Originally a concept rooted in Buddhism, mindfulness has become a common term in today’s society and pop culture, generally touted as a way to reduce stress and foster personal growth. Simply put, mindfulness is the act of living fully in the present, whatever that looks and feels like in that particular moment. This process allows us to redirect our thoughts away from the past and the future—where feelings such as anxiety and depression live—and to focus on the here and now.
Mindfulness is often associated with meditation practices, and sometimes the two terms are used interchangeably, so what’s the difference between them? In essence, mindfulness is a type of meditation that focuses on being fully aware of our thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations at any given moment. When you practice mindfulness, you attend to these things with acceptance, free from judgment and criticism. In other words, meditation is a general description of a practice that may be performed in various ways, and mindfulness is a specific method.
So, what’s so great about mindfulness? Does it live up to the hype? You’ll have to try it yourself to see if it works for you, but the research conducted to date is quite convincing. Below are some examples of the results it can bring.
A natural stress buster
Practicing mindfulness through meditation, yoga, or simply “stopping to smell the roses” can be a great way to reduce stress. And who doesn’t want a little less stress and a little more chill in their life? Additionally, participating in “mindfulness-based stress reduction”—a group program centered around healing through mindfulness practice—has been shown to increase positive emotions and decrease negatives ones.1 So, in essence, mindful = happy :)
Fights anxiety and depression
Mindfulness has become a recognized technique that mental health practitioners often incorporate into therapy. As more and more research shows its benefits on psychological well-being, especially in combating symptoms of anxiety and depression, the practice continues to increase in popularity. For example, studies have found that using mindfulness-based cognitive therapy helped to prevent relapse of depression in patients with past depressive episodes, in some cases even more successfully than antidepressant medications.2
It does a body good
Practicing mindfulness has proven to benefit not only mental health, but physical health too. One study showed an increase in antibody titers to the flu vaccine in subjects who practiced mindfulness meditation,3 indicating it provides a boost to immune functioning and helps fight illness. Mindfulness has also been shown to help with sleep and as an alternative way to manage chronic pain.4,5
Whether you’re a millennial student cramming for an exam or a baby boomer trying to keep your brain sharp as you age, practicing mindfulness can help boost your memory and attention skills. In fact, a recent study found that those who participated in mindfulness training saw improvements in both GRE scores and working memory capacity while also reducing the occurrence of distracting thoughts.6
It takes two
Being mindful benefits not just you but also, potentially, the well-being of your relationships. Studies show that a person’s ability to be mindful can actually predict relationship satisfaction.7 (Barnes et al., 2007; Wachs & Cordova, 2007)
Now you might be thinking, Yeah, okay, great, I should do this thing to feel better and #livemybestlife, but how? Fortunately, mindfulness isn’t some magical mystery power we need to harness from the universe; it’s a quality we all already possess! We just need to learn how to tap into it more readily in order to use this innate ability to our advantage.
A little gratitude
It’s not often we stop to think about what we’re grateful for in our lives (besides maybe Thanksgiving Day, but once a year really doesn’t cut it!). Perhaps we can name some of the big things, such as our health, family, etc., but what about all the little things that go unnoticed? Like the person who let you go in front of them in traffic, or that first sip of coffee in the morning, or a song that played on the radio just when you needed to hear it. Making a habit of tuning your mind to these things can improve your mood and allow you to appreciate life more fully.
To help you do this, try recording your own examples in a “gratitude journal.” Before you go to bed every night, think back on your day and write down five things that made you feel grateful. Knowing you need to document these observations each night will force your mind to attend to the good stuff that happens throughout your day.
A lesson from Fido
If you ever want a lesson on being mindful, look no further than your own fur-babies! Nobody knows how to live in the present like animals do. Think of your dog when he’s on a walk, happily panting and sniffing everything in his path: literally, stopping to smell the roses! He’s not thinking about what happened this morning (that accident on the carpet, oops!) or worrying about that upcoming vet appointment. He’s simply living, just being his adorable doggy self, taking in and enjoying each moment as it comes.
Ready, set, breathe
In mindfulness meditation, the focus is on the breath. A simple way to practice mindfulness any time, anywhere is by taking a moment to draw your awareness to your breathing—you know, that thing that keeps you alive. To begin, close your eyes (unless your driving; please don’t close your eyes if you’re driving!) and pay attention to the air as it enters through your nostrils and fills your lungs. Then, as you exhale, let it out and relax the tension in your body. Bring your awareness to how this feels: the pace, the rhythm, the natural simplicity of it. If your thoughts start to wander—sh#t, I forgot to buy eggs at the store!—just notice those thoughts, without judgement, and bring your attention back to your breath.
Similar to the breathing exercise, you can practice mindfulness using your senses. In turn, bring your awareness to each of your five senses, noticing what you are seeing, hearing, smelling, etc., at that particular moment. Really pay attention and describe to yourself what you’re experiencing. For example, your hand is resting on the arm of the chair you’re sitting in. Is it soft? Smooth? Cool? And again, as your thoughts wander (because they will!), acknowledge this and then bring them right back to what you’re sensing in that moment, in your present environment.
At one with nature
When all else fails, go outside! Sniff the fresh air, feel the grass (or dirt, or snow, depending on where you live), listen to the birds chirp, let the warm sun shine on your face, listen to the ocean waves… You get the idea. Nothing says “just be present” like Mother Nature. As the well-known Zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh, says, “Walk as if you are kissing the Earth with your feet.” Pucker up!
1. Lindsay, E.K., Chin, B., Greco, C.M., et al. (2018). How mindfulness training promotes positive emotions: Dismantling acceptance skills training in two randomized controlled trials. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 115(6), 944-73.
2. Kuyken W., Byford S., Taylor R.S., et al. (2008) Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy to prevent relapse in recurrent depression. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 76(6), 966–78.
3. Davidson, RJ., Kabat-Zinn, J., Schumacher, J., et al. (2003). Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation. Psychosomatic Medicine, 65(4), 564-70.
4. Black, D.S., O’Reilly, G.A., Olmstead, R., et al. (2015). Mindfulness meditation and improvement in sleep quality and daytime impairment among older adults with sleep disturbances: A randomized clinical trial. JAMA Intern Medicine, 175(4), 494-501.
5. Kabat-Zinn, J., Lipworth, L., & Burney, R. (1985). The clinical use of mindfulness meditation for the self-regulation of chronic pain. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 8(2), 163-90.
6. Mrazek, M.D., Franklin, M.S., Phillips, D.T., Baird, B., & Schooler, J.W. (2013). Mindfulness training iImproves working memory capacity and GRE performance while reducing mind wandering. Psychological Science, 24(5), 776-81.
7. Barnes, S., Brown, K.W., Krusemark, E., Campbell, W.K., & Rogge, R.D. (2007). The role of mindfulness in romantic relationship satisfaction and responses to relationship stress. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 33(4), 482-500.