Jordan Silberman, MAPP '06 is an MD/PhD student at the University of Rochester where he studies neuroeconomics—the neural basis of decision making. He is currently developing a technique in which brain-computer interface technology is used to promote neural activity that may facilitate self-controlled behavior. Jordan has published articles on psychology, pediatric palliative care, health care communication, bioethics, and proteomics. Full bio.
Jordan's articles for Positive Psychology News Daily are here.
Below is an abbreviated manuscript describing a mini study. Look forward to your thoughts.
Mounting evidence suggests that mindfulness may promote positive subjective experience, which is the first “pillar” of Positive Psychology. Relationships between mindfulness and other pillars of the burgeoning Positive Psychology movement, however, have not been studied thoroughly. This work investigates relationships between mindfulness and the second pillar of Positive Psychology: character strengths. A sample of 101 undergraduates completed the Mindful Attention Awareness Scale and the Values in Action Institute Signature Strengths Questionnaire. Significant correlations of r = .3 or greater were observed between mindfulness and the following strengths: self-control and self-regulation, integrity, bravery (valor), perspective (wisdom), citizenship, and social intelligence. These data provide no evidence of causation, but it is plausible that mindfulness may in part cause some or all of the character strengths with which it is correlated. Mechanisms through which mindfulness may enhance strengths are discussed. Future research may determine if causal arrows point in the directions hypothesized herein, and determine if mindfulness may be an effective character cultivation tool.
Mindfulness has been defined as a state in which one is “attentive to and aware of what is taking place in the present” (Brown & Ryan, 2003), or as “the clear and single-minded awareness of what actually happens to us and in us at the successive moments of perception” (Thera, 1972, p. 5). It involves “understanding every single physical and mental movement we make throughout every waking hour of the day” (Gunaratana, 2001, p. 193), and has been described as a release from the discursive and disturbingly common affliction of incessant and uncontrollable thought (Tolle, 1999, p. 12). Mounting evidence suggests that mindfulness may promote positive subjective experience (e.g., Brown & Ryan, 2003; Davidson et al., 2003; Grossman, Niemann, Schmidt, & Walach, 2004; Reibel, Greeson, Brainard, & Rosenzweig, 2001), which is the first “pillar” of Positive Psychology (PP). Relationships between mindfulness and other pillars of the bourgeoning PP movement, however, have yet to be thoroughly investigated. This work investigates relationships between mindfulness and the second pillar of Positive Psychology: character strengths.
Undergraduates were recruited to participate through an electronic subject recruitment system. They were asked to take part in a study of personality. The Mindful Attention Awareness Scale (Brown & Ryan, 2003) and the Values in Action Institute Signature Strengths Questionnaire (Peterson & Seligman, 2002) were administered online, a method that is probably no less rigorous than the traditional paper-and-pencil approach (Gosling, Vazire, Srivastava, & John, 2004).
One hundred one of the 102 participants who began the study answered all questions. Correlations are shown in Table 1. Significant correlations of r = .3 or greater were observed between mindfulness and the following strengths: self-control and self-regulation, integrity, bravery (valor), perspective (wisdom), citizenship, and social intelligence. Cronbach’s alpha for the Mindful Attention Awareness Scale was .87.
These data provide no evidence of causation. It is plausible, however, that mindfulness may in part cause some or all of the character strengths with which it is correlated. The following discussion posits mechanisms through which mindfulness may enhance these strengths.
As noted by Peterson and Seligman, “people cannot control behaviors that they do not monitor.” Because mindfulness may increase awareness of one’s own behavior (e.g., Baer, Smith, & Allen, 2004; Epstein, 1999), it may also improve the ability to self-regulate behavior. The correlation between mindfulness and self-regulation is perhaps the least surprising of the correlations reported herein; previous evidence suggests that mindfulness predicts self-regulation (Brown & Ryan, 2003).
In addition to the mechanisms posited below, self-regulation may mediate relationships between mindfulness and several strengths. Being honest or brave, being a good citizen, and moderating behavior to act in a socially intelligent manner, may all require self-regulation. Mindfulness may promote self-regulation, and self-regulation may facilitate honesty, bravery, good citizenship, and social intelligence.
The relationship between mindfulness and integrity (authenticity and honesty) may be mediated by self-awareness of emotion. Awareness of one’s cognitions and emotions, in addition to awareness of one’s behavior, is associated with mindfulness (e.g., Baer, Smith, & Allen, 2004; Brown & Ryan, 2003; Epstein, 1999). Dishonesty may hinder psychological well-being (Ben-Shahar, 2006), and emotional self-awareness may help individuals identify this relationship. Noting the relationship between honesty and well-being may motivate mindful individuals to be honest.
Bravery and valor may arise from mindfulness through mechanisms that are unlike those previously mentioned. When “mental chatter” goes unchecked, and an individual is faced with a threatening circumstance, irrational fear-induced thoughts may abound. After they have consciously chosen to do so, mindful individuals may be able to let go of the incessant and uncontrollable fear-induced thought that hinders brave action. The nonjudgmental awareness of and non-identification with extraneous thought that is characteristic of mindfulness (Baer, Smith, & Allen, 2004; Tolle, 1999, pp. 11-13), moreover, may help individuals observe thoughts without immediately acting in response to them. This may also help prevent fear-induced thought from hindering carefully-chosen brave action.
The relationship between mindfulness and perspective (wisdom) may also be related to the quieting of “mental chatter.” Perspective (wisdom), according to Peterson and Seligman (2004, p. 182), involves a superior knowledge level, the capacity to give advice, and the ability to address difficult questions. Knowledge may be easier to learn if one lets go of concerns for past and future and focuses entirely on information being introduced in the present. The capacity to give advice may arise because, as discussed in greater detail below, mindfulness may help individuals understand those to whom advice is given. The nonjudgmental awareness associated with mindfulness (Baer, Smith, & Allen, 2004), finally, may improve one’s ability to address problems. Facing threats with acceptance rather than avoidance is sometimes invaluable. An individual who accepts the possibility of cancer, for example, may be likely to undergo recommended diagnostics. An individual who is unwilling to accept this threat, in contrast, may be unlikely to obtain necessary medical testing. Mindfulness may promote wisdom by allowing individuals to accept important but difficult phenomena when addressing problems, by facilitating learning, and by enhancing the ability to understand others.
Compassion may mediate the relationship between mindfulness and citizenship. People may become more compassionate as they let go of incessant mental chatter (e.g., Kapleau, 2000, pp. 12-18). This may encourage concern for the effects of one’s actions on other members of one’s community, prompting behavior characteristic of good citizens. As they become more compassionate, for example, some may make an effort to burn less of the fossil fuels that pollute communal environments. This hypothetical mechanism between mindfulness and citizenship is consistent with the correlation observed between mindfulness and ecologically responsible behavior (Brown & Kasser, 2005).
The correlation between mindfulness and social intelligence may be related to communication subtleties, self-awareness, or simply making others feel cared about and respected. Levinson, Gorawara-Bhat, and Lamb (2000) have noted that it is crucial to identify and respond to subtle communication clues. These clues provide insight into others’ emotions. Many other researchers have noted that much of communication is nonverbal (nonverbal behaviors are in fact so rich in content that there is a Journal of Nonverbal Behavior devoted to their study). Because they experience less “mental chatter,” mindful individuals may be more likely to notice communication subtleties and nonverbal behaviors. They may then exhibit relationship-enhancing responses that are unavailable to those who do not notice subtle and nonverbal communications.
The self-observation skills associated with mindfulness (e.g., Baer, Smith, & Allen, 2004; Brown & Ryan, 2003; Epstein, 1999) may also enhance social intelligence. Awareness of one’s emotions may facilitate moderation of affect expression that can improve relationships. Suppose, for example, that a mindful individual feels lethargic when a friend passionately presents a new idea. Awareness of his exhaustion may prompt the mindful individual to override lethargy in order to respond in an active and constructive manner. This may be less likely if lethargy is not acknowledged, and responses to lethargy are therefore not consciously moderated. The self-awareness that is associated with mindfulness may improve impression management skills.
Attending fully to other individuals, finally, may mediate the relationship between mindfulness and social intelligence. The single-pointed attention associated with mindfulness, when directed to another individual, may cause that individual to feel cared for and respected. Perceived care and respect, awareness of communication subtleties and nonverbal behaviors, and moderation of affect expression, may all explain the relationship between mindfulness and social intelligence.
Conclusion and Future Directions
In addition to promoting psychological well-being, mindfulness may also promote some character strengths. Unlike most of the interventions catalogued by Peterson and Seligman (2004), moreover, mindfulness-based interventions may cultivate a number of strengths simultaneously. Of course, mindfulness may not yield any character cultivation at all; the relationships between mindfulness and strengths proposed herein are merely hypotheses. Future research is needed to investigate character strength changes in response to mindfulness-based interventions. Such research may help determine if causal arrows point in the directions hypothesized herein, and may elucidate the utility of mindfulness as a character cultivation tool.
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Tea ceremony courtesy of Akuppa John Wigham