“The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes,” Arthur Conan Doyle declared through his most famous literary creation: Sherlock Holmes. Of course, Sherlock was commenting wryly from his perspective as Victorian England’s greatest crime detective. Yet, the words are extremely relevant to today’s growing interest in mindfulness as an important aspect of psychological wellbeing. Indeed, mindfulness is also proving relevant for enhancing romance and friendship, work productivity, and even physical health.
Our story begins in the early 1970s, when cardiologist Herbert Benson at Harvard University pioneered research establishing meditation’s value for healthcare. His first articles on this subject appeared in Scientific American and the American Journal of Physiology. Recruiting participants experienced with Transcendental Meditation (popularized by the Beatles and their guru in India), Benson found that the practice brought a variety of measurable health benefits including lower heartbeat and blood pressure, as well as reduced stress. He called this meditative effect “the relaxation response”—and in 1975 authored a bestseller with this title.
Though Benson didn’t focus on mindfulness in his work, he certainly laid the foundation for the scientific study of meditation. Among those he influenced was psychologist Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn, who grew up in New York City during the post-World War II era. Like many young Americans in the late 1960s, he developed a strong interest in Eastern philosophy and practice—especially Buddhist. Later, while conducting postdoctoral research on muscle development and teaching anatomy at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, he decided to bring his meditative training to benefit patients, initially those suffering from chronic pain. As Kabat-Zinn recalled in an interview, “The whole idea was to see whether we could use these meditative practices—including mindful hatha yoga—to help [them] mobilize their own interior resources for learning, growing, healing, and transformation…When we posed the question at the end of the eight weeks of the program, `What is the most important thing you learned during this time?’ they said two things: one is `the breathing’ (meaning awareness of their breathing) and the other, that ‘I am not my thoughts.’”
Launched in 1979, that seminal program—known today as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR)—is the basis for mindfulness usage in more than 700 hospitals worldwide. In the early 1990s, Kabat-Zinn authored his first popular book on mindfulness and health, followed by other works on the relevance of this trait for daily wellbeing and wellness—and collaborated on such topics as overcoming depression and effective parenting (the latter co-authored with his wife). Speaking of this book with a reporter, Kabat-Zinn asserted, “Of all the spiritual [paths], no matter how severe the monastery and how arduous [its] particular practices, living with children is probably the most powerful spiritual practice that anybody could ever be engaged in—if you open yourself to it that way.”
In Kabat-Zinn’s view, mindfulness means to be aware of our thoughts, physical sensations and surroundings, so that we’re fully present in the moment—whether we’re preparing dinner, driving a car, strolling through a park, or playing with our children. It’s a concept central to meditation in diverse spiritual traditions around the world. However it’s important to note that Kabat-Zinn’s approach carefully removes religious rituals and beliefs from mindfulness training. In this way, scientific journals such as Eating Behaviors, Nature and Science of Sleep, International Journal of Psychophysiology, and Qualitative Health Research all publish articles on mindfulness’ effectiveness for diverse ailments. These include anxiety, chronic pain, digestive disorders, hypertension, insomnia, and various forms of addiction.
For example, a team led by Dr Andrew Howell at Grant MacEwan College in Canada found that mindfulness among young adults was linked to better sleep quality and preference for morning activity. And in a study reported in Emotion, military personnel who attended an eight-week mindfulness training course showed better memory skills and lower negative emotionality than a control group. Meanwhile, researchers are actively seeking to unravel precisely how mindfulness actually works on a neurological level.
As applied to enhancing our daily wellbeing as well as treating specific health problems, the underlying notion is basically identical: the more we’re able to live fully in the present—and minimize thoughts about the past or future—the healthier we become. Such methods as focusing on one’s breathing while simultaneously allowing thoughts to pass unhindered are aimed at achieving this goal. Thus, in describing mindfulness training to a reporter, Kabat-Zinn explained, “There’s no place [mentally] to go. There’s nothing to do. We’re just asking you to sit and know that you are sitting…[It’s not easy.] The mind has a life of its own. It goes here and there.”
Another leading psychologist who has studied mindfulness for decades is Dr Ellen Langer of Harvard University. Beginning in the 1970s, Langer became interested in the topic of mindfulness while studying how people unconsciously process information. “[Cognitive experts] in the field were concerned with the different ways people think,” Langer reminisced in an interview, “and I questioned whether, and on which occasions, we might not be thinking at all.” Langer’s subsequent research established her own, influential approach to mindlessness—which she explains “is not the same thing as stupidity…You’re on automatic pilot…relying on the distinctions and categories that you drew in the past, so the past is over-determining the recent. You’re trapped in a single perspective.”
Through a variety of studies, Langer and her colleagues have found that optimal cognitive functioning depends on mindfulness—that is, freeing ourselves from single-minded or stereotypical thinking. They see mindfulness as really an attitude toward life, rather than a particular relaxation or breathing technique—and methods for enhancing moment-by-moment awareness of what’s happening around us are less important than a personal commitment to focusing on our present interactions—rather than fixating on the past—with family members, friends, co-workers, and others.
In Langer’s view, we all too often erroneously see others not as they are right now in our life, but as they were some time in the past. “Virtually all of us, almost all the time, are not there,” she commented in one of her many public lectures, “[And this matters] because all of our suffering—personal, interpersonal, societal—is a function, directly or indirectly of this mindlessness.”
As measured by research led by Langer, mindfulness in daily life comprises four separate aspects: novelty-seeking, novelty producing, flexibility, and engagement. Thus, in a study led by Dr Leslie Burpee at Harvard University, marital satisfaction for both men and women was significantly linked to mindfulness—and this trait was more important than any other for such happiness, even more so than perceived personality similarity between spouses. In other words, those who were mentally engaged, open to new experiences, and aware of new contexts enjoyed more satisfying, fulfilling relations. When it comes to romance, it seems, we should never opt for auto-pilot.
Although Langer uses the same term of mindfulness for her approach as does Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn—whose own approach derives heavily from Buddhism—she has contended from the outset that, “My work on mindfulness has been conducted almost entirely within the Western scientific perspective. Initially, my focus was on mindlessness and its prevalence in daily life… [Nevertheless], many qualities of the Eastern concepts of mindfulness and [of my work] are strikingly similar.”
Becoming more mindful isn’t something you can accomplish overnight. Two classic methods from Gestalt Therapy are easy enough. With the first, set a timer daily for a specific period of time—say 10 minutes—and then sit quietly and close your eyes. Focus your attention solely on your body. Tune out everything else, including thoughts. For the second method, follow the same procedure but focus wholly on your external environment—such as sounds or odors. For both activities, you may increase your allotted time as your prowess improves. Within a few weeks, the benefits to your sense of wellbeing will likely be clear.
Dr Edward Hoffman is an adjunct associate psychology professor at Yeshiva University in New York City. A licensed clinical psychologist in private practice, he is the author/editor of more than 25 books in psychology and related fields. Dr. Hoffman is the recent co-author with Dr. William Compton of Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness and Flourishing, and serves on the editorial boards of the Indian Journal of Positive Psychology and the Journal of Humanistic Psychology. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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