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 ReappraisalPsychologists 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)
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
|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:
- 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?
- 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.