Home All Mindfulness: The Best Bang for Your Buck, Part 1

Mindfulness: The Best Bang for Your Buck, Part 1

written by Kirsten Cronlund 15 March 2009

Kirsten Cronlund, MAPP 2008, is committed to helping others navigate the rough waters of divorce with resiliency, drawing upon personal experience and the science of positive psychology. She is now serving as the director of Bryn Athyn Church School. Full bio.

Kirsten's articles are here.

The benefits of mindfulness and meditation are becoming widely recognized and receiving significant press attention. As a coach, one of my favorite applications of positive psychology research is working with clients to explore mindfulness. Keeping with this month’s PPND theme, I am excited to explore the theory and application of mindfulness with PPND readers, in a two-part series.

Meditation practice may still be viewed by some as a relic of 1960’s counter-culture or a sequestered religious practice to attain “enlightenment.” But scientists now seriously study mindfulness practices, and report a wide range of interesting findings.

How does meditation work, and how best can coaches bring this research to our clients? I will present two intriguing studies here, and hope to stimulate a fruitful discussion that generates ideas for application here on PPND.

Mindfulness Creates Positive Reappraisal

Bird's Eye View

Bird's Eye View

Psychologists Eric Garland, Susan Gaylord, and Jongbae Park from the University of North Carolina define mindfulness as “present-centered attention to raw experience liberated from cognitive abstractions and preoccupations.” They propose that mindfulness practice works by decentering, or shifting cognitive assessment of a stressful situation, to allow for reappraisal of the original stressor.

What this means, in plain speak, is that mindfulness practice helps people develop more flexible thinking. For instance, when adversity hits, many of us respond as though we are on autopilot. We interpret stressful events as uncontrollable and threatening. Mindfulness meditation training, however, allows us to take a step back and see the situation from a kind of bird’s-eye view. The practitioner learns to observe not just the original stressor, but also the observation process itself.

Garland and colleagues suggest this process develops cognitive flexibility and the capacity to reframe events and interpretations, which fosters meaning-making. With these skills, it’s possible to return to the original stressor and think of it differently – perhaps as an opportunity to exercise skills in a new way. This process seems particularly relevant to developing resilience, which has been shown to support success in every area of life. (See enlarged Figure 1)

Mindfulness model

To support their theory, Garland and colleagues present research showing that:

  • there is a relationship between the ability to shift cognitive sets (the view we take of any given situation) and to positively reappraise (which is to take a more positive view of the situation);
  • people who practice mindfulness meditation more easily adopt an optimistic attitude towards stressful events because of their heightened ability to decenter; and
  • the practice of mindfulness meditation increased participants’ ability to shift visual focus from one object to another.

In a pilot study, Garland and colleagues taught mindfulness meditation to people with stress-related illness. After eight weeks, results showed that “persons with higher self-reported mindfulness also reported higher levels of positive reappraisal.” That is, the more mindful the participants felt, the more easily they were able to reframe negative events in a positive light.

These findings help to explain the mounting evidence for the effectiveness of engaging in mindfulness before introducing cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) techniques.

Loving Kindness Meditation is Not Just Feel-Good

Primate Hug
Barbara Fredrickson’s broaden and build theory of positive emotions (1998) was groundbreaking in positive psychology. She asserts that positive emotions broaden our attention and thinking, allowing us to then “draw on higher-level connections and a wider-than-usual range of percepts or ideas.” From this open stance we can build consequential personal resources which serve us long after the fleeting emotion has passed.

Several studies have shown that positive emotions do measurably broaden human resources and capacities. Fredrickson recently launched a study which empirically supported the build aspect of her theory by examining the impact of loving kindness meditation (LKM) on employees of a software and IT services company in Detroit.

She specifically chose LKM as an intervention that could predictably heighten positive emotions. Her study compared an intervention group of 102 LKM participants to100 people in a wait-list control group. The 9-week program required that participants meditate for at least 5 days a week and to attend one 60-min session per week with an LKM instructor (average number of minutes spent in independent meditation was 80/week). Fredrickson’s results indicate that LKM effectively elevates positive emotions and leads to positive differences in people’s lives. Specifically, the practice promotes a loving attitude towards oneself and others, and strengthens feelings of competence.

Importantly, Fredrickson’s study indicated a strong dose-response to the intervention of LKM. By the end of the 9-week intervention, the positive impact of a meditation session was three times as strong as a session in the beginning. That is no small fact for practitioners eager to find interventions that do not lose impact over time.

Questions to Ponder

Given the two studies highlighted here, I leave you with two questions to consider:

  1. While Fredrickson has shown the causal impact of positive emotions on broadening the mind, could it be that broadening the mind also brings on positive emotions?
  2. What are the roles of mindfulness meditation and LKM and how do they complement one another?



Fredrickson, B.L., Coffey, K.A., Pek, J., Cohn, M.A., & Finkel, S.M. (2008). Open Hearts Build Lives: Positive Emotions, Induced Through Loving-Kindness Meditation, Build Consequential Personal Resources. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95, 1045-1062.

Fredrickson, B. (2009). Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive. New York: Crown.

Garland, E., Gaylord, S., & Park, J. (2009). The Role of Mindfulness in Positive Reappraisal. Explore, 5, 37-44.

Images: Our World of Symbols by conskeptical, Maternal Instinct by Tambako the Jaguar

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Jeff Dustin 15 March 2009 - 11:23 am

“Mindfulness…” is one of your most educational and practical articles to date, Kirsten. I must say a thrill ran through me as I read your work. This is no joke. I actually felt somewhat in awe of what you’ve done here. I used to perceive mindfulness as quackery, something between the acupuncture and herbal remedies aisle of my whole foods store. The word itself is rife with problems for me because of its connections with Eastern religion. Yet the concept, put so succinctly by Garland (et al.) and restated by you, is has potential for practictioners.

My knee-jerk unmindful reaction to “mindfulness” the word is to think of half-baked toga touting mystics banging rocks and chanting mantras. I’m not one to seek emptiness. This review of the term makes it much more palatable.
Mindfulness is a technique.

I wish we could use a more specialized term to avoid confusion with Eastern religious practices. More people might cozy to the concept if PPND called it something else. Great article!

WJ 15 March 2009 - 3:27 pm

Jeff, I have to agree with your observations about religion. But why “throw the baby out with the bath water”. It’s useful to focus on why things work.

Mantras work as they are a focusing tool that generally evoke positive emotions – if you are interested see a blog article that I wrote. http://www.innate-intelligence.com.au/blog/?p=425

By the way meditation is only one pathway to mindfulness. There are others that are easier for most people.

Kirsten Cronlund 15 March 2009 - 7:34 pm

Wow, Jeff! A thrill ran through you? That’s pretty cool!

I have been studying mindfulness for a long time, so it’s easy for me to forget that not everyone has the scientific background on the topic that I have. Thanks for reminding me of the importance of getting this out to the public.

You’re right that mindfulness is a technique. It’s a technique that for some is imbued with religious significance, but for others is simply a technique that helps them to function as highly as possible in their lives. Either approach is valid.

I’m glad you found this article useful. I’ll be curious about your take on Part 2 tomorrow.


Kirsten Cronlund 15 March 2009 - 7:37 pm


Thanks for the reminder that meditation is not the only pathway to mindfulness. I’ll be addressing this a bit in Part 2 tomorrow.


Scott 16 March 2009 - 7:14 am

Kirsten, Jeff and Wayne
Great dialogue. Just a couple of thoughts. It would be fascinating to see where and when the tag “mindfulness mediation” became linked to eastern religion. Historically many religions had practices that accomplished the same thing, but did not call it “mindfulness mediation.” The Orthodox Catholics had the Jesus prayer, most of christianity had the centering prayer, the Jews have an extensive mystical tradition and practice, even the native americans had mediation practices to put them more in touch with the universe. Heck, though initially the Rosary was created for illiterate Catholics because they couldn’t read the breviary, eventually it also became a meditative practice. So, to link mindfulness mediation exclusively to eastern religion is missing a broader perspective.
Also, I have to defend religion for a moment. The vast majority of religions in the world essentially promote the same ideas as positive psychology and social justice. It is not so much religion that is the problem but religious disciplines (the practices added on by later followers), religious organizations and overly zealous disciples. The studies show that people who have a connection to a church usually are happier and if they grew up in a household that regularly practiced religion (even if they give it up later in life) they are happier than those who had no religious practice.
Sorry for the detour from the main topic of mindfulness, but I felt I had to jump in on this. Kirsten, I’m looking forward to the next part of your series.

Kirsten Cronlund 16 March 2009 - 8:56 am

Thanks, Scott, for your very salient points.

I think the ideas you outline – specifically that so many religious traditions have meditative practices that often involve mantras and chanting – point out the universality of meditation and mindfulness. I am not a historian, so I have no idea which practice began first (although I suspect it began in the East and spread from there, but I could be wrong…), but that’s perhaps less the issue than the fact that science has been able to identify at least some of the active ingredients in meditation practice.

I agree with you that we run the risk of dismissing really powerful “interventions” when we sidestep religion and all that it has to offer. Spirituality is an important part of my life, and my mindful approach to life is certainly made richer because of my faith. We can’t, however, assume that to be true for everyone (and I know you know this, and that you’re not suggesting that we do). So I think the way for us to be able to do the most good for the most people is to focus on those basic active ingredients. From there it’s effective to find out what IS most meaningful to each individual – whether religion or a close relationship, or membership to some other life-giving organization – and to help him or her bring that meaning into his or her mindfulness practice.

I really appreciate your thoughts, as always, Scott.


WJ 16 March 2009 - 3:51 pm

Scott, one of the techniques I teach peeople is a mantra. In one workshop I had a woman with a strong religious background take exception when I suggested that a prayer is similar to a mantra. Her belief system suggested that mantras were of the devil. She tried the mantra exercise and sure enough it didn’t work for her (we use software that measures calmness to test this). I waited a couple of hours and asked the group to pick some significant words (I gave the example of a few words from a prayer)and repeat them slowly to themselves. She picked some words from the rosary and guess what – it worked. She now routinely uses what she calls the “speed rosary” as a calming technique.

I am always astounded about the number of people who come up to me at the end of a workshop and say how what I’ve said fits with their spiritual practice – particular when its science (not spirituality) that drives what I do.

By the way changes to breathing are also another feature common to prayer and mantras. See http://www.innate-intelligence.com.au/blog/?p=155.

Scott 16 March 2009 - 8:57 pm

Kirsten and Wayne,
Thanks for your clarification. I agree that we need to focus on the active ingredients and find ways that people fit them into their lives comfortably. I’ve also been told that mantras and even meditation is from the devil (He/she must be very active to make meditation diabolical). However I’ve found that identifying the language and understanding of a person unlocks the place that meditation can exist. Even the 30 day silent retreat I went on (it was initially terrifying to think about) was extremely powerful because the director identified my need to accomplish something and helped me accomplish “not accomplishing.” Great psychology. I’ve found that the key to assisting others to experience the powerful of mindfulness meditation is to place it in their context, language and understanding. Thanks Kirsten, now you’ve got me really thinking.

Kirsten Cronlund 17 March 2009 - 8:02 pm

I appreciate your thoughts, Scott.

You make a really important point – that the power of these interventions is in finding language and understanding that is personally meaningful to each practitioner. It goes along with the “one size does not fit all” approach of the leaders in the field of PP.


shamash 9 December 2009 - 7:15 am

Dear Kirsten,

Thank you for the article. I’m trying to find texts that link mindfulness with positive psychology. I’d appreciate if you or anyone else knows of any such work. Your article is a great start – I especially liked the diagram you found.

best wishes,


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