Mindfulness: Week 6 of “The Science of Happiness” on edX

On September 9, the first positive psychology MOOC (massively open online course) called “The Science of Happiness” launched on edX. A whopping 100,000 students were signed up to learn more about what researchers have discovered about how to be happier. Taught by Berkeley’s Dacher Keltner and Emiliana Simon-Thomas, the course promises guest lectures by Sonja Lyubomirsky and Barbara Fredrickson and is an amalgamation of videos, readings, and happiness exercises. Now, the self-paced version of “The Science of Happiness” will run until May 31, when all quizzes and tests are due. If you’re taking the course and want a refresher, or are just a little curious, here’s a summary of the content for week 6, Mindfulness.

How paying attention can make you happier

Roadmap for week 6

This week looks at mindfulness, a nonjudgmental awareness of the present reality – our thoughts, feelings, sensations, and environment. In a mindful state, we aren’t thinking about the past or future but fully attuned to the now.

Matt Killingsworth: Want to be happier? Stay in the moment

Matt Killingsworth’s project, Track Your Happiness, looks at the correlation between happiness and mind wandering. It sends participants emails or text messages throughout the day and asks them how they feel, what they’re doing, and whether they’re mind wandering about pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral things. So far, he’s collected over 650,000 responses from 15,000 people and discovered that we mind-wander 47% of the time. You might think that mind wandering is a positive thing, since we can daydream of happy things or plan for a better future. But in fact, Killingsworth’s data shows that people are less happy when their minds are wandering. This is true even if we’re doing unsatisfying activities like commuting, and even if we’re thinking of neutral or pleasant things. Killingsworth was also able to show that mind wandering leads to unhappiness, rather than the other way around.

Defining mindfulness vs. mind-wandering

Although we might think mindfulness and mind-wandering are opposites, that’s not quite true. Mindfulness, according to pioneer Jon Kabat-Zinn, is deliberately paying attention to the present moment in a non-judgmental way. Shauna Shapiro, another expert in the field, believes that mindfulness requires open, kind, and discerning attention. But we can actually be mindful while observing the wanderings of our mind.

“How to focus a wandering mind” by Wendy Hasenkamp

When our mind wanders during meditation, a group of brain areas called the “default mode network” activates. Scientists aren’t exactly sure what this network does – it may be directly involved in mind wandering or simply be carrying out brain maintenance when we aren’t thinking about anything in particular. As soon as we realize our mind is wandering during meditation, other brain regions for detecting relevant events light up. As we refocus our attention on the breath, the executive brain network takes over. Experienced meditators who repeat this process thousands of times start to show differences in the brain. They develop more connection between the self-focused part of the default mode network and brain regions for disengaging attention, which makes it easier to shut off that area of the brain when they realize their minds are wandering. Over time, meditation improves working memory, fluid intelligence, and standardized test scores.

What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness techniques and the emergence of MBSR

There are many different types of mindfulness techniques, including breathing, sitting, and walking meditations; loving-kindness meditation; the body scan; and yoga. Meditations train the mind to cultivate a certain state, often relaxation. One of the most famous techniques is the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn in 1979 at the Massachusetts Medical School. The eight-week program helped translate Eastern traditions of mindfulness into a secular and mainstream context. He’s famous for the raisin meditation, where you imagine a raisin and examine it with all five senses. A 2011 meta-analysis of MBSR showed that it reduces symptoms of distress, anxiety, and depression. For people with physical conditions like chronic pain, it can enhance wellbeing.

Jon Kabat-Zinn: What is mindfulness?

The goal of meditation is simply to become awake. In fact, the Chinese character for mindfulness means “presence of heart.”

Jon Kabat-Zinn: The stars of our own movie

One of the great illusions that comes from a lack of mindfulness is seeing ourselves as “the stars of our own movie.” Everything is filtered through the lens of I, me, and mine. We get caught up in our thoughts rather than truly experiencing the world through our senses. But when we deliberately start cultivating awareness, we see that it has no center or boundary. Kabat-Zinn says that meditation is not the goal; the point of cultivating mindfulness is to learn to live our lives like they really matter now, rather than constantly living in regret or anticipation.

Shauna Shapiro: Intention, attention, attitude

These three characteristics are crucial to mindfulness. Intention involves knowing why you’re doing what you’re doing – having a goal or a north star. Attention means focusing on the present and not succumbing to the 12,000-50,000 thoughts we have every day. Attitude is how you do all of this – ideally, with acceptance, openness, curiosity, kindness, gentleness, warmth, and trust. “What you practice becomes stronger,” says Shapiro.

“What is mindfulness?” by Barry Boyce

Boyce prefers to think of mindfulness as something we already have, a basic human ability. We have the power within us to stop feeling reactive and overwhelmed, if only we cultivate it. That can be done through meditation, doing activities (like sports) meditatively, or just pausing from time to time in everyday life. Mindfulness does reduce stress and has other benefits, but it’s best if we do it as an end in itself rather than for the perks.

Happiness practice #5: Mindful breathing

Practice mindful breathing 15 minutes a day for a week or more. To do that, find a comfortable position and relax your body. Breathe naturally and start to notice where you feel your breath. Keep observing your breath; when your mind wanders, gently say to yourself “thinking” or “wandering” and bring your attention back to the breath. To come out of the exercise, notice your body again and feel grateful for the experience. This kind of mindful breathing helps us deal with stress and negative emotions and concentrate better. It’s been shown to elevate vagal tone and improve our ability to regulate our emotions, since it creates distance between ourselves and our thoughts and feelings.

Benefits of mindfulness for mind, brain, and body

Mindfulness and psychological well-being

Studies on mindfulness are mixed but mostly promising. Various types of meditation and mindfulness practices have been shown to promote coping; increase positive emotions (like compassion) and life satisfaction; and reduce stress, anxiety, pain, depression, depression relapse, and negative emotions. For teachers, mindfulness also reduced critical self-rumination as well as contempt and hostility for other teachers, while making them more able to judge others’ emotions. But some meta-analyses have suggested that mindfulness has no effect on positive emotions or no effect on life satisfaction.

Mindfulness and physical well-being

Beyond affecting the mind, mindfulness and the MBSR program lead to real changes in our bodies, too. They have helped people reduce chronic pain, improve psoriasis, and increase their immune response to the flu shot. One study of mindfulness/compassion meditation out of Emory University showed reductions in stress markers, and even a simple long exhale (ahhhh) increases vagal tone. And – last but not least – a three-month meditation training program boosted telomerase activity, indicating longer telemores and perhaps a longer life expectancy.

Mindfulness and neuroplasticity

Mindfulness literally changes our brains, making some areas more responsive, interconnected, and dense. In particular, these are areas related to empathy (the insula); memory, emotion, and emotion regulation; and reward circuitry. In response to distressing stimuli, meditators see more activation in their prefrontal structures (for awareness) and less in their fear-driven amygdala. Taken together, these changes make us more attentive and less distracted, more in touch with our emotions, more resilient and quicker to recover from stress, and more pro-social, optimistic, and kind – in a word, happier.

“Stalking the meditating brain” by Tracy Picha

Richie Davidson founded the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds (CIHM) at the University of Wisconsin. His studies show changes in gene expression after 8 hours of meditating in the lab. In other words, practices like meditation can have an effect on which of our genes are activated, changing us mentally and physically.

Shauna Shapiro: Mindfulness meditation and the brain

According to set point theory, our attitude and behaviors have a bigger effect on our happiness than our external circumstances – and that’s good news for mindfulness. Mindfulness shapes our brain by increasing gray matter in areas related to attention, learning, self-awareness, self-regulation, empathy, and compassion. One study of biotech employees who had never meditated before showed an increase in their left-right ratio of prefrontal cortex activity – which is associated with more positive mental states – as much as four months later. In other words, meditation can have a lasting impact on our brains and thus our happiness.

“A little meditation goes a long way” by Jason Marsh

Another study of the eight-week MBSR program showed increases in gray matter in three brain regions: the hippocampus (for learning, memory, and emotion regulation); the temporoparietal junction and posterior cingulate cortex (empathy); and the cerebellum (emotion regulation).

Happiness practice #6: Body scan meditation

Three to six days a week for a month, spend 20-45 minutes doing the body scan meditation. In this exercise, we focus on different parts of the body and notice any areas of tension or relaxation. We learn to be non-judgmental of our bodies, more accepting of any pain or discomfort rather than feeling bad about it. We may even learn to appreciate our bodies more and make healthier choices around them. The body scan incorporates observation and non-reaction, two aspects of mindfulness, and has been shown to improve psychological well-being.

“Which kind of mindfulness meditation is right for you?” by Hooria Jazaieri

There are many different types of mindfulness meditation, and (as with happiness practices) everyone has to find the right fit. One study looked at three types: sitting (breath), the body scan, and mindful yoga. It found that all three types reduced rumination and improved self-compassion and well-being. But sitting and mindful yoga were most useful: yoga improved well-being the most, while sitting made people less judgmental about their feelings and experiences. Both sitting and yoga improved emotion regulation.

Real-world applications of mindfulness

Applications of mindfulness research

Mindfulness techniques are used across a variety of disciplines, from relationships and childbirth to education and health care to prisons. Besides the effects mentioned above, here are some of the results:

  • More mindful partners report more sexual satisfaction.
  • More mindful students participate more.
  • More mindful teachers burnout less.
  • More mindful health professionals burnout less and have more self-compassion.
  • More mindful prisoners are less angry, hostile, and moody.
  • More mindful people with post-traumatic stress disorder have less symptoms of trauma, intrusive thoughts, avoidance, and hyperarousal.

In general, mindfulness improves our social interactions and makes us feel better about the world and our ability to deal with it.

“Mindful kids, peaceful schools” by Jill Suttie

The goal of teaching mindfulness to students is to create a better learning environment. In particular, it should help reduce anxiety, social conflict, and attention disorder while making students more aware, curious, non-judgmental, and calm. Susan Kaiser’s nonprofit, Inner Kids, is one of the organizations bringing mindfulness into schools. A study of 4th-7th graders found that mindful awareness techniques had many of the desired effects. Students became less aggressive and less oppositional to teachers, and were sent to the principal less often. Plus, they had more positive emotions and became more attentive, optimistic, and introspective. Another study showed that teaching mindfulness to teens with ADHD reduces their anxiety and increases their focus.

“Mindfulness at work” by Tara Healey

Mindfulness at work means noticing and examining the habits of behavior, thinking, and feeling that we’ve created. Sometimes, what appears to be a problem is only a problem because of the expectations or feelings we attach to it, not the reality itself. Healey encourages us to create some distance between ourselves and our emotions and simply observe. We can also keep an eye out for little assumptions or habits that are making us unhappy, like jumping for the phone when it rings. Finally, we can cultivate mindfulness by meditating as well as injecting it into everyday experience.

“To pause and protect” by Maureen O’Hagan

Even police and soldiers are being trained in mindfulness. One study of Marine reservists found that those who had trained in mindfulness had better cognitive performance and less stress. For police, the goal of these programs is to help them be less reactive and more thoughtfully responsive, less aggressive and more assertive.

Year of Happy two linesWant to keep learning about the science of happiness? Join us for The Year of Happy, a free online course starting January 4 to help you get happier in 2016. You’ll get weekly readings and videos by email and learn to apply the science of happiness to your own life, all in 2 hours a week. Find out more or sign up here!

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