My coaching practice focuses on individuals going through divorce, and one of my clients’ main concerns is how to effectively deal with stress. Their transitional state of life often leaves them feeling powerless, scared, and depressed.
Self-Compassion vs. Happiness-Striving
Intuitively, it feels like a bad approach to encourage a quick jump from the loss and stress of divorce straight to a state of joy and fulfillment. But recent research on mindfulness and loving-kindness meditation practices has pointed to effective interventions that I am successfully using with my clients.
Take Sarah, for example (not her real name). Sarah recently discovered that her husband had been cheating on her for years. After recognizing that reconciliation was not possible, she decided to file for divorce. Before contacting me, she logged onto the Authentic Happiness website and took the online optimism assessment there. During our first session she told me she was disappointed with the results of that assessment. She considered herself to be an optimistic person, and she was even a student of Dr. Seligman’s work, but somehow she came out as a pessimist. She said the results fueled feelings of depression already brewing inside and caused her to feel worse about herself and her chances for happiness.
My approach with Sarah was to help her to adopt a mindful approach to her situation, even before beginning a formal meditation program. I helped her to view herself compassionately, reminding her that she is going through a really tough time and that it makes perfect sense that she wouldn’t be feeling optimistic right now. I reminded her that the results of the online assessment should be taken as just one piece of information, and that her own evaluation of her overall optimism should count much more highly. I could see her mood lifting, and that she was in a much better position to look at alternatives. I helped her broaden her perspective so that she could view her reactions to her life situation nonjudgmentally, the fundamental cornerstone of mindfulness.
Broadening Perspective and Raising Positive Emotions
The research I presented in yesterday’s article pointed out two different mechanisms by which mindfulness might work. The first is simply the broadening of the mind (“decentering,” in the words of Garland and colleagues). By taking a birds-eye view of the situation, Sarah was able to recognize some facts that she hadn’t considered before (such as the impact of her stressful life situation on her optimism score), and she was also able to see how the very process of stepping back defused the emotional charge of the immediate concern. Her new perspective also increased flexibility in thinking, a key to resilience.
The second thing this research suggests is that this broadening of perspective may have helped increase the level of Sarah’s positive emotion. Garland and colleagues suggest a possible bidirectional relationship between broadened thoughts and positive emotions, which I also observe in my clients. So Fredrickson’s (1998, 2000, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005) research showing that raising positive emotions leads to broadened thought could potentially work the other way as well. Broadening one’s perspective may increase one’s positive emotion.
Mindfulness as the Foundation for CBT EffectivenessMindfulness is an important part of the work I do with clients. Specifically, I help train them to adopt a mindful approach to life circumstances that are largely outside of their control. It is within this framework that I introduce cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) practices – changing one’s thoughts in order to change the resulting feeling or behavior. Studies by Teasdale and colleagues (1999, 2000) indicate that introducing mindfulness may increase the power of CBT practices. Fredrickson’s (2008) study of loving-kindness meditation suggests the practice is an effective way to increase positive emotions and well-being. Once I have helped my clients to embrace a mindful approach to their life situations and towards themselves, I introduce a formal meditation practice if they are open to it. I outline the benefits of broadening perspective and increasing positive emotions, and many of my clients experience immediate positive results. These results are especially apparent when they combine mindfulness practice with biofeedback heart rate variability (HRV) software, which provides immediate feedback as to which practices are most effective for them personally.
Sarah is now feeling better about her divorce proceedings. She is able to identify that which she has no control over and consciously shift her focus to things which she can control. She has identified breathing techniques and thought practices that are particularly effective for her, and she now exercises them at will when she is feeling overwhelmed.
Cohn, M. A., Fredrickson, B. L., Brown, S. L., Mikels, J. A., & Conway, A. (2009). Happiness unpacked: Positive emotions increase life satisfaction by building resilience. Emotion, 9(3), 361–368.
Fredrickson, B. L. (1998). What good are positive emotions? Review of General Psychology, 2, 300-319.
Fredrickson, B. L. & Levenson, R. W. (1998). Positive emotions speed recovery from the cardiovascular sequelae of negative emotions. Cognition and Emotion, 12, 191-220.
Fredrickson, B. L., Mancuso, R. A., Branigan, C., & Tugade, M. M. (2000). The undoing effect of positive emotions. Motivation and Emotion. 24, 237-258.
Fredrickson, B. L., & Joiner, T. (2002). Positive emotions trigger upward spirals toward emotional well-being. Psychological Science, 13, 172-175.
Fredrickson, B. L., Tugade, M. M., Waugh, C. E., & Larkin, G. (2003). What good are positive emotions in crises?: A prospective study of resilience and emotions following the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11th, 2001. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 365-376.
Fredrickson, B.L., & Branigan, C. (2005). Positive emotions broaden the scope of attention and thought-action repertoires. Cognition and Emotion, 19, 313-332.
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.
How to Meditate: Loving Kindness Meditation
Kornfield, J., Meditation on Loving Kindness.
Kornfield, J. (2001). After the Ecstasy, the Laundry: How the Heart Grows Wise on the Spiritual Path. Bantam.
Teasdale, J.D. (1999). Metacognition, Mindfulness, and the Modification of Mood Disorders. Clinical Psychological Psychotherapy, 6, 146-155.
Teasdale, J.D., Segal, Z.V., Williams, J.M.G., Ridgeway, V.A., Soulsby, J.M., & Lau, M.A. (2000). Prevention of Relapse/Recurrence in Major Depression by Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 68, 615-623.
Tugade, M. M. & Fredrickson, B. L. (2004). Resilient individuals use positive emotions to bounce back from negative emotional experiences. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Broadened perspective courtesy of h.koppdelaney
Spirit of meditation courtesy of h.koppdelaney
Kirsten, I agree largely with what you are saying.
There is a growing body of research that suggests that mindfulness improves the efficacy of CBT (see http://www.innate-intelligence.com.au/blog/?p=356) and might in fact be more powerful the CBT (http://www.innate-intelligence.com.au/blog/?p=394.
It’s interesting that mindfulness seems to be a hot topic on various PP forums. I’m wondering if its because mindfulness might be the most effective way to cope with todays tough economic times. Wht do you think?
Thanks for the article: clear, concise, helpful –and Happy St. Pat’s!!!
What HRV software do you use? Is it WJ’s?
I think there are probably a lot of reasons why mindfulness is gaining credibility in the pos psych world. Largely, I think it’s because the research is outlining the ways in which it is effective, and the fact that it IS so effective. Given that information, practitioners like myself find themselves better able to help clients.
I think also that the ideas of mindfulness and meditation are becoming much more mainstream in our culture, so there is an openness to exploring what they have to offer.
What do you think?
Thanks for the feedback on my article. I’m glad it spoke to you.
Yes, I do use Wayne’s software, although there are other places that offer other versions. And that is just one mindfulness tool in my practice.
Thanks for these articles, Kirsten! You’re helping me sort through my own thinking in these areas.
What are your thoughts about motion-based disciplines such as yoga or tai-chi? Do these promote mindfulness? Positive emotions? Any research you’re aware of?
I’m glad my articles are useful to you. I do have some research that points to the benefits of yoga, particularly in regard to stress and mood. Also, tai chi is a form of mindfulness that requires focusing, one of the bedrocks of mindfulness.
I can pass along the research to you if you’d like to email me offline.
I might be an example of why mindfulness might be gaining. I am a busy professional trained in aerospace engineering. I am not prone to pursue “mysticism” based on anecdote, especially when it appears near those touting astrology or the eastern wisdom of colonic cleanses. Mindfulness has largely been associated in the media with Buddhism and religion. However, science speaks to me. If the science shows there are pragamatic improvements to be achieved, I become game. Not really clear why I paid no attention to Jon Zabat-Zinn years ago.
It’s so great to see this deep-seated integration of practice with a client with the theory of how broadening, mindfulness, CBT work.
Wayne, thanks for the mindfulness-CBT link.
Leanrainmaking, that is really neat to hear about the mindfulness-science connection. Reading your perspective actually made a few things clearer for me – that’s similar to part of what is appealing about mindfulness to me also.
Kirsten, thanks too for the thoughts to Dave’s question about moving meditations. I will email you offline for some more info too. Thank you.
From the comments, mindfulness through broadness of thought via meditation, it seems very very similar to a concept I learned and practiced as an aspiring Catholic priest seminarian called a CONSCIENCE EXAM.
Every day at noon, for 15 minutes, before lunch, it was the routine practice that all the seminarians would retreat to their rooms in silence (in solitude) to contemplate your actions and your reactions for that day (or prior days if that’s what came to your mind) then observe yourself as a third person and judge your own actions as good or bad, right or wrong, as seen from a third-person perspective. The next step was to question your motives, your feelings, your hidden thoughts that prompted your behavior.
Naturally, if you discovered good inner motives that prompted good behaviors you strived for increasing those good behaviors and feeding those good inner motives.
On the other hand, if you discovered bad inner motives that prompted bad behaviors you identified what thoughts and what behaviors would counter, lessen, and eventually overcome those bad inner motives. Your ‘homework’ was then to embody behaviors and thoughts that realigned those negative inner motives towards positive inner motives.
What was stressed to us as seminarians was that actions, behaviors, came first; feelings would later follow. It was imporant to practice good behaviors because they were good in and of themselves, not because our emotional state liked or enjoyed the good behaviors. The counter argument was just as true. It was important to avoid and restrain one’s bad behaviours, despite the feelings of eagerness and desire that motivated those behaviors.
Examples: Just because you had the strong urge to put somebody down and say something that would be very sarcastic and very amusing to yourself, you bit your tongue and avoided speaking something that would be hurtful to the other person.
If a person you didn’t like did something good and marvelous, you did not miss the opportunity to congratulate them on their private success. Your feelings of not caring were not sufficient for you to decide to omit performing a good behavior like encouragement.
I admit, after leaving the seminary, I haven’t done my Conscience Exams (Examinations of Conscience). I haven’t had any meditation time set aside. If mindfulness and broadness of thought all stem from meditation, then the lack of meditation would narrow our thoughts and make us less mindful people. I know it logically it’s a valid conclusion, can we say that if IF A then B Therefore: If Not B then Not A. I think Marcial would be up to speed on that one. I forget my Boolean Logic Truth Tables off-hand.