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How Can Mindfulness Increase Health or Happiness?

By on December 27, 2008 – 6:00 am  12 Comments

Suzann Pileggi, MAPP '08, is a wellness writer and consultant. She is a monthly columnist for the International Positive Psychology Association (IPPA) newsletter and Wisdom magazine, and a certified holistic health counselor. Suzann's website.

Suzann's articles are here.



Do We Have a Choice?

Do you sometimes move automatically and unconsciously through life, reacting to people and situations? It often seems that mindlessness, rather than mindfulness, permeates our lives.

We mindlessly stuff ourselves at the dinner table, whittle away hours in front of the tube, or succumb to our shopping urges and overspend.  Mindless habits like these often steer us off-course on our road to health and happiness.  Are we on automatic pilot or do we have a choice?  Perhaps we do not believe in our own ability to control our lives, and this may be why self-regulation has consistently ranked at the bottom of the list of 24 Values-in-Action (VIA) strengths for the typical American.

Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania teaches that happiness is not something that just happens to us but rather something that we must consciously choose. By being mindful, we increase our opportunities to choose. Kirk Brown of Virginia Commonwealth University and Richard Ryan of the university of Rochester write in a summary of self-regulation that mindfulness is

“an open or receptive awareness of and attention to what is taking place in the present moment.”

Mindfulness creates a mental distance between one and one’s behavior. This “observant stance” increases self-awareness and the opportunity to choose and direct our actions.   In fact, mindfulness enables us to tap our collective strengths and act on them. I believe that mindfulness helps cultivate character by bolstering the full 24 strengths. In Talks to Teachers, William James emphasizes the importance of paying attention to what we do. He argues that we need to maximize and focus our energy in order to fulfill our potential for the good life.

Like William James, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi of Claremont Graduate University suggests that controlling our willful attention impacts our feelings and makes life happy or miserable. Csikszentmihalyi argues that most people use their minds as little as possible and “fall far below their capacity for processing information.” Only through consciously directed energy, congruent with our goals, do we create more optimal experiences or “flow” in our lives.

Positive psychology demonstrates that we can improve happiness by changing how we focus on the world. I believe mindfulness is a first step to make this happen. A natural strength for some, for the majority of others (particularly Americans), mindfulness is something we need to practice.

Benefits of Mindfulness

Being present enables us to focus, practice and further build our inherent strengths from the VIA results. As William James argues, what’s essential is what we focus on and where we direct our attention. By being mindful of our strengths, we focus more on them and seek out the opportunities to practice using our natural qualities in new and different ways.

Mindfulness uplifts ourselves, and elevates others as well, by increasing self-regulation, a key component of emotional intelligence (EQ). EQ, rather than IQ, has been linked to greater flourishing by producing positive outcomes across all domains of life. By focusing our energy on regulating our behavior and increasing mindfulness, we can learn to act in ways that enable us to achieve our desired goals (e.g., lose weight, write that novel, save money, etc.).  Mindfulness can teach us how to be emotionally “smarter” by enhancing critical life-skills that help us create healthy habits. James argues that acquired good habits, unlike instinctual ones, are learned entirely through practice.

Mindfulness Can Help Build a Better Society

A person who exhibits mindfulness displays it in most areas of their life and rather consistently. Epitomes of mindfulness like Buddha, Jesus, and the Dalai Lama live their lives fully present and deliberately.

Lack of mindfulness is often exhibited as insensitivity to others, all to common in today’s culture. Roy Baumeister of Florida State University illustrates how the regular practice of mindfulness can increase self-regulation. Lack of self-regulation is at the root of many psychological and social problems. Fortunately, unlike a fixed trait, self-regulation can be taught and can be used to overcome personality flaws. For this reason, Baumeister refers to it as the “trump card of personality.” Increased self-regulation in one area of life tends to seep into other domains as well resulting in overall improvement of self-control in an individual’s life. Thus, mindfulness can help strengthen the self-regulatory muscle and enhance psychological and physical health by controlling unattractive habits.

Brown and Ryan’s research supports mindfulness as assisting in halting habitual responses – perhaps overeating and overspending – in turn enabling us to make more conscious choices that are aligned with our goals – e.g. losing weight and saving money. Individuals who flourish in the face of adversity are those who believe that they have control over their emotions and employ the necessary actions to alter their behavior in times of stress. The originators of the study of emotional intelligence – Peter Salovey, David Caruso, and John Mayer – argue that emotionally intelligent and mindful people do better in the classroom, the boardroom (and probably the bedroom!) since they enjoy more positive interactions with people. University of Michigan’s Christopher Peterson writes that “other people matter” the most to our happiness.  Therefore, it’s not surprising that evidence shows that mindful people experience a higher level of psychological thriving across their lives.

A Mindful Life Can Lead You to Your Goals in 2009

In today’s world where our attention is vied for by a myriad of forces – commercial, economic, political – mindfulness reflection on how we want to invest our energy in order to produce optimal functioning seems more important than ever. Shamini Jain of the University of California at San Diego and colleagues have studied mindfulness training versus relaxation training.  According to Jain and her colleagues, practicing mindfulness

  • reduces distraction and rumination,
  • decreases overall stress, and
  • enhances positive states of mind.

Who doesn’t want that? By engaging in physical and mental mindfulness exercises like savoring, meditation, and yoga, we can focus our attention and direct our behavior to achieve our goals – as a result, we can increase our happiness. So, what not give mindfulness a try today?

 


 

References

Baumeister, R.F., Gaillot, M., DeWall, C.N., & Oaten, M. (2006). Self-regulation and
Personality: How interventions increase regulatory success, and how depletion moderates the effects of traits on behavior. Journal of Personality, 74(6), 1773-1801.

Brown, K.W., & Ryan, R.M. (2004). Fostering healthy self-regulation from within and without: A self-determination theory perspective. In P. A. Linley & S. Joseph (Eds.). Positive Psychology in Practice (pp. 105-124). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience.. New York: Harper Perennial.

Jain, S., Shapiro, S. L., Swanick, S., Roesch, S. C., Mills, P. J., Bell, I., & Schwartz, G. E. R. (2007). A randomized controlled trial of mindfulness meditation versus relaxation training: Effects on distress, positive states of mind, rumination, and distraction. Annals of Behavioral Medicine. 33(1), 11-21.

James, W. (1892). Selections from Principles of Psychology: Briefer Course.

James, W. (1897). Selections from Talks to Teachers.

Melchert, N. (2002). Aristotle: The reality of the world. The good life. In The great conversation: A historical introduction to philosophy, 4th ed. (pp. 186-198). Boston: McGraw-Hill.

Pawelski, J. O. (2003). William James, positive psychology, and healthy-mindedness. The Journal of Speculative Philosophy (New Series) 17, 53-67.

Peterson, C., (2006). A Primer in Positive Psychology New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Peterson, C. & Seligman, M. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification.. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Salovey, P., Caruso, D., & Mayer, J.D. (2004). Emotional intelligence in practice. In P. A. Linley & S. Joseph (Eds.). Positive Psychology in Practice (pp. 447-463). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Seligman, Martin (2002), Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. New York: Free Press.

Images: watching TV, mindfulness bell, trees, melons, zen

12 Comments »

  • Editor S.M. says:

    References from Suzie Pileggi:

    Baumeister, R.F., Gaillot, M., DeWall, C.N., & Oaten, M. (2006). Self-regulation and
    Personality: How interventions increase regulatory success, and how depletion moderates the effects of traits on behavior. Journal of Personality, 74(6), 1773-1801.

    Brown, K.W., & Ryan, R.M. (2004). Fostering healthy self-regulation from within and without: A self-determination theory perspective. In Linley, P.A. & Joseph, S. (Eds.), In Positive Psychology in Practice (pp. 105-124). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley

    Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper Perennial.

    Jain, S., Shapiro, S. L., Swanick, S., Roesch, S. C., Mills, P. J., Bell, I., & Schwartz, G. E. R. (2007). A randomized controlled trial of mindfulness meditation versus relaxation training: Effects on distress, positive states of mind, rumination, and distraction. Annals of Behavioral Medicine. 33(1), 11-21.

    James, W. (1892). Selections from Principles of Psychology: Briefer Course.

    James, W. (1897). Selections from Talks to Teachers.

    Melchert, N. (2002). Aristotle: The reality of the world. The good life. In The great conversation: A historical introduction to philosophy, 4th ed. (pp. 186-198). Boston: McGraw-Hill.

    Pawelski, J. O. (2003). William James, positive psychology, and healthy-mindedness. The Journal of Speculative Philosophy (New Series) 17, 53-67.

    Peterson, C. (2006). A Primer in Positive Psychology, New York: Oxford University Press.

    Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. New York: Oxford University Press/Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

    Salovey, P., Caruso, D., & Mayer, J.D. (2004). Emotional intelligence in practice. In Linley, P.A. & Joseph, S. (Eds.), Positive Psychology in Practice (pp. 447-463). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

    Seligman, M. (2002). Authentic Happiness. New York: Free Press.

  • waynej says:

    Suzann, the definition of mindfulness is tricky. Cognitive theorists describe mindfulness as a form of attention-awareness in which thoughts can be observed in non-judging, de-centered, and non-attached ways. This goes beyond a typical western perspective. The interesting thing is that research* suggests that the acceptance (no judgement)is far more important with regards to mental health than the awareness dimension.

    *Personality and Individual Differences, Volume 46, Issue 2, January 2009, Pages 224-230

  • Sean Doyle says:

    Suzann, You mention savoring, mediation and yoga as ways to increase mindfulness. Do you have other ideas for what people can do?

    Are there any articles, or other thoughts about how long the “mindfulness-buzz” continues after meditating or yoga? I certainly expect mindfulness to rise after mediating, but what about later in the day when people get caught up in their quotidian routines, habits and general busyness? Thanks so much for your thoughts!

  • waynej says:

    Sean, there is substantial research on the efficacy of MCBT (mixing mindfulness with CBT). Email me and I will send you a couple of articles

  • Sean,

    Because meditation is the practice of being a nonjudgmental witness of one’s thoughts, bodily experiences, and emotions, its practice does naturally continue to impact other parts of your life. Let’s say I’m really anxious about an interview I will have in a few days. Meditation provides me with the opportunity to sit with myself, watching the thoughts and emotions that run like a rat on a wheel inside my head. I notice the jittery feeling in my body. I don’t have the intention to change any of these, but simply to observe and to name them when I see them. I am “the watcher.” What emerges is not only a detachment from the powerful pull of these thoughts and feelings, but also a lightness – an ability to put my worries into perspective with the rest of my life and with my place in the world. That experience translates to later in the day when those same anxieties come pouring back in. I can more easily observe them as I would a child crying for the candy that is not good for him. It’s not a magic bullet, obviously, and it requires the time and effort of the meditation practice, but I’ve experienced its power.

    Kirsten

  • Suzie says:

    Wayne,

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and some research on mindfulness. I think that awareness and acceptance go hand in hand because awareness needs to take place first before you can accept something. How can you accept certain thoughts if you’re not aware of them taking place in the first place? Sometimes, we haven’t even slowed down enough to realize the thoughts that are mindlessly running through our mind.

    I look forward to checking out the article you sent. Thanks Wayne!

    Suzie

  • waynej says:

    Suzie,

    You’re right – the two go hand in hand. What the research suggests is that it’s the acceptance dimension that makes the difference. Awareness is the easy part. Its the same with CBT. You can be aware but unless you can reframe the thoughts, then the awareness is probably harmful. Hope this makes sense.

  • Suzie says:

    Thanks for your comments, Sean. Check out Jain’s research on mindfulness meditation that I cited. If you can’t locate it let me know and I’d be delighted to email you the article directly.

    Benefits of mindfulness meditation included a reduction in distraction and rumination, a decrease in overall stress, and improvement in positive states of mind. When practiced on a regular basis and over a period of time these positive benefits become new habits. And, what did we learn about negative habits in MAPP? 🙂 They don’t just go away by themselves but rather often decrease once we add/create new positive changes in our life. They eventually crowd out the bad ones.

    How about trying a personal experiment of your own and practicing mindfulness meditation for a short time every day to see what you experience? That’s what I’ve done and I noticed that it’s decreased the negative ruminating that I had mindlessly been doing for years. I’d be interested in hearing how it works for you.

    Thanks again,
    Suzie

  • Lisa says:

    Suzie,

    I will certainly try this in 2009. Thanks for the interesting tips!

  • Ernie says:

    I am a very busy manrunning two businesses and am burning the candle at both ends. So thanks so much for these helpful suggestions!

  • Tom Wagner says:

    Suzann,
    I have studied and practiced meditation in the Buddhist and Taoist traditions for many years. Recently I began http://www.watchingbuddha.com and its accompanying http://www.watchingbuddha.blogspot.com as ways to spread the Dharma and to offer a place to practice mindfulness. I hope you can take the time to visit both sites.
    I call the streaming video site a “deep concept” as it works on many levels. I explain at the blog why the site is set up in the manner it is. I hope you can provide some support for http://www.watchingbuddha.com
    namuamidhabutsu,
    Tom

  • Leanrainmakingmachine says:

    Suzann:
    Thanks for this encouragement to change.
    I’m seeking an entree to mindfulness/meditation.
    I’m a material guy in a material world, with lots of material ways to use my time –work and “play”. So, I’m wondering if you know of some works that might lead the way. I was educated as a rocket scientist, so I prefer science based, or at least mainstream connected, leadership… That is, the swami who’s spent 50 years in the mountains is not likely to be my entree..
    Thanks if you can help, and thanks for the article in all events
    Best,
    Leanrainmakingmachine

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