If I had to make a list of topics that positive psychology students ask most about, mindfulness would be somewhere near the top. In fact, mindfulness interventions are one of the most popular subjects for dissertation students researching in positive psychology. I took students’ interest for granted until one day, a couple of years ago, I asked myself what is it that mindfulness research in the West has in common with positive psychology? The answer surprised me – very little, in fact…
We now know, via psychological research, how beneficial mindfulness is. We have many studies showing how it reduces mental illness and psychological discomfort: anxiety, stress, and depression are good examples. We also have a large volume of investigations showing how mindfulness could improve mental health: positive emotions, meaning, and empathy are some of the wonderful aspects of life which transform when you practice mindfulness. So we have this beautiful balance between reducing negative variables and increasing positive ones – how is this balance translated into actual mindfulness intervention programmes, where people practice mindfulness?
There are a number of prominent mindfulness-based programmes. For example, we have the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), the most popular one, which has been created by Jon Kabat-Zinn with the intention of reducing stress, anxiety, chronic illness and depression. We also have the Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), another widespread programme, which has been designed specifically to prevent the relapse of depression.
Another example is the Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT), for people with borderline personality disorder. I can imagine you know where I’m heading with this – all of these programmes have one thing in common: they are deficit-focused. This means that they focus on the question “what is wrong with us?” in order to cure us. It’s as if the mindfulness programmes’ motivation and intention agree with the “disease model” – we are broken, we need to be fixed, and we recruit mindfulness for that purpose.
Don’t get me wrong, the MBSR is a wonderful gift to humanity; many thousands of people benefit from the programme which reduces their levels of stress and anxiety, I’m just asking, “is that all we hope for?” Being mentally healthy does not mean the absence of mental illness – in other words, it isn’t enough for us to eliminate illness in order to ensure a healthy, thriving, and competent individual.
This kind of meaningful mental health is neglected when it comes to the intentions of almost all mindfulness programmes in the West. The original purpose of the programme had nothing to do with improving mental health – it was only about decreasing mental illness. The MBSR explicitly says it in its name – stress reduction is what it’s all about.
You might be asking “why is intention so important?” Intention is one of the 3 mechanisms of mindfulness. When engaging with the way in which mindfulness works, Shauna Shapiro and her colleagues offer three components of mindfulness: Intention, Attention, and Attitude. Intention, therefore, is a fundamental aspect of mindfulness, and answers the question “Why am I practicing?” The answer will have an impact on your motivation, relevance of the practice, and its benefits. It was Kabat-Zinn himself who said,
“Your intentions set the stage for what is possible. They remind you from moment to moment of why you are practicing in the first place.”
We even have psychological studies showing how your intention, in relation to the practice of mindfulness, will influence the results of your practice. When you plant an avocado seed, do not expect a mango tree – your intentions will impact the actual growth within you. Positive Psychology intervention programmes are all about methods or activities which aim to promote positive emotions, behaviours, and cognitions.
Let’s go back now to my original question – what is it that mindfulness in the West and positive psychology have in common? My answer might be clearer now – they have very little overlap because almost all of the mindfulness programmes do not have the same goals as positive psychology.
Mindfulness is an incredible tool for positive growth and we could consciously harness it to increase our experience of positive emotions, passion, strengths, meaning, hope, compassion, autonomy, and other positive psychology variables. We already have a number of new programmes which aim precisely to do that: Ryan Niemeic, for example, created the Mindfulness-Based Strengths Programme (MBSP) and Kirstin Neff devised the Mindful Self-Compassion programme. I have attempted to expand that meeting point between mindfulness and positive psychology by creating the Positive Mindfulness Programme (PMP).
Positive Mindfulness Programme (PMP)
The PMP runs online for 4 weeks and includes 8 sessions that combine mindfulness with:
- Positive emotions
- Self-efficacy (Strengths)
- Positive relations with others
Each of these sessions includes background information, a daily meditation, and other activities. If you wish to explore and experience the programme you can do so on this link.
Positive psychology truly made us re-think the topics which we focus on in psychology, and the same process is now required for mindfulness. Our task within positive psychology is to transform mindfulness research and applications from deficit-focused mindfulness programs to flourishing-focused ones. We would then be able to move deeper into the incredible depth and gifts offered by mindfulness.
Awareness is Freedom: Itai Ivtzan at TEDxRussellSquare
Itai Ivtzan talks about how to train your mind to think less and consequently experience more in his TED talk ‘Awareness is Freedom’.
Dr. Itai Ivtzan is a chartered psychologist and holds a position as a Full-Time Positive Psychology lecturer in UEL (University East London) as part of the MAPP (Masters in Applied Positive Psychology) programme. He is also an Honorary Senior Research Associate in UCL. His main areas of research are personal meaning, self-actualisation, spirituality and mindfulness. Dr. Itvtzan firmly believes that a marriage of spirituality and psychology will make us more aware, courageous, resilient, and compassionate with one another and with ourselves. If we reach our full potential as human beings by having a deeper awareness of ourselves, we can transform humanity as we know it. The “ignorance is bliss” formula is simply ineffective. Methods such as meditation, according to Dr. Ivtzan, are powerful enough to save us. If you wish to get additional information about his work, or contact him, please visit www.AwarenessisFreedom.com