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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: The two have little in common.
We now know, via psychological research, how beneficial mindfulness is. Many studies show that it reduces mental illness and psychological discomfort, including anxiety, stress, and depression.
Studies also show how mindfulness can improve mental health. Positive emotions, meaning, and empathy are wonderful aspects of life that can increase when you practice mindfulness. So mindfulness promises a beautiful balance between reducing negative variables and increasing positive ones, but how is this balance translated into actual mindfulness intervention programs?
Before you start reading this article, I recommend you to download Week 1 of Mindfulness X for free. With this package, you will not just be able to understand mindfulness on a theoretical level, but you’ll also have the tools to apply mindfulness in your work with clients or students.
If you’ve already done that or are ready to keep reading, then continue.
There are a number of prominent mindfulness-based programs.
One popular Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program was created by Jon Kabat-Zinn with the intention of reducing stress, anxiety, chronic illness, and depression. In addition, Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), another widespread program, was designed specifically to prevent the relapse of depression. Another example is Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT), created for people with borderline personality disorder.
I imagine you know where I’m heading with this—all of these programs are deficit-focused. This means that they focus on the question, “What is wrong with us?” in order to cure us. These mindfulness programs’ motivations and intentions are in line with the “disease model,” which assumes that we are broken, we need to be fixed, and we can recruit mindfulness for that purpose.
Don’t get me wrong, MBSR is a wonderful gift to humanity, and many thousands of people benefit from the program by reducing their levels of stress and anxiety. I’m just asking whether that’s all we can hope for in a mindfulness program.
Being mentally healthy does not simply 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 nearly all mindfulness programs in the West. The original purpose of these programs was only to decrease mental illness. MBSR explicitly says it in its name: Stress reduction is what it’s all about.
You might be asking, Why is the intention of these programs important? Intention is one of the three mechanisms of mindfulness. When engaging with the way in which mindfulness works, psychology professor Shauna Shapiro and her colleagues have in their research described three components of mindfulness: intention, attention, and attitude.
Intention, therefore, is a fundamental aspect of mindfulness, and it requires us to know why we practice mindfulness. The reason will have an impact on our motivation, the relevance of the practice, and the benefits we receive from mindfulness. 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.”
Intention will influence the results of a mindfulness practice. When you plant an avocado seed, do not expect a mango tree. Similarly, your intentions will impact the actual growth within you. Positive psychology intervention programs are all about methods and activities that aim to promote positive emotions, behaviors, and cognition.
Now, let’s go back 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 programs that exist in the West do not have the same goals as positive psychology.
Mindfulness is an incredible tool for positive growth. We could consciously harness it to increase our experience of positive emotions, passion, strengths, meaning, hope, compassion, autonomy, and other positive variables.
A number of new mindfulness programs have that precise aim. Ryan Niemeic, for example, created the Mindfulness-Based Strengths Practice (MBSP) and Kirstin Neff devised the Mindful Self-Compassion program.
I have attempted to expand that intersection 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, daily meditation, and other activities. If you wish to explore and experience the program you can do so by clicking 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 at the University of East London as part Masters in Applied Positive Psychology program. He is also an honorary senior research associate at UCL. His main areas of research are personal meaning, self-actualization, 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 to contact him, please visit www.AwarenessisFreedom.com.