rather than get in your way. You can see him speak of it here:
Check out the complete blog post of Mrs. Mindfulness on these three concepts here.
3. Mindfulness Has Brain-Based Benefits
David Rock, Doctor of Professional Studies and author of Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long, insists that the concept of mindfulness could help a lot more people if we talk about it without its religious roots in ancient Buddhism.
That’s because it’s easier to explain brain-based benefits to a Westerner than trying to tackle a religious question that can throw up barriers to listening. (And, yes, those barriers are part of normal brain functioning, too.) He explains this in an article at Psychology Today.
Besides, you don’t need to be religious, close your eyes, or focus on your breath to practice mindfulness. What’s really happening is just shifting from using one brain circuit to using another, so you become aware of what your brain is doing.
Rock, who is executive director of the NeuroLeadership Institute and CEO of the NeuroLeadership Group, makes the point that mindlessness is the root cause of many of the world’s problems; therefore, almost any discussion of social ills can come around to the antidote of mindfulness. Everyone can take time to think clearly, but it needs to be a habit.Mindlessness is the root cause of many of the world’s problems. The antidote? Mindfulness! Click To Tweet
To really “get” the concept of mindfulness, you have to understand that there are two basic operating systems in the brain that control what your mind focuses on. One is known as the “default” or “narrative” mode.
This was documented in a 2007 study by Norman A.S. Farb, called “Attending to the Present: Mindfulness Meditation Reveals Distinct Neural Modes of Self-Reference.”
The narrative mode is easy to remember, because when you’re in this mode, it really does seem that your mind is telling you a long story, complete with characters (mostly you), events, twists of fate, and outcomes. If you’re walking down the street, your mind might wander from where you’re going, to what might happen once you get there, to something that happened ten years ago. But it’s what we call a stream of consciousness… it never stops UNLESS the other mode kicks in.
The other mode is called “direct.” That’s because there is no stream of consciousness. You are receiving sensory data and all your attention is on that, and there is no thought. Say you’re sitting in lounge chair at the beach, and a buddy comes up behind you and dumps a bucket of water on your head! Instantly, your senses send an alert to the brain, and you’re not thinking of a narrative, such as “Who did this?” You’re experiencing the water touching your skin, the smell of the salt water, and the grit of sand in the water. Your senses have taken over. You know people who had an accident and explain that “time stood still” because of the overload.
Immediately, though, you’ll go back to narrative mode (also called “default” mode). “Who did this? I know, Tom! When I catch him, I’m gonna…” You see, you immediately made a value judgment and started telling a new story.
One important note. These two modes of thinking use different hardware in different parts of the brain. The default, or narrative mode operates in the middle of the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus (memory center). The direct mode operates from the insula and the anterior cingulate cortex. (Don’t worry – you won’t be tested on that at the end of the article!)
That’s why it takes mindfulness to know which part of the brain you’re using. When you focus on one point of sensory awareness, such as watching a candle flicker, you’re consciously exercising one part of the brain that doesn’t get too much of a workout in this day and age.
You don’t want to wait until some accident or traumatic event makes time stand still. You just want to learn to switch circuits at will, even making time stand still when you’re focused on something pleasurable, like a meal you just ate or the sand between your toes. This literally causes you to develop the mental hardware that is responsible for awareness. Your senses will sharpen, you’ll notice more detail, and you’ll have better recall.
Something else to point out: if you’re a high-wired executive concerned with marketing tactics, operational systems, and the latest reports, the circuits in your brain that take care of that stuff tend to be very well developed, while the circuits with people skills might not be. So talking to you about mindfulness might have the same effect as talking to someone who speaks a different language. Literally, exercising your brain can have a neurological, physical effect.
But even if you’re a results-driven, callous individual, the benefits of clarity from mindfulness will be self-evident soon enough. Trying to convince you to take time out of your day for mindfulness practice in order to benefit a vague goal like “world peace” might not work so well. But when you know you’re exercising a part of the brain that makes you sharper, more observant, and more able to handle a multitude of problems, you’re in.
By the way, that’s why you can’t explain mindfulness to most Westerners through the imagery of Buddhist Monks. Most Westerners can’t relate to that, and their brain physiology won’t make it easy for them to try.
Imagining that you’re practicing mindfulness won’t give you the brain-based benefits of the practice. You actually have to do it. In fact, thinking of doing it only activates the same old narrative part of the brain. But when you do practice, it’s not necessary to close your eyes, breathe deeply, or light any candles.
4. Mindfulness Reduces Stress
This study by Kirk Warren Brown and Richard M. Ryan reveals how much of our daily lives are unconscious, or what they call “mindless.”
This property of being unconscious of things going on in the environment, fuzzy memories, sloppy communication, and even ignoring sensations in the body leads to misunderstandings and more conflict than necessary. It also leads to stress, because you’ll find yourself losing your keys, forgetting whether or not you passed on a message, or how much you ate. Add to that a real stressor like finding out that you’ve got cancer, and you’re in a perfect storm.
Brown and Ryan asked their participants to rate themselves on a number of questions such as, “I rush through activities without really paying attention to them,” or “I tend not to notice feelings of physical tension or discomfort until they really grab my attention.” From this list, they could evaluate how conscious the people were, and how “mindless,” or inattentive.
Obviously, this affects family relationships, performance on the job, and dealings with professionals such as tax preparers or attorneys.
The participants were dealing with cancer, and the study was meant to find out if mindfulness would reduce mood disturbance and stress in this group of people with the hopeful aim of introducing it to treatment programs at large. Over the course of the study, the patients did report an increase in mindfulness (a special technique called MBSR or Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction), and a reduction of stress and mood disturbance, even after taking impinging factors like fatigue and pain into consideration.
You can find the study here.
5. Mindfulness Improves Attention Span & Behavior
In “The Effectiveness of Mindfulness Training on Behavioral Problems and Attentional Functioning in Adolescents with ADHD,” colleagues Eva van de Weijer-Bergsma, Anne R. Formsma, Esther I. de Bruin, and Susan M. Bogels put forth the idea that mindfulness can help families coping with ADHD.
Using ADHD students between 11-15 years old and their parents, researchers put all participants through Mindfulness Training. They also tested the students and got the parents’ parenting self-assessments before, during, and after the study.Mindfulness improves your attention span and behavior. Click To Tweet
The results were positive: the students improved their attention span, behavior, and test scores. Fathers reduced their level of parenting stress and mothers reduced their level of overreactive parenting. (There was one downer: fathers increased their overreactive parenting.)
Eight weeks after the program ended, researchers followed up and found that the improvements were actually stronger! However, in a later follow-up, the benefits had faded out over time.
This could mean that the families were not able to keep up their mindfulness practices without ongoing support, and slipped back into their old habits.
6. Mindfulness Can Soothe Nerves & Improve Focus
By 2013, over 3,000 students in Great Britain had been taught mindfulness techniques. With high-school aged students facing the terror of placement exams, teachers were looking for an effective technique to help them relax, focus, and do their best. The result? “Beditation.”
Beditation is simply meditation done lying down. It is often coupled with “7/11” breathing: breathe in to the count of 7, breathe out to the count of 11.Mindfulness can soothe your nerves and improve your focus. Click To Tweet
Mindfulness was pioneered in English schools by teachers Richard Burnett and Chris Cullen, who created the Mindfulness in Schools Project in 2007. Later, Teacher Dominic Morris introduced mindfulness and added beditation into his school as well. Students report positive results: better sleep and focus, better self-control at home and school, and soothing their nerves before exams and even parties.
Their head teacher, Jenny Stephen, explained that she supported them because, “Mental wellbeing is at the route of being able to achieve anything.”
7. Mindfulness Reduces Pain And Inflammation
Dr. Deepak Chopra recommends a combination of mindfulness meditation and medicinal herbs for a number of maladies, including emotional and spiritual healing, and balancing of the body, mind, and spirit.
Chopra claims that meditation can reduce inflammation and chronic pain.Mindfulness can reduce inflammation and chronic pain. Click To Tweet
He cites a 1982 study showing that meditation helped 65% of patients suffering from chronic pain. He also claims that meditation can change the way our minds perceive pain, separating the worrisome emotional damage from the actual physical pain, making it less destructive. Chopra is in no way against conventional therapies, and suggests that the herbs and meditations should be used in conjunction with whatever treatments you and your doctor think are best for you.
8. Mindfulness Says, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy!”
Some suffering comes to every person on the planet, but we humans have a way of adding additional suffering by thinking about it all the time.
As the Dalai Lama suggests, don’t worry about either kind of suffering. If you can do something about your problems, do it. If you can’t, then stop worrying about it – there is nothing you can do anyway.Mindfulness reminds us to stop worrying and be happy! Click To Tweet
Mindfulness is not about putting your head in the sand. It’s about preserving your energy for solutions, which often come in the shower or at some other unexpected moment. When you fret and worry so much about the problem, you render yourself less likely to be available to receive an opportunity when it knocks.
Although not purely science-based, the advice is logical.
9. Mindfulness Changes The Brain In 17 Ways!
Forbes writer Alice G. Walton reveals a treasure trove of studies revealing the positive effect that meditation can have on the brain.
Some of these studies are physical tests, like MRIs, and some are psychological and emotional assessments. The results are so positive that I’m beginning to think we should teach mindfulness in kindergarten!
I’m going to list a very brief summary of the various benefits and give you a link to the full article at the end.
- Meditation Helps Preserve the Aging Brain – Meditating for 20 years generally means that you’ll have more grey matter in your brain in old age.
- Meditation Reduces Activity in the Brain’s “Me Center” – Mindfulness meditation decreases activity in the default [narrative] mode, which is responsible for the “monkey chatter” in your mind.
- Rivals Antidepressants for Depression, Anxiety – Mindfulness meditation can reduce symptoms of depression, anxiety, and pain.
- Meditation May Lead to Volume Changes in Key Areas of the Brain – These changes in various brain centers affect your mood and wellbeing as well.
- Just a Few Days of Training Improves Concentration and Attention – Testing showed that only a few weeks made an improvement in Graduate Records Examination (GRE) test scores.
- Meditation Reduces Stress and Social Anxiety – Practicing calmness in a meditation exercise has a way of making your whole life calmer.
- Meditation Can Help with Addiction – Because meditation fosters self-control, more and more studies are checking results.
- Short Meditation Breaks Can Help Kids in School – In San Francisco, a school district decreased suspensions and raised GPAs and attendance by starting a meditation program at high-risk schools.
- Worth a Try – For most people, the benefits far outweigh any possible side effects, the most likely being boredom!
But some people point out that meditation can have a side effect known as “dark night.” It’s rare, temporary, and avoidable if you have a good teacher. Please see the resources below for help understanding and avoiding a side effect like this.
For the full list from this article, read the original here.
10. Mindfulness Helps You Be YOU
Mindfulness can help close your self-discrepancy gap. What’s a “self-discrepancy gap”?
It’s the gap between the actual you and the ideal “you” that you carry around in your mind. It represents all the things that you beat yourself up for, the areas where you think you’re failing, and every flaw you think you have.
Sarah Roberts answered the question in the Berkeley Science Review by showing us these ways that mindfulness can help:
- Mindfulness is heavy on self-compassion and acceptance. Because of this, people may rate themselves a little higher in their own minds, thereby decreasing the gap.
- Because of the non-judgmental attitude of mindfulness, people may be able to conclude that some of their “ideal” goals are a little unrealistic, thus decreasing the gap.
- Because mindfulness causes us to focus more on the here-and-now, people might focus less on the construct of an “ideal self” to meet up to. While there still may be a gap, the mindfulness student is less likely to worry about it.
- Anyone can learn and practice mindfulness. It doesn’t require a degree, special religion, certain job skill, or anything else.
Can lessening your self-discrepancy gap make you happier? At the very least, it should provide some relief, and relief is a step in the right direction.
Check out Roberts’ full article, “Can Mindfulness Make You Happier?”
11. Mindful Meditation Can Boost Your Happiness
In this article, Stephany Tlalka points out that one of the best ways to boost happiness is to practice mindful meditation. The practice will keep you from stressing out about problems and having knee-jerk reactions to them. It can help you cut the drama out of your life, and it’s one of the best processes you can use to do that.
Tlalka suggests starting with a simple body scan meditation, in which you pay attention to your body instead of watching TV after work. The point is not to judge or worry about your body, but just to notice it.
She also got some more proven techniques from Emma Seppala, Associate Director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University, who came up with 5 practices that will make you happier, proven by scientific facts:
- Gratitude: Take the time to notice and give thanks for the good things you already have.
- Service/Compassion: Reach out and help people or causes when you’re inspired to.
- Play: Have some fun once in awhile – it’s infectious.
- Don’t Chase Happiness: If you work too hard for it, it might disappear.
- Meditate: Tlalka’s got a simple starting meditation built right into the original article.
You might think that compassion would make you more miserable, because you’re focused on the tragedy of others. But there is a big difference between feeling bad on behalf of someone else and reaching out to touch somebody in a positive way. Reaching out to help is also infinitely superior to feeling guilty because you did nothing!
You can read the whole article here.
There you have it! Your 11 powerful studies that show mindfulness can bring you more happiness.
BONUS STUDY: Does Your Mind Create Your Reality?
Scientists from Massachusetts General Hospital at Harvard Medical School recently reported that participants who took a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program for eight weeks showed measurable changes in grey matter concentration in the hippocampus, the part of the brain associated with regulation of emotion, arousal, and responsiveness.
Just like anything in life, even mindfulness meditation has people who are against it. While I tend to see the exciting changes people can bring about in their own lives, I’m aware that the other hand has to clap, too.
Therefore, I’m giving you a list of articles that question the benefits of mindfulness and recommend against it so you can decide for yourself.
1. “Mindfulness Does Not ‘Lead’ to Happiness,” by Tom Wootton
Wootton is not against meditation, but just wants everyone to know that relieving yourself from stress does not automatically make you happy.
2. “17 Ways Mindfulness Can Hurt You,” by Melissa Karnaze
Karnaze’s argument is in the idea that by listening to claims that meditation brings happiness, you might judge yourself as doing meditation wrong or judge your own thoughts or results as wrong.
Although mindfulness specifically entails observing thoughts or surroundings without casting judgment, it’s possible that students could judge anyway. They were probably doing that even before mindfulness training.
Karnaze also teaches mindfulness, so it’s possible that the article is a marketing ploy that we’ve seen a lot lately, where an article’s title promises to “expose” a product or service, but by the end of the article actually endorses it and offers to sell it to you.
I think it’s more likely that the troubles are just in semantics. Here’s a quote:
“Mindfulness meditation won’t fix your problems for you. (Unless you use it to really become mindful of your emotional experiences so that you can work through them constructively and mindfully.)”
So mindfulness is only harmful if you don’t do it mindfully? I’ll let you judge for yourself – you can read the whole article here.
Here is a list of more reading you can do to round out your knowledge of mindfulness and get started if you want to. Of course, you can read about it forever, but if you never try it, you’ll never experience it first-hand so you can judge for yourself.
While it can help people with depression, for example, some people are so depressed that they should not try it without a special teacher who can help guide them through the process and make sure they have a good experience.
1. “Dark Night” by Barbara O’Brien
Some people have warned against a side effect known as the “dark night.” To explain what the “dark night” means, and how to recognize the signs before it happens, I’m attaching an article by Barbara O’Brien, Buddhism expert, who can put this in historical context and shed some light. O’Brien says that, “if you are recovering from a recent severe trauma or a deep clinical depression, for example, meditation may feel too raw and intense, like rubbing sandpaper on a wound. If that’s the case, stop, and take it up again when you’re feeling better. Don’t push it just because someone else says it’s good for you.”
This is a fun site that has a ton of free resources for you, like audio guided meditations, books, and papers. Let’s go trap some happiness today and get it into our lives!
Try listening to the daily Headspace meditation podcasts, which will teach you how to use mindful meditation, reduce your stress, and increase your powers of concentration.
4. The Mindful Manifesto: How Doing Less and Noticing More Can Help Us Thrive in a Stressed-Out World
This mindfulness primer by Dr. Jonty Heaversedge claims that because we live in a high-pressure world, we often fail to stop and experience our real lives (much less enjoy them)! Try this book as a primer on getting started.
5. Action for Happiness
“Action for Happiness helps people take practical action to improve mental wellbeing and to create a happier and more caring society. Our patron is The Dalai Lama and we have tens of thousands of members who are taking action to increase wellbeing in their homes, workplaces, schools, and local communities.” Watch the video here. And check out the mindfulness site here.
By now, you’ve had more than enough data to Inspower you. Whether you choose mindfulness or not, find happiness in life.