Scientists are now joining ancient and modern prophets and philosophers in pointing out the benefits of mindfulness, suggesting it can improve our mental and physical health, strengthen our thinking skills, help us to overcome destructive habits, and make us better friends and neighbors.
Broadly speaking, mindfulness refers to a state of being present in the moment and in our bodies, giving full attention to the tasks and the people before us. One researcher describes the goal of mindfulness as “to cultivate continuous, clear- sighted attention to ongoing subjective experience, together with an attitude of acceptance towards that experience.”[i]
In other words, instead of being caught up in the internal dialogue of our thoughts – our likes, dislikes, worries and judgments – we simply notice what is and allow it to be.
There are many methods of developing and strengthening our capacity for mindfulness. These practices are often labeled as ‘mindfulness meditation’, and include:
Much of our stress stems from the mind dwelling in the past (brooding over past traumas and mistakes, feeling regret, shame or guilt), or in the future (worrying about some anticipated danger or unwanted experience; fear, anxiety) rather than staying focused on the present moment. In essence, we are not fully within ourselves, but off somewhere in an imagined past or future that doesn’t actually exist. Mindfulness practice can measurably reduce this stress.
In 2007, researchers invited medical students reporting very high stress levels to take part in an experiment.
Each student was first asked to fill out a detailed questionnaire, with questions measuring how often the students experienced distress, anxiety, deliberate self-distraction, rumination (brooding over troubling thoughts), and positive states of mind.
Some did nothing other than fill out the questionnaires. Others were taught physical relaxation techniques. Another group took a one-day mindfulness retreat followed by weekly mindfulness classes on techniques including body scanning, hatha yoga, walking meditation, and loving-kindness meditation. The students were also encouraged to practice mindfulness on their own time.
Two weeks later, during the rush and stress of final exams, the students filled out the same questionnaires they’d completed at the beginning of the experiment.
At the start of the experiment, all of the students had reported stress levels far above average. At the end of the experiment, although all reported somewhat lower stress levels, the drop in distress, distraction and rumination was much larger for those who had practiced mindfulness. In fact, the mindfulness groups tested as being more relaxed and present than the average person, despite the stress of final exams. Other benefits of mindfulness they reported experiencing were greater rest, pleasure, and productivity.[ii]
Emotions themselves are not the problem, but when we react uncontrollably to an event or thought, instead of being able to respond appropriately, our emotional state can take over, and we’re not likely to deal well with the situation before us. Mindfulness practice can help us to remain centered in emotionally triggering situations, instead of reacting to them.
Another 2007 study tested this by showing participants a series of random pictures, some with emotion-triggering content, and some without. Each picture had an accompanying sound, and participants were asked to notice and evaluate the pitch of the sound for each slide.
The study participants were recruited from Buddhist meditation centers; some were very experienced meditators, while others very new to the practice. Before the picture-and-sound test, each filled out questionnaires about their objective awareness of physical sensations, and about their levels of attention and awareness in daily life.
All participants were similarly quick to notice and identify the sounds accompanying pictures without emotional content. But after seeing pictures designed to arouse distress or pleasure, study researchers saw a significant difference; newer meditators took longer to notice and identify the sounds. Their emotions were still so engaged with what they had seen that their auditory perception was slowed, whereas the experienced meditators had learned to let go of their emotions quickly in order to deal with the next experience coming to them.[iii]
When we’re stressed, our thought processes tend to become less clear, and our access to memories can become muddled. Unfortunately, this often means that, during times of pressure when we most need to function well, we are least able to do so. Luckily, one added benefit of mindfulness practice is the boosting of our ability to remember and think clearly in tense situations.
A 2010 study investigated how stress affected working memory in military service members preparing for deployment. For the purposes of the study, researchers defined working memory as ‘the capacity to selectively maintain and manipulate goal-relevant information without getting distracted by irrelevant information over short intervals.’
Service members were getting ready to leave their loved ones and enter a dangerous situation. They were also going through ‘stress-inoculation’ training, which mimics dangerous situations they might encounter while on duty. Several earlier studies had shown that in these situations, service members became more emotionally disturbed and their ability to think and remember clearly was weakened. The researchers thought mindfulness training might help service members cope better.
One study group of pre-deployment service members took an 8-week mindfulness training course which had been specially modified for the military. It focused on traditional techniques like breath meditation and body scanning, but also included focused attention-shifting between inner sensations and outer experiences, as well as talks on the connection between mental and physical fitness. These members were also asked to practice mindfulness exercises on their own time, keeping track of how much time they spent doing so.
A second group of pre-deployment service members, and a group of civilians, were also part of the study. Neither of these two groups took the mindfulness training.
All three groups took a memory test before and after the study in which they were asked to remember certain letters, then asked to solve some math problems, and finally asked to recall the letters.
In the results of the first memory test, there was little difference in working memory capacity between the three groups. But after nine to ten weeks of high-stress preparation for deployment, the service members who hadn’t practiced mindfulness showed a significantly reduced working memory capacity, as compared to the control civilian group who showed a slight improvement.
Likewise, the service members who had undergone the mindfulness training but who had practiced the least on their own still demonstrated lower working memory capacity. But those who had completed the mindfulness training and practiced the most on their own time had gained much more working memory capacity than even the civilian group.[iv]
The benefits of mindfulness practice have a well-accepted positive effect on stress and anxiety. But studies show that it helps with more serious clinical anxiety disorders as well.
According to the National Alliance for Mental Illness, about 18% of the US population suffers from diagnosable anxiety disorders, and many of these people also suffer from depression. [v]
A 1993 study observed patients who took an 8-week outpatient course on mindfulness meditation, including body scanning, sitting meditation and hatha yoga. Patients were encouraged to use these practices daily.
The patients were interviewed before the program began, again after it ended, and finally three years later. Interviewers asked a wide range of questions measuring how anxious or depressed the patients felt, how often they had experienced panic attacks, etc..
All patients described themselves as significantly less anxious and depressed immediately following the program; those who had suffered from panic attacks at the beginning reported that their attacks were less frequent and less severe. But even more impressive – three years after treatment, the patients had held onto those initial gains, and in most cases even continued to improve mildly. The majority also reported that they were still using mindfulness practices.
The improvements were similar for those who were taking anti-anxiety medications and those who weren’t.[vi]
We very often operate on autopilot, reflexively going through the motions of one task while our attention is somewhere else. We may drive to work thinking about the report we’ll have to prepare when we get there, then fill out the report while thinking about a difficult conversation we’ll have when we get home, then nod and make appropriate sounds at the dinner table while we’re thinking about booking an oil change.
This ability to function automatically while thinking of something else can save us energy – we can brush our teeth and plan our day simultaneously. Unfortunately, it can also make us less likely to notice what’s actually going on around us, causing us to miss important details in our immediate surroundings (there may be road work going on, or a small but significant blip in the data we’re reporting which needs our attention, or the person at the dinner table may be subtly signaling distress and checking to see if we notice and care).
A 2009 study compared a group of 25 experienced mindfulness meditators from Buddhist centers with 25 people unfamiliar with mindfulness practices (the gender and age of the two groups being similar).
Participants were first asked to describe their own habits of mindfulness, which were listed as the ability to observe, to describe, to act with awareness and to accept without judgment. They then took two tests requiring noticing and sorting.
In one test they were shown columns of color names written out in colors which might or might not match them – that is, ‘blue’ might be written in blue letters or in red letters – and asked to say the color each word was written in, not the color it spells out. The second test asked them to pick out all occurrences of a certain symbol in a page full of subtly different symbols.
The experienced meditators were able to complete the tests significantly more quickly and accurately than the non-meditators. Those who reported the greatest ability to act with awareness and accept without judgment were particularly good at completing the tasks. The researchers concluded that the benefits of mindfulness in study included the improvement of our quality of attention and ability to think flexibly.[vii]
The same flexible thinking and improved quality of attention fostered by mindfulness can help people become aware of their personal challenges, and break free of minor bad habits. It can also help people cope with and change the crippling habit of substance abuse.
A 1999 study showed that patients who reported increased awareness, understanding and acceptance of themselves were more successful in remaining substance-free. Since, mindfulness training is designed to increase acceptance and awareness, both of ourselves and our surroundings, researchers began to test the benefits of mindfulness meditation as an aid to recovery.
In 2005, a group of alcoholics in a rehabilitation program were invited to participate in Vipassana meditation training (silent mindfulness meditation combined with insight meditation) in addition to other supports. Those who refused the training were assigned as the control group. Those who accepted the invitation and chose to learn meditation were drinking less than the control group after completing the program, and three months later were continuing to improve their sobriety faster than the control group. [viii]
Our minds and bodies are inextricably linked, and our physical and mental health impact each other. The benefits of mindfulness practice has been shown not only to reduce stress and improve mental function, but also to lower blood pressure and strengthen the immune system of people fighting disease.
A 2006 study followed patients dealing with early stage breast cancer and prostate cancer. Earlier studies had shown that patients who were actively practicing mindfulness-based stress reduction slept better, and reported less stress and better quality of life than they had before starting mindfulness practice. The 2006 study checked back in with patients six months after they had completed an eight week course of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR).
During the course, patients meditated or did yoga for forty minutes every day. After the course ended, most patients reported meditating or doing yoga for about two hours per week. Patients’ stress levels, moods and sleep patterns improved noticeably during the course, and even more strongly in the months that followed.
Researchers also measured patients’ changes in cortisol, a hormone produced when we respond to stress, and which can suppress the immune system and aggravate cancer when present at very high levels. As stress levels fell, cortisol levels also fell, leaving patients’ immune systems stronger and more responsive. Lower stress was also linked to lower blood pressure and resting heart rate. [ix]
A later 2013 study divided a group of patients with pre-hypertension (borderline high blood pressure) into two groups. One group practiced MBSR for eight weeks, while the second group received lifestyle advice and learned muscle relaxation techniques.
At the end of the study, the second group showed mixed results, while the mindfulness meditators had improved consistently, losing an average of 5 mm in systolic and 2 mm in diastolic blood pressure. The improvement was small, but the study’s author pointed out that it could still be enough to reduce the risk of heart attack or stroke.
(Note: another monitoring method gave the two groups nearly identical results, so further research is needed. [x])
Mindfulness can help us to manage physical pain as well as psychological pain.
A 2007 study investigated the effect and benefits of mindfulness training on women with fibromyalgia. The physical pain and exhaustion caused by fibromyalgia, which tends to accompany mental and emotional distress, is intense and can be difficult to treat effectively.
Fifty-eight patients took an eight-week MBSR course which included yoga, formal mindfulness exercises, and mindfulness practice in stressful situations and social interactions. Participants took weekly classes, attended an all-day retreat, and committed to practicing mindfulness exercises for 45 minutes a day at home. A control group of patients attended an eight-week course offering stretching, relaxation and social support but not discussing mindfulness.
Before and after completing their courses, both groups took tests which asked about their pain levels and quality of life.
Before the courses began, the women who took part in mindfulness training reported slightly higher levels of pain and lower levels of relaxation than the control group. At the end of the courses, the control group was experiencing slight improvements in positive feelings and sense of competence, but slight worsening in their pain as compared to their initial tests. In contrast, the mindfulness practitioners reported significant improvements in pain and in quality of life as compared to their initial tests.
At a three-year follow up interview, three-quarters of the participants who had studied mindfulness were still using mindfulness practices regularly. These participants reported more pain and slightly lower quality of life than they had felt at the end of the mindfulness course, but less pain and higher quality of life than they had felt when the course began.[xi]
Mindfulness can also help us to hold ourselves to higher ethical standards.
A 2010 study investigated the link between mindfulness and ethical behavior. The researchers theorized that mindfulness would enhance ethical behavior in several ways: the awareness component would prompt people to consciously recognize what they were doing and why they were doing it; the practice of non-judgmental attention would increase people’s willingness to consider uncomfortable truths; and the focus on the present moment would lead people to focus on the principles guiding their immediate actions, rather than focusing exclusively on the results they hoped for or feared.
To check their theory, the researchers invited 97 college students to take a series of tests. One test asked them to describe how aware they were of their feelings, actions and surroundings in the present moment. Other tests asked them to describe their ethical standards.
One ethical test to determine the benefits of mindfulness described a negotiation scenario with a colleague with opposing goals and asked how likely students would be to give false information to pressure the other person into agreeing with them. Another asked students how important it was to them to have various good character traits, as well as how important it was to appear to have those traits. A final test asked them to rank the importance of principle- and result-based criteria for decision-making.
Students who described themselves as more aware of the present moment were more likely to say they placed a high priority on being caring, compassionate, fair, friendly, generous, helpful, hardworking, honest, and kind, and less likely to say they placed a high value on appearing to possess those qualities. They were also likely to describe principles as highly important in making daily decisions.
In a later experiment, the same researchers tested people’s actual ethical behavior, rather than their avowed ethical standards. A new group of over one hundred college students was invited to participate and take tests, were paid for showing up, and were also told they’d have an opportunity to earn more.
Participants were first given a present-moment awareness test. Next, researchers gave them a sheet of jumbled words to unscramble, telling them they’d earn a dollar for every correct answer completed in a short period of time. After the time was up, the students were told to answer a couple of unpaid questions about how difficult and enjoyable the test was, asked to score their own work, report how many answers they’d gotten right, and collect their money.
The students didn’t realize that the researchers were actually able to monitor whether or not they continued adding answers to their jumble sheets after the time was up. The researchers were surprised to find that more than half the students cheated on the task, and that self-reported mindfulness didn’t affect the likelihood of cheating. But they did find that students who reported higher levels of mindfulness cheated by significantly smaller amounts.[xii]
Ethical behavior encompasses much more than honesty and deceit. Our prejudices often motivate us to treat people who are different from us poorly. Sometimes this is a matter of conscious hate and hostility, but often it’s a subtler matter of unconscious fear, aversion or aggression. One benefit of mindfulness is that it can help to shift us out of our automatic assumptions and stereotypes, into unbiased awareness of what’s present. This shift may help us to respond more warmly and openly to people we see as different from ourselves.
A 2014 study examined the effect of mindfulness practice on this unconscious prejudice.
Participants took a series of written tests. The first asked them to report their level of present-moment awareness. The second asked them about their intentions to act without racial or age-based prejudice. Finally, they listened to a recording for ten minutes; half listened to a tape which instructed them to notice their physical sensations without judgment, while the other half listened to a tape on natural history.
After listening to the recordings, all participants were asked how attentive-ready they felt. Then all participants took an ‘implicit association test’ in which they were asked to rapidly match faces of different races or ages with positive or negative words.
When participants were quicker at matching positive words with some types of faces than others – e.g. quicker at associating ‘Good’ with ‘this face is white’ when that was the assigned task than at associating ‘Good’ with ‘this face is black’ when that was the assigned task – this demonstrated an implicit bias.
Participants who listened to the natural history recording and those who listened to the mindfulness recording scored similarly in their pre-recording mindfulness test, as well as in their intentions to act without prejudice. But those who listened to the mindfulness recording said they felt prepared to act more attentively, and they also showed significantly lower levels of implicit bias. They were also slower to sort faces by age and race than the control group.[xiii]
Often it’s easier to take a course to learn how to develop and practice mindfulness. Our Mindfulness Practitioner Training provides a complete introduction into the world of Mindfulness, which spans a history of more than 2600 years and is now rooted in both scientific and spiritual discoveries.
With such practical and experiential knowledge, you will be in a better position to practice Mindfulness, realize the benefits of mindfulness and share your knowledge with others.
Benefits of Mindfulness Sources:
[i] Ortner, Kilner and Zelazo, “Mindfulness meditation and reduced emotional interference on a cognitive task,” Motivation and Emotion, November 2007, https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Philip_Zelazo2/publication/226504935_Mindfulness_meditation_and_reduced_emotional_interference_on_a_cognitive_task/links/55bb137808aed621de0aded8/Mindfulness-meditation-and-reduced-emotional-interference-on-a-cognitive-task.pdf
[ii] Jain, Shapiro, Swanick, Roesch, Mills, Bell and Schwartz: “A Randomized Controlled Trial of Mindfulness Meditation Versus Relaxation Training: Effects on Distress, Positive States of Mind, Rumination, and Distraction,” Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 2007, 33(1):11-21), https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Iris_Bell/publication/6514209_A_Randomized_Controlled_Trial_of_Mindfulness_Meditation_Versus_Relaxation_Training_Effects_on_Distress_Positive_States_of_Mind_Rumination_and_Distraction/links/54b163c50cf2318f0f925fcb/A-Randomized-Controlled-Trial-of-Mindfulness-Meditation-Versus-Relaxation-Training-Effects-on-Distress-Positive-States-of-Mind-Rumination-and-Distraction.pdf
[iii] Ortner, Kilner and Zelazo, “Mindfulness meditation and reduced emotional interference on a cognitive task,” Motivation and Emotion, November 2007, https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Philip_Zelazo2/publication/226504935_Mindfulness_meditation_and_reduced_emotional_interference_on_a_cognitive_task/links/55bb137808aed621de0aded8/Mindfulness-meditation-and-reduced-emotional-interference-on-a-cognitive-task.pdf
More benefits of mindfulness sources:
[iv] Kiyonaga, Wong and Gelfand, “Examining the Protective Effects of Mindfulness Training on Working Memory Capacity and Affective Experience,” Emotion, 2010, Vol. 10, No. 1, 54-64, http://www.amishi.com/lab/wp-content/uploads/jha_stanley_etal_emotion_2010.pdf
[v] “Mental Health by the Numbers,” from the website of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, https://www.nami.org/Learn-More/Mental-Health-By-the-Numbers
[vi] Miller, Fletcher and Kabat-Zinn, “Three-Year Follow-up and Clinical Implications of a Mindfulness Meditation-Based Stress Reduction Intervention in the Treatment of Anxiety Disorders,” General Hospital Psychiatry 17, 192-200, 1995, https://www.psicoterapiabilbao.es/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/three-year_follow-up_and_clinical_implications_of_a_mindfulness_meditation-based_.pdf
[vii] Malinowski and Moore, “Meditation, mindfulness and cognitive flexibility,” Consciousness and Cognition 18 (2009) 176–186, http://psy.fgu.edu.tw/web/wlchou/general_psychology/class_pdf/Advanced%20Perceptual/2011/2011week7_HaoChen_paper.pdf
[viii] All studies summarized in Witkiewitz, Marlat and Walker, “Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention for Alcohol and Substance Use Disorders,” Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy, Volume 93, 2005,
[ix] Carlson, Speca, Faris and Patel, “One year pre–post intervention follow-up of psychological, immune, endocrine and blood pressure outcomes of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) in breast and prostate cancer outpatients,” Brain, Behavior and Immunity 21 (2007), 1038-1049, https://www.radboudcentrumvoormindfulness.nl/media/Artikelen/Carlson_Speca_Faris__Patel2007.pdf
[x] Weber, Belinda, “Mindfulness training helps lower blood pressure,” Medical News Today, October 17, 2013, https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/267528.php
[xi] Grossman, Tiefenthaler-Gilmer, Raysz, & Kesper, (2007), “Mindfulness training as an intervention for fibromyalgia: evidence of postintervention and 3-year follow-up benefits in well-being,” Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics, 2007;76;226-233, http://www.fammed.wisc.edu/files/webfm-uploads/documents/outreach/mindfulness/res-mindfulness-fms-support-groups.pdf
[xii] Ruedy and Schweitzer, “In the Moment: The Effect of Mindfulness on Ethical Decision Making,” Russell Ackoff Fellowship of the Wharton Risk Center Working Paper # 2010-07-02, http://opim.wharton.upenn.edu/risk/library/WPAF2010-07-02_NR,MS.pdf
[xiii] Lueke and Gibson, “Mindfulness Meditation Reduces Implicit Age and Race Bias,” Social Psychological and Personality Science, published online 24 November 2014, https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Bryan_Gibson2/publication/269700255_Mindfulness_Meditation_Reduces_Implicit_Age_and_Race_Bias/links/54ac23d40cf2479c2ee76e29/Mindfulness-Meditation-Reduces-Implicit-Age-and-Race-Bias.pdf