Volume 15, Number 3
Mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs) are among the most sought-after strategies for stress management, and there is evidence that MBIs decrease the subjective experience of stress and improve quality of life. More research is necessary to conclude that MBIs directly affect physical disease states, but the well-established connection between chronic stress and disease susceptibility implies that stress reduction has physical health benefits.
The need for mindfulness is based, in part, on the assumption that people spend too much time thinking either about the past or the future. Of course, some attention on the past is important, both for valuing positive memories and learning from previous experience so as to not repeat mistakes. However, dwelling on the past can tend to fuel distress. With respect to the future, both goal-setting and planning require some future orientation, and beneficial optimism involves looking forward. But preoccupation with the future often breeds anxiety. A quote from Mark Twain characterizes how futile obsessive preoccupation with “what ifs” can be: “I’ve lived through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.”
Mindfulness is typically defined as being fully present in the moment, keenly aware of oneself and what is happening. It turns out that research data suggest that people actually do spend the majority of their time thinking about the present. An article recently published in Emotion reports that study participants spent 66% of their time thinking about the present. Focusing more on the present was indeed associated with greater life satisfaction. Interestingly, the more satisfied people were in the present, the more likely they were to have a present-focus at subsequent points in time.
Importantly, experts in MBIs argue that mindfulness involves more than just thinking about the present, such that the purpose of many MBIs is to promote heightened awareness of one’s current experience. For example, mindful eating involves paying attention to how one’s food looks, how it smells, how it tastes, and how it feels in one’s mouth. Mindfulness involves allowing one’s mind to be full of the present experience, rather than crowded with thoughts about matters other than what is happening at the moment. This includes full experience of the emotions that accompany the present moment, whether that be joy and happiness, or discouragement and dismay.
Mindfulness can be a component of meditation sessions (meditation is an example of a MBI), but mindfulness can also be characteristic of how one approaches life (being habitually engaged with what is happening in the present moment). When playing with one’s child, or completing a work project, or relaxing with some music, one gently pushes aside thoughts about what happened last week or what may happen next week in order to be fully aware of and attuned to what is happening at the moment. Again, this doesn’t mean that the past is ignored, nor does one disregard the importance of appropriately planning for the future, but from an emotional standpoint one is primarily engaged in the present. In fact, the past and future only exist in the mind as memory and imagination. To fully experience life, and to gain the quality-of-life benefits that can come with mindfulness, one must live in the now.
Paul J. Hershberger, Ph.D.
… is a clinical health psychologist. He is Professor, Director of Research, and Director of the Division of Behavioral Health, Department of Family Medicine, Wright State University Boonshoft School of Medicine.
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