What is mindfulness?

Year of Happy two linesWelcome to week 1 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. 


When you hear the word mindfulness, maybe you think of monks meditating or your yoga teacher’s instructions to be aware of your breathing. Maybe you think of Buddhism and religion, and wonder why a course on the science of happiness is talking about mindfulness anyway. Maybe you don’t get what’s the big deal about living in the present.

In its simplest form, mindfulness means changing the way we relate to the world – paying more attention to the now. When we do that, a whole host of interesting things start to happen: we get less distracted, less bored, less caught up in negative thoughts. We truly notice and appreciate the company of a loved one or the view from our window, because our heads aren’t somewhere else. Mindfulness is living life consciously, intentionally, with awareness. 

“Mindfulness is an antidote to the dullness and disconnection of life lived on automatic pilot,” write Susan L. Smalley and Diana Winston in their book Fully Present: The Science, Art, and Practice of Mindfulness.

Buddhism doesn’t have a monopoly on cultivating attention, but it has accumulated a lot of wisdom on the topic in its 2,500-year history. It’s only in the past 40 years that scientists have become more and more interested in mindfulness, so the experimental study of it is still young – although thousands of studies have already been done. Let’s dive in and see what we can learn.

Definitions of mindfulness

Mindfulness is attention or awareness to the present moment. Beyond that, different researchers add different qualifiers – for example, that attention must be deliberate or receptive or open, or the attitude must be impartial, curious, nonjudgmental, or accepting. These qualifiers distinguish it from the type of careful attention that judges, criticizes, and spirals off into negativity. 

Mindfulness is both something you can do (a state) – take a moment to be mindful – and something you can be (a trait) – she’s a very mindful student.

This might all sound a bit abstract and enlightened, so let’s try this: take a moment to check in with your body: what is your posture like? What do your feet feel like on the ground? How are you feeling about this reading – bored, interested, happy? Take two deep breaths, feeling the air move in and out of your body. How does it feel to be mindful?

Whether you feel joy or despair, you can mindfully recognize that feeling, experience it, and let it go – not clinging to it or pushing it away. When you have a negative thought, you can examine it and learn something about yourself, rather than starting in on the self-criticism. Mindfulness keeps us in a state of seeing and observing, when we’re so eager to skip that part and move right along to the judging.

“Deep listening is the essence of mindfulness – a cultivating of intimacy with your own life unfolding, as if it really mattered. And it does. More than you think,” writes Jon Kabat-Zinn in Mindfulness for Beginners: Reclaiming the Present Moment – and Your Life. After studying under Buddhist teachers, Kabat-Zinn was one of the pioneers of the science of mindfulness over 35 years ago.

For Shauna Shapiro and Linda Carlson, authors of The Art and Science of Mindfulness: Integrating Mindfulness into Psychology and the Helping Professions, mindfulness has three parts:

  • Intention: Acting with intention means knowing why you’re doing what you’re doing. It means moving through life deliberately and in control, rather than being tossed around by the whims of others, emotions you don’t understand, or inertia. But intention is less intense than striving toward a goal; it’s more about knowing where you’re headed. “Intention is a direction, not a destination,” said Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield.
  • Attention: When we pay attention, we focus on what’s happening inside and outside of us in a discerning, nonreactive, sustained, and concentrated way.
  • Attitude: Attitude is the way we set intentions and pay attention. Some researchers describe mindfulness as open, curious, kind, gentle, warm, non-reactive, and loving.

In this interview before a 2012 conference, Shapiro gets more personal about her journey to mindfulness, why it’s as important as brushing our teeth, and why attitude is so crucial:

As we get deeper into the practice of mindfulness, we move from having mindful moments to living in a mindful way. Our relationship to the world changes, and our attitude toward life shifts. Kabat-Zinn identified nine attitudes of mindfulness:

  • Non-judging: Focusing on seeing, observing, and being aware of things. As we become more mindful, we start to notice all the ways we’re constantly judging the world around us (and ourselves).
  • Patience: All instances of impatience are the desire to be done with now and get to the future. “We are always trying to get someplace else. We have a strong need to be on the way to some better moment, some better time when it all will come together for me,” writes Kabat-Zinn. When we live with patience, we get more comfortable with the way things are right now.
  • Beginner’s mind: As we move through life, we often become more rigid in our beliefs, habits, and ways of thinking. But actively trying to think like a beginner can open up new horizons for us – suddenly, there are different options and different paths. Each experience and each day is fresh, because we haven’t pre-determined how it’s all going to end.
  • Trust: Ultimately, we want to have a basic trust that we will be able to deal with any challenges in life. Where does that come from? For Kabat-Zinn, we start by cultivating trust in our bodies, these wonderful machines that perform hundreds of tiny coordinated processes to keep us alive. From there, we can expand our trust to our feelings, other people, nature, and life itself.
  • Non-striving: Related to patience and acceptance, you could say that non-striving means embracing the journey: being content to be where you are, even if you’re heading somewhere else. Kabat-Zinn writes, “We can shape the future by taking care of the present” – because in the future, it will still be the present.
  • Acceptance: We spend a lot of time fighting reality, either denying it, trying to change it, or wishing it were different. When we accept, we see things for what they are and just sit with that – and then, from a calmer and less fearful place, can act to change them.
  • Letting go: The mindful attitude of letting go doesn’t mean distancing or detaching yourself, and becoming passive. Instead, it’s a realistic attitude in the face of a world we can’t always control. When we let go, we say: whether I like it or not, that’s the way things are, and they may change or not, no matter what I do.
  • Gratitude: We start to feel a very basic gratitude for being alive, for the bodies that sustain us.
  • Generosity: As we realize that everyone has struggles and negative thoughts, we start to see people as interconnected and reach out to help them.

Watch Kabat-Zinn explain his understanding of mindfulness here:

As you become more mindful, one of the things you may start to notice is some separation in the you who has thoughts and feelings and the you who observes them – the “observer” or the “witness.” When you’re aware of your thoughts, who is aware and who is doing the thinking? Odd as it sounds, mindfulness helps us develop a sense of a self that’s separate from our thoughts and feelings. And usually, that self tends to be a lot calmer. The scientific term for this is “meta-cognitive awareness.”

Smalley describes the stance of the observer in this quick video:

How does this all come together in daily life? As we go through our days, there are tons of things to be mindful about – from our thoughts and feelings to our body postures, to noises and smells and tastes, to the people around us. It’s overwhelming, and we can’t be mindful of everything all the time. So a crucial question to ask ourselves is: what do I want to be mindful of now? If we’re getting a massage, maybe we want to focus on the relaxing pressure on our sore back instead of mentally replaying our to-do list; if we’re in a meeting, maybe we try to really listen to what our boss is saying instead of assuming she’s going to drone on about the same old trivialities.

After a while of practicing mindfulness, we may see subtle and not-so-subtle shifts in our experience of life. Instead of being on automatic pilot, instead of constantly wrestling with reality, we may feel more relaxed and awake. And, of course, happier.

Mindfulness vs. mindlessness

Above, we talked about “beginner’s mind” as one of the nine attitudes of mindfulness identified by Kabat-Zinn. He writes, “It doesn’t mean you don’t know anything. It means that you are spacious enough in that moment to not be caught by what it is that you do know or have experienced in the face of the enormity of what is unknown.”

Harvard professor Ellen Langer came at the study of mindfulness from mindlessness, a problem that’s quite similar to the loss of beginner’s mind. When we’re mindless, we tend to get fixated on categories and habits and act on auto-pilot, not thinking of alternatives. For example, in one experiment, a researcher pretended to have a sprained knee and asked passers-by to get an Ace bandage from the pharmacy; when the pharmacist (who was in on the study) said they were out of Ace bandages, all 25 participants didn’t think to ask for an alternative. Categories can imprison us.

We become mindless when we repeat behaviors over and over, so we stop thinking about them. We also become mindless when we make a judgment based on a first impression, and don’t bother to gather additional evidence. If a friend’s new girlfriend seems standoffish and unfriendly, you might immediately dislike her; as she loosens up and overcomes her shyness toward you, you may be too biased to notice. If you see yourself as a “bad runner” or a “bad cook,” you might get stuck in that category instead of recognizing that even the pros were once beginners. 

“Most of our views of ourselves, of others, and of presumed limits regarding our talents, our health, and our happiness were mindlessly accepted by us at an earlier time in our lives,” Langer writes in Mindfulness, which came out in its first edition in 1990.

Her definition of mindfulness, as opposed to mindlessness, has lots of overlap with the ones above:

  • Being open to new information: Instead of assuming everything will be as we expect it to be, we stay alert to changes and details and contradictory evidence.
  • Taking different perspectives: Instead of believing our first interpretation of a situation, we might think about different ways of looking at it. This is especially relevant to how we judge other people and their actions.
  • Changing the context: The way we interpret reality is based on whatever context we’re in. For example, in one study, patients recovering from major surgery were told to imagine themselves playing football or hurriedly preparing for a dinner party – contexts where a few scrapes or nicks would barely be noticed. These patients actually ended up taking fewer pain relievers and leaving the hospital sooner than the others. Context can affect how we deal with pain, negative emotions, and disappointment.
  • Focusing on the journey, not the destination: A mindful approach to life recognizes that whatever we did in the past, it got us to where we are today. And for all those successful people we admire and emulate, they also spent time failing, improving, and learning.
  • Creating new categories: After we put people and things into categories, we can question those categories and come up with new ones – basically, take a different perspective. Maybe you love boats, but you’ve labeled boating a “hobby” and you spend your days at the office yearning for the open water; well, perhaps it’s time to look into the ways that boating can be a “career.”

This type of mindfulness is a bit more cognitive than the mindfulness discussed above, which aspires to simple observation or “bare attention” without creating new categories and perspectives. You might think of Langer’s mindfulness as the next step: once we’ve deconstructed our assumptions and storylines and limitations, it can be helpful to come up with alternate ways of looking at the world – keeping in mind that those may need to be questioned and deconstructed in the future.

In this video, Langer humorously points out all the ways we’re mindless and what to do about it:

A bit of a mystery

If you read enough books on mindfulness, you’ll come across a curious phenomenon: scientists admitting that words can’t do it justice:

“Mindfulness…cannot be captured, cannot be analyzed once and for all. [Experiments and anecdotes] only hint at the enormous potential of the mindful state. In trying to quantify it, or reduce it to a formula, we risk losing sight of the whole,” says Langer.

“Attempting to write about mindfulness in an academic and conceptual way is in some ways antithetical to the very nature of mindfulness, which is essentially an experiential process,” say Shapiro and Carlson. “We recognize that any attempt to write about mindfulness in an intellectual way will ultimately fall short, and that perhaps the essence of this rich and beautiful path of awareness is best captured through metaphor and poetry.”

For Kabat-Zinn, talking about mindfulness is like telling someone about eating an apple: you can describe the color, the crunch, the sweetness, but someone who’s never eaten one will only have a superficial idea of what you’re talking about. I hope the above has intrigued you enough to continue your mindfulness journey, and pick a mindfulness practice in Week 2 that will give you your first taste.

“I see mindfulness as a love affair – with life, with reality and imagination, with the beauty of your own being, with your heart and body and mind, and with the world,” says Kabat-Zinn. 

Sources and further reading:

Move on to Week 2: How to cultivate mindfulness

See the whole Year of Happy curriculum

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