This week's edition of Psych Wednesdays was written by Sarah Roberts and was originally published on Psych Your Mind on November 14, 2012.
Mindfulness refers to a state of mind characterized by awareness and attention in the present moment, and by an accepting, curious, and non-judgmental attitude. A Buddhist concept now integrated into secular psychology and medicine, mindfulness is being cultivated by everyone from chronic pain patients to stressed out executives, often through courses in mindfulness meditation and mindfulness-based stress reduction.
The idea behind modern mindfulness training is that we can decrease stress and increase well-being by changing our relationship to our experience. Mindfulness means being present no matter what we’re doing, and being aware and curious about what’s going on inside and around us--without judgement. It means accepting experience, even when we don’t like it, and it means knowing that, often, everything is truly okay—right this minute—and doesn’t need to change. The application of these concepts in everyday life helps limit some of our most ubiquitous mental health scourges, including sleep-walking through our days without really connecting with anyone or anything; the rote pursuit of questionable habits or routines; distracting categorization of every situation or experience as good or bad; and focusing on the past or the future at the expense of the present.
Mindfulness is often cultivated through mindfulness meditation, a practice characterized by compassionate, aware, and non-reactive engagement with immediate experience. This type of mediation usually involves periods of sitting or lying down and paying attention to the breath, physical sensations, sounds in the immediate environment, or other anchors for attention. When distractions arise (e.g., an itch, a distracting thought), we observe and accept them—without any effort to change them—and return our attention to the anchor. This practice of present-moment focus and awareness, openness, and curiosity allows mindfulness practitioners to develop equanimity (i.e., composure, level-headedness, serenity). Over time, the attitude of equanimity emerges in everyday stressful or difficult situations.
Many people who begin practicing mindfulness meditation report improvements in mood, stress level, and overall quality of life. It seems that practicing mindfulness can improve our quality of life and make us feel happier.
How does it work?
Some of the ways that mindfulness can improve quality of life or increase happiness are relatively easy to guess: It’s pleasant to actually feel the steaming water on your back during your morning shower; it’s rewarding to actually listen as your child describes his day, rather than tabbing through your mental to-do list. Further, increased focus on the present moment prevents us from spending all our time in the past, ruminating and regretting, or in the future, inventing hypothetical anxiety-provoking scenarios.
Where acceptance and non-judgment are concerned, acceptance may decrease stress by helping us let go of control and accept the facts. So, for example, when the doctor confirms that we’ve sustained a sports injury, we accept that our body needs rest and rehabilitation, rather than injuring ourselves further through denial and continued activity. Non-judgment may make us happier by cutting out secondary emotions (e.g., getting angry because we’re anxious; feeling guilty because we’re depressed) and the stories we tell ourselves about certain experiences. So if, for example, you get a less-than-stellar evaluation at work, it’s not necessarily “awful” and doesn’t mean that you’ll probably be fired soon; it simply means exactly what happened: you got a less-than-stellar evaluation this time around. Seeing unpleasant or difficult situations for exactly what they are—without getting wrapped up in our stories about the situations—allows us to use them as opportunities for growth.
Researchers who study mindfulness are interested in identifying the precise processes through which mindfulness improves mental health and increases happiness, and several researchers have explored the role of the self-discrepancy gap. Self-discrepancy theory (Higgins, 1987)states that we all compare ourselves to internalized standards called "self-guides." Each of us has several self-guides; the ones that are relevant here are the actual self (our view of our current self and current attributes), and the ideal self (our image of the person we wish to be, the attributes we wish to possess, and our hopes and aspirations for ourselves). These two conceptualizations of the self can be contradictory, and the contradiction can create sadness and discouragement.
In self-discrepancy theory, the self-discrepancy gap refers to the distance between our actual self and our ideal self; the model suggests that we are all motivated to reduce the gap so that our self-guides will match up, alleviating psychological discomfort. Where mindfulness is concerned, the hypothesis is that closing the self-discrepancy gap makes us happy, and that mindfulness meditation helps close the gap.
This hypothesis enjoys some research support: Crane and colleagues (2008) investigated the impact on the self-discrepancy gap of an 8-week mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for depression relapse prevention. They found that the participants who received the mindfulness intervention demonstrated smaller discrepancies between their current and ideal selves than did the control group. That is, after mindfulness training, participants’ self-discrepancy gap decreased. Itzvan and colleagues (2011) measured the discrepancy between current self and ideal self in participants before and after a weekend meditation workshop, and also found that the self-discrepancy gap decreased significantly following the intervention.
It seems that mindfulness may indeed decrease the self-discrepancy gap—but how? There are a few possible mechanisms:
a) Part of the psychological distress generated by the self-discrepancy gap is created by negative judgment of our current self. The self-compassion and acceptance inherent to mindfulness may allow practitioners to assess their current self more positively. That is, we evaluate our current self as closer to our ideal self, which narrows the gap and makes us happier.
b) Another part of the psychological distress generated by the self-discrepancy gap is created by striving to meet unrealistic standards for the ideal self. The awareness and non-judgment characteristic of mindfulness may help practitioners conclude that they don’t need, for example, to fit into size two jeans or be a perfect parent in order to be acceptable. That is, we decrease the gap by adjusting unrealistic standards for our ideal self; this adjustment narrows the gap and makes us happier.
Finally, part of the psychological distress generated by the self-discrepancy gap is created by excessive focus on the gap. Mindfulness meditation is designed to cultivate present-moment attention and awareness; being in the present moment deflects our attention from possible self-discrepancies, reducing the amount of time we spend unhappily comparing our current self with our ideal self. That is, rather than becoming happier by decreasing the self-discrepancy gap, we may become happier by focusing our attention elsewhere.
Anecdotally, clinically, and empirically, there is ample evidence that mindfulness improves well-being and can increase happiness. Multiple (non-mutually exclusive) mechanisms have been proposed: greater appreciation of life via increased present-moment awareness; greater productivity as a result of improved attention; the joy and ease generated by acceptance and non-judgment; and a decrease in the self-discrepancy gap.
One of the reasons for the mindfulness buzz is that mindfulness is accessible: anyone can learn about it and anyone can practice it. Interested readers can read Wherever You Go, There You Are by renowned mindfulness teacher Jon-Kabat Zinn or check out Kabat-Zinn here and here.
Also see Sarah's blog for further mindfulness-related reading.
Crane, C., Barnhofer, T., Duggan, D. S., Hepburn, S., Fennell, M. V., & Williams, J. M. G. (2008). Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy and Self-Discrepancy in Recovered Depressed Patients with a History of Depression and Suicidality, Cognitive Therapy Research, 32, 775–787.
Ivtzan, I., Gardner, H. E., & Smailova, Z., (2011). Mindfulness meditation and curiosity: The contributing factors to wellbeing and the process of closing the self-discrepancy gap. International Journal of Wellbeing,1(3), 316-326.
Higgins, E. (1987). Self-discrepancy: A theory relating self and affect.Psychological Review, 94 (3), 319-340 DOI: 10.1037//0033-295X.94.3.319
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