The benefits of mindfulness

Year of Happy two linesWelcome to week 3 of The Year of Happy‘s month on mindfulness. The Year of Happy is a free online course in the science of happiness. Not signed up yet? Enter your email here and you’ll get a weekly dose of readings and videos to further your happiness education. 

If you’ve read the news lately, it probably seems like meditation is the cure-all drug – the secret to pristine health, million-dollar success, and pure bliss.

The science is a bit more nuanced than that, particularly because the study of mindfulness is new. Some big, aggregate studies have found no benefits to mindfulness in terms of positive emotions or life satisfaction, for example, while others have. We’re still waiting on more studies that are more rigorous, compare mindfulness to other interventions, and follow participants long-term to see how long the benefits last.

That said, the preliminary evidence is very encouraging and it would be a mistake to ignore it. Here are some of the benefits you can expect from mindfulness:

1. More happiness and positive emotions

The evidence is beginning to show that mindfulness can increase well-being and life satisfaction. For example, Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program boosted life satisfaction in health professionals, and it helped women with fibromyalgia see their lives as more meaningful and manageable.

Higher mindfulness in individuals correlates with more self-directedness and self-transcendence, and MBSR has helped various different groups increase mood, self-compassion, spirituality, and sense of control. High-tech employees who went through MBSR showed increased activity in brain areas related to positive affect. In particular, loving-kindness meditation can increase compassion and other positive attitudes toward self and others. 

Harvard professor Ellen Langer has done a lot of work with mindfulness in seniors, and one of her experiments tested the effects of different levels of mindfulness. One group had to take note and evaluate a certain activity they did every day (e.g., the first thing they drank), while another group had to evaluate a different activity each day. A third group evaluated a different activity each day and had to list three alternatives (e.g., selecting an orange juice rather than a water), and the fourth group did the same but picked the activities they monitored. In the end, the group of seniors forced to be most mindful were less depressed, more independent, and more confident. Mindfulness allows us to take back control of our choices, and it may inspire some positive feelings toward the self.

2. Better relationships

If you think of all the times you’ve only half-listened to a friend or spouse talking, your mind distracted, it’s easy to imagine that mindfulness could be a boon in relationships.

Studies have shown that regular practice of mindfulness improves our interpersonal skills, and mindfulness training can make us less aggressive in the face of social rejection. People who are more mindful tend to be more cooperative and less likely to see others as hostile toward them. If you do MBSR or Zen meditation, you might find yourself becoming more empathic toward other people.

Langer has also looked at the link between mindfulness and discrimination. Under her definition, mindlessness includes knee-jerk labeling, which seems to be part and parcel of prejudice. By teaching people to think more mindfully – avoiding labels, thinking of alternatives, and questioning their assumptions – she believes we can reduce discrimination against those who are different from us.

Mindfulness has also been studied in the context of romantic relationships in particular. More mindful partners tend to have better marriages and more sexual satisfaction, partly thanks to better communication skills. Relatively happy couples who go through mindfulness programs come out on the other side with higher relationship satisfaction, more closeness and acceptance, less distress about the relationship, and more optimism and relaxation.

In his interview with Oprah, Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh explains how to be fully present with your loved ones with four beautiful mantras (start at 18:58):

In a broader sense, more mindfulness can make us feel more connected to other people because we recognize that emotions are human – we’re not the only ones who have ever felt sad, anxious, or afraid.

3. Fewer negative emotions

Practicing mindfulness is one way to cultivate self-awareness, and self-awareness is a crucial skill when we’re dealing with negative emotions. It can help us understand what we’re feeling sooner, discover the triggers of that feeling (e.g., being late for work makes us anxious), and observe our habitual responses to it. It makes sense, then, that practicing mindfulness may reduce addictive behaviors like smoking, alcoholism, and eating disorders.

Mindfulness is also a way of fighting boredom. In one study, participants were asked to do activities they disliked (like watching football or listening to rap music) and notice one, three, or six new things about the experience. The more mindful they were asked to be, the less bored they were.

And while training in mindfulness increases positive attitudes toward the self, it also decreases negative ones. Anger and self-criticism give way to the acceptance and self-compassion mentioned above.

Many MBSR studies have been done on different groups in a variety of stressful situations – from health care professionals to graduate students to patients living with disease – and the program has been shown to decrease stress and anxiety, rumination, burnout, hostility, distress, and depression. Other mindfulness-based therapies, like mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), are also effective in reducing depression.

Why might this be the case? Besides increased self-awareness, mindfulness changes our attitude toward reality. We learn to see things as they are, and recognize that everything will change – including our feelings of despair. We gain more distance from our thoughts, so we don’t have to get sucked in and pulled along when they start to spiral toward negativity.

Mark Williams is one of the creators of MBCT, which adapted MBSR to help prevent depression relapse. In this video, he explains in detail why it works:

4. Better health

While mindfulness is changing our minds, it’s also changing our bodies. 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.

One three-month meditation training program actually boosted participants’ telomerase activity, indicating longer telemores and perhaps a longer life expectancy. Meditation practice has also been linked to decreased blood pressure and improved parasympathetic cardiovascular activity, a measure of relaxation.

In a famous 1979 experiment, Langer and her colleagues invited 75- to 85-year-old men on a five-day retreat in the country. The setting was designed to replicate 1959, with newspapers of that year strewn about and an old-fashioned radio. The men were separated into two groups: one group would pretend they were 20 years younger, talking about the past in the present tense and acting like they were back in 1959. The other group would relive the past from the present, talking about it in the past tense. After five days, both groups showed improvement on a variety of physical measures, but the first group – who had to be even more mindful with their speech – improved more in areas like joint flexibility, manual dexterity, right-eye vision, and posture.

Many of the MBSR studies done have looked at health outcomes, and the results are promising. Some of the benefits recorded include increased immune activity and immune response to a flu shot, lower blood pressure, less pain (for chronic pain sufferers), and improved physical functioning. For people with cancer, some preliminary MBSR studies have shown reductions in inflammation, cortisol, blood pressure, and PSA levels, in addition to better sleep. Psoriasis patients who do MBSR heal faster, and patients with multiple sclerosis can keep their symptoms stable with MBSR.

Other mindfulness-based therapies, such as ACT and MBCT, may improve physical functioning and decrease health care use for chronic pain sufferers, reduce seizures for patients with epilepsy, and decrease the severity of tinnitus.

The mechanisms at work here are many of the same ones we discussed above – namely, more self-awareness of harmful behaviors and more acceptance of negative emotions and pain.

5. Better coping

Mindfulness may combat negative emotions, but what if the negative emotions come anyway? Then, it can be a useful tool in dealing with them.

“Mindfulness may be the mental ‘seat belt’ that protects us along the bumpy, twisting, turning road of life, whether we encounter unexpected drop-offs, terrible accidents, or smooth sailing,” write Smalley and Winston. “Mindfulness changes your relationship to life. Learning to live mindfully does not mean living in a ‘perfect’ world, but rather, living a full and contented life in a world in which both joys and challenges are a given.”

A Carnegie Mellon study found that more mindful people are better able to regulate their emotions, and this comes in handy when those emotions are negative and overwhelming. In the case of post-traumatic stress disorder, for example, more mindful people have less symptoms of trauma, intrusive thoughts, and avoidance.

Therapies like MBSR and ACT can help medical patients cope in ways that are considered healthier. Being diagnosed with a chronic or life-threatening disease opens up a world of uncertainty, and mindfulness helps you settle into the discomfort.

Shannon Paige, cancer survivor and yoga teacher, explains how mindfulness and body awareness helped her overcome the biggest challenges of her life:

6. Better performance

Attention and focus are crucial parts of getting things done, so it should come as no surprise that mindfulness can make us perform better on the job and elsewhere.

Conflict attention, which involves keeping our focus despite distractions, is higher in experienced meditators and can be boosted through meditation training. This skill is related to self-regulation, where we focus on our goals despite competing desires and impulses.

Over time, meditation improves working memory, fluid intelligence, and standardized test scores. Participants attending a three-month meditation retreat even improved in their visual acuity, the ability to distinguish flashes of different intensities.

Different researchers have studied mindfulness in a wide range of industries, and it seems that a more mindful environment is a recipe for success. Pairs of pilots who communicate mindfully make better decisions, female hockey and volleyball players who take a mindfulness program improve their performance and concentration, and mindful salespeople are seen as more knowledgeable. Orchestra musicians who play mindfully, women who give speeches mindfully, and actors who play their parts mindfully get higher ratings from their audiences. The Alice Project in India, a school that includes some mindfulness-based curriculum, has better standardized test performance than other schools and high levels of self-knowledge and emotional intelligence among its students.

Mindfulness prepares us for success because it makes us more flexible and resourceful. If old habits aren’t working, we’ll take note of that and try something new; we’ll also be more open to differing perspectives. If we experience a setback, we can cope with the negative emotions and move forward; if we don’t get the intended result, we’ll try to learn from the experience rather than label ourselves a failure. Goal achievement is difficult, and there’s a long path of uncertainty where we’re not yet where we want to be. Mindfulness helps us settle in for the long haul and not hurry ourselves to the destination.

Peter Deng, director of product at Instagram (now part of Facebook), talks about how he incorporates mindfulness into his day and his office and becomes compassionately mindful of the people around him:

Think back to your most recent moment of mindfulness. What were you doing, and how did it feel? How was it different from the rest of your normal life? Share your thoughts on our Facebook group.

Sources and further reading:

Go back to Week 2: How to cultivate mindfulness

Move on to Week 4: When mindfulness is hard, try this

See the whole Year of Happy curriculum

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