“Isn’t there a place in which we’re not positive or negative, but we’re neutral and objective?” This comment was made recently by a member of team in a discussion about how emotions, reactions, and behaviors impact team conversations and team relationships. This comment led to a broader discussion of how individuals can apply mindfulness practices to be less reactive and more constructive in workplace interactions.
It was suggested that rather than trying to be less negative or more positive, people could use the practice of mindfulness to create more effective outcomes. While witnessing this conversation I thought to myself that a decade or more ago this conversation would not have occurred frequently at work. Now it is not uncommon for teams to discuss mindfulness and meditation as practices which can enhance personal and professional effectiveness.
This increasing interest in mindfulness is occurring in the world of positive psychology, where mindfulness is becoming an important member of the kit of practices to help build optimal functioning. In chapter 22 of the new book Designing Positive Psychology: Taking Stock and Moving Forward, Baer and Lykins suggest, “because mindfulness training appears to have a broad range of outcomes, including enhancement of positive characteristics, its potential contribution to optimal human functioning warrants substantially increased attention.”
Mindfulness versus Positive Psychology
In this chapter, Baer and Lykins state that both mindfulness training and positive psychology are “concerned with the development and cultivation of human strengths and adaptive characteristics.” Positive psychology is about the scientific study of building strength, well-being, and optimal functioning. Mindfulness practices help to relieve suffering and to cultivate characteristics such as well-being, strength, compassion, openness, and equanimity.
The authors also suggest that although both mindfulness and positive psychology have the same outcomes, their paths are different. Mindfulness occurs through practices which include non-judgmental acceptance and being open to experiences, sensations, thoughts, and emotions. Practitioners do not try to evaluate, change, or stop those experiences from occurring. The authors suggest that positive psychology is different in that positive psychology exercises teach behavior change. They point out “the paradoxical nature of mindfulness training, in which the cultivation of non-judgmental acceptance of present-moment experience, rather than trying to change it, leads to beneficial changes in psychological functioning.” It should be noted that this argument of ‘acceptance-based versus change-based methods’ is not fully explored in this chapter to determine if this is true for all positive psychology exercises. It would be an interesting challenge to examine.
The Benefits of Mindfulness
Through the literature review (they have 109 references at the end of their chapter) we learn of the many benefits of mindfulness, which
- Regulates attention, making practitioners more observant, accepting, and non-judgmental
- Increases curiosity and openness
- Leads to more constructive responses to experiences
- Builds strength and courage
- Reduces stress, psychological disorders, maladaptive behaviors, and fatigue
- Improves ability to sustain attention and memory
- Increases subjective and psychological well-being
- Enhances clarity
- Increases flow
- Improves critical thinking, creativity, wisdom, authenticity, learning, vitality, emotional intelligence, kindness, compassion, empathy, self-regulation
- Promotes healthy relationships
- Helps people behave in ways aligned with deeply held values and associated goals
- Develops psychological flexibility
- Enhances self-reported spirituality
- Increases a sense of purpose in life
Mindfulness and Character Strengths
The authors draw connections between mindfulness and many of the twenty four VIA Character Strengths. They also pose a question: should mindfulness be classified as a character strength since it meets many of the VIA criteria? They suggest not, noting that mindfulness is “an attentional stance, a way of relating to one’s present moment experiences,” contributing to the cultivation of strengths and values, rather than being a strength in its own right.
The limitations in the literature on the relationships between character strengths and mindfulness lead the authors to call for a more systematic investigation to “clarify whether (and under what conditions) mindfulness is a causal agent in the cultivation of strengths, virtues, and well-being.” They also point out that mindfulness is so clearly a contributor to well-being that it has an important place in the field of positive psychology:
“If mindfulness training has the broad range of positive outcomes supported by the current literature, then its potential contributions to the central constructs of positive psychology are substantial.”
Baer, R.A. & Lykins, E.L.B. (2011). Mindfulness and Positive Psychological Functioning. In K. Sheldon, T. B. Kashdan & M. F. Steger (Eds.), Designing Positive Psychology: Taking Stock and Moving Forward (Series in Positive Psychology). Oxford University Press.
Photos by Amanda Horne