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?
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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.
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James, W. (1897). Selections from Talks to Teachers.
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Peterson, C., (2006). A Primer in Positive Psychology New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
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