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In the most basic sense, mindfulness is being consciously aware of your thoughts and emotions. For one to practice good mindfulness it involves the ‘self-regulation’ of attention so that it is focused on adopting a neutral attitude toward one’s experiences in the present moment.
There are many beneficial effects on developing and practicing mindfulness. Below are 7 great benefits of mindfulness.
1. Being mindful of your thoughts and emotions promotes well-being
The concept of self-regulation is somewhat paradoxical in that regulation in the strictest sense of the word such as self-control is not ‘mindful’. Rather, mindfulness is a state that is characterized by introspection, openness, reflection and acceptance of oneself.
Recently in the field of psychology, there has been strong evidence demonstrating that mindfulness is significantly correlated with positive affect, life satisfaction, and overall well-being.
Mindfulness itself, however, is not a new concept; it has existed in Buddhism for over two thousand of years. Modern day research has made several interesting findings suggesting this ‘enhanced self-awareness’ diminishes stress and anxiety and, in turn, reduces the risk of developing cancer, disease, and psychopathology. It is useful to practice mindfulness in positive psychology as a tool for general physical and mental health.
2. Being mindful can improve your working memory
Working memory is the memory system that temporarily stores information in our minds for further recall and future processing. Many studies have been undertaken that suggest a strong interrelationship between attention and working memory.
van Vugt & Jha (2011) undertook research that involved taking a group of participants to an intensive month-long mindfulness retreat. These participants were compared with a control group who received no mindfulness training (MT). All participants from both groups first undertook a memory recognition task before any MT had been providing. The second round of a memory recognition task was then undertaken by all participants after the month’s training.
Results were positive – while accuracy levels were comparable across both groups, reaction times were much faster for the group that had received mindfulness training. These results suggested that MT leads to attentional improvements, particularly in relation to quality of information and decisional processes, which are directly linked to working memory.
3. Mindfulness acts as a buffer against the depressive symptoms associated with discrimination
A self-report study conducted at the University of North Carolina measured the level of discrimination experienced by participants and also the presence and/or severity of their depressive symptoms. Participants also completed a questionnaire that measured their level of mindfulness as a trait, which is characterized by a conscious awareness of the present.
The results showed that the more discrimination participants experienced the more depressive symptoms they had. It was also found that the more mindful people were, the less depressed they were.
Finally, and most importantly, the findings suggested that mindfulness might be a protective factor that mitigates the effects of discrimination on the development of depressive symptoms. That is, although discrimination was associated with depressive symptoms, the association became much weaker as mindfulness increased. So, it appears that practicing mindfulness may be one way of preventing the onset of depression!
4. Mindfulness can help you make better use of your strengths
“Mindfulness can help an individual express their character strengths in a balanced way that is sensitive to the context and circumstance they are in.”(Niemiec, 2012)
A lot of research has shown that mindfulness influences mental health and personality (Baer, Smith & Allen, 2004). Not surprisingly, mindfulness is related to character strengths as well.
Mindfulness and Strengths
Mindfulness and strengths joined forces a long time ago. In Buddhism, mindfulness meditation not only relieves suffering but also cultivates positive characteristics and strengths such as compassion, wisdom, and well-being. Even the meaning of mindfulness, defined by Thich Nhat Hanh (Niemiec, 2014), includes some dimensions of strengths. He saw mindfulness as a means “to keep one’s attention alive in the present reality. And this ‘aliveness’ captures both the self-regulation of attention and the approach of curiosity.”
Relationship of Mindfulness and Strengths
According to research by Bishop and colleagues (2004), experiencing mindfulness begins with making a commitment to maintain curiosity about the mind wandering and looking at differences in other objects.
Other research (Ivtzan, Gardner & Smailova, 2011) found that curiosity is one of the strengths that is correlated to living a satisfied, meaningful, and engaging life.
According to a study by Niemiec, Rashid & Spinella (2012), transcendence strengths can become more meaningful in mindfulness practice as they connect mindfulness with spiritual meaning.
In addition, during the practice of mindfulness, people may face both internal and external obstacles including boredom, wandering mind, physical discomfort, and difficulty in commitment, and this requires the strength of courage and perseverance to overcome and keep going.
Mindfulness, strengths, and acknowledgment
“Mindfulness opens a door of awareness to who we are and character strengths are what is behind the door since character strengths are who we are at core” (Niemiec, 2014)
Mindfulness can help you make better use of your strengths. One needs attention to their inner states and behavior to pursue a goal (Brown, Ryan & Creswell, 2007). Therefore, to be able to see your strength, you need to access your inner state of mind. To access your strengths or your true self, mindfulness is the path.
Research by Carlson (20013) showed that we have many blind spots, such as information barrier and motivation barrier, which is modest and meager in self-evaluation. It also decreases the bias we have in ourselves since practicing mindfulness reduces the defensiveness of your ego as you start to have more reality-based thoughts.
Mindfulness and Neuroplasticity
The term neuroplasticity refers to structural and functional changes in the brain related to experience. It has been known that musical training and language learning promote structural changes in our brain and cognitive abilities.
Mindful awareness is a form of experience that changes not only structure, but also the function of our brain throughout our lives.
You can think of mindfulness as a mental muscle. Every time we lift weight, we strengthen the muscle we are working on. In the same way, every time we pay attention to the present moment without judgment, connectivity of the attention, self-regulation and compassion circuitry grows in our brain.
5. Mindfulness practice raises your happiness set-point
Our brain is divided into left and right hemispheres. It has been shown that our brain has high activity in the right prefrontal cortex (front part of the brain) when we are in a depressed, anxious mood.
Our brain has high activity in left prefrontal cortex when we are happy and energetic. This ratio of left-to-right activity shows our happiness set-point throughout daily activities. So, what happens to this ratio when we practice mindfulness meditation?
The research of Richard Davidson and Jon Kabat-Zinn shows that only 8-week of 1-hour daily mindfulness practice leads to significant increase in left-sided activation in the brain and this increase is maintained even after 4 months of the training program (Davidson, Kabat-zinn et al., 2003). In brief, this finding demonstrates that short-term mindfulness practice increases our happiness level significantly, even at a physical level.
“Short-term mindfulness practice increases our happiness level significantly”
6. It makes you more resilient
Resilience, in most basic terms, is individual’s ability to recover from setbacks and adapt well to change. Similarly, in our brain, we have a region called anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), located deep inside our forehead. ACC plays important role in self-regulation and learning from the past experience to promote optimal decision making.
The research findings of Tang and his colleagues show that mindfulness training groups that went through only 3-hour practice have higher activity in ACC and also show higher performance on the tests of self-regulation and resisting distractors, compared to the control group (Tang et al., 2007, 2009). This means that with the help of mindfulness practice, we can change our brain in the way we react to setbacks and make decisions in our life.
7. It shrinks the stress region in your brain
Remember that time you rush through life with sweat palms and trouble sleeping at night? Every time we get stressed, the ‘amygdala’ takes over control.
Amygdala is a key stress-responding region in our brain and plays important role in anxious situations. It’s known that high amygdala activity is associated with depression and anxiety disorders (Siegle et al., 2002).
The good news is that mindfulness practice can actually shrink the size of amygdala and increase our stress reactivity threshold.
Recent research performed by Taren and colleagues shows a connection between long-term mindfulness practice and a decreased size of amygdala (Taren et al., 2013). By practicing mindfulness, we can change how we react to stressful situations and improve our mental and physical well-being.
“There’s a connection between long-term mindfulness practice and a decreased size of the amygdala”
How long should you practice mindfulness?
According to Richie Davidson, one of the world’s most renowned contemplative neuroscientists, even 1.5 hours of mindfulness practice leads to structural changes in the brain.
“We can actually be happier people. We can suffer less if we take responsibility for our own mind.’’
Transform Your Mind, Change Your Brain
You can watch this amazing talk that Richie Davidson gave at Google in September of 2009 for more information about the benefits of mindfulness practice. We highly recommend it.
Is mindfulness a trait?
The next question is whether mindfulness can also be a strength on its own. Based on the study by Carlson in 2013, we can increase mindfulness trait by training.
However, it requires more systematic investigation to confirm. If mindfulness is really a strength, there is no clear virtue it should belong to. In addition, it should be noted that mindfulness and strengths do not cause each other, but correlate (Masicampo & Baumeister, 2007).
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