In the last lecture, we introduced you to Csikszentmihalyi and his concept of flow. In today’s lecture, we are going to discuss a related, yet unique, concept in positive psychology, mindfulness.
There is a very good chance that you have heard of the term mindfulness. Over the past decade, interest in mindfulness has exploded, with hundreds of books, courses, and social media channels all dedicated to the concept. Simply put, references to mindfulness are everywhere. But what is it?
Well for starters, there are two “camps” when it comes to mindfulness. The first is largely based on the research conducted by Dr. Ellen Langer, a Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. The second form of mindfulness comes from Buddhist traditions and was popularized in the North America by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, an Emeritus Professor of Medicine at the University of Massachusetts. Let’s start with Langer’s version.
According to Langer, mindfulness involves focusing on the present and intentionally attending to what is happening around you. This would consist of what is occurring in the immediate environment, but also includes the thoughts we are experiencing at that moment in time. In a way, you can think of mindfulness as the opposite of what most of us (if not all of us) instinctively do, which is to act with mindlessness. Back in the 70s and 80s, Langer conducted a series of studies on the concept that people will quite often act in a mindless way, that is, they would fulfill requests without really thinking about them. Many of these requests were non-sensical. For instance, in one classic study, Langer et al. (1978) found that people would let a stranger (actually a person working for Langer) go ahead of them in line for photocopying by simply saying “may I use the Xerox machine, because I have to make copies?”. If you think about it, this question makes zero sense. Everyone standing in line for the Xerox machine is there to make copies, why else would they be waiting for it? However, Langer suggested that the people who complied did so automatically. In other words, they did not stop to consider the content of the request before agreeing to it.
Langer then discovered that practicing intentional mindfulness can help a person break the spell of automatic thoughts. She suggested that we can practice attending to what is happening in the moment and develop a more positive view of ourselves. Instead of thinking about the past or the future in those moments, mindfulness can help enhance the flexibility of our thinking and to make better decisions (Langer, 2009). Perhaps not surprisingly, many studies have since revealed that actively practicing mindfulness has many positive effects on our mood, stress reduction, and overall health through making better decisions (Keng et al., 2011).
“Wherever you go, there you are” is both a well-used quote, as well as the title of the best-selling book written by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn. As mentioned earlier, Kabat-Zinn popularized a second version of mindfulness that is rooted in ancient Buddhist traditions. Although it is much older than Langer’s version, in some respects, this form of mindfulness is an extension of it. For Kabat-Zinn, focusing on the moment is only one component. However, he suggests that when we pay attention to the thoughts we are having in the moment, we should be non-judgemental about those thoughts and be kind to ourselves. Said another way, focusing on our thoughts in the moment, practicing acceptance of them, and detaching any negative feelings that we may experience with those thoughts (Ivtzan & Hart, 2016).
The empirical evidence for the benefits of mindfulness is beyond dispute. So, what can you do to become more mindful in your own life? Well, researchers suggest a few tried and true tips. For starters, you need to practice. Becoming more mindful does take some effort. Our tendency toward automatic thinking, acting impulsively, and ruminating on the past/future are usually very in-grained. Many proponents of mindfulness recommend formal meditation classes or yoga to help in this process. Another step toward becoming more mindful is to remove distractions. Our modern world is often overwhelming, with serious stimulus overload. There are many benefits that come from removing ourselves from this by connecting with nature. A quiet nature walk is a great way to practice living in the moment and to get some exercise. Finally, take time to savor what is around you, “stopping to smell the roses” is more than just a cliché, it is actually sound advice for living in the moment.
That brings this lecture to a close. Tomorrow, we will move on to discuss the importance of creativity in positive psychology. See you then!
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