October 5, 2020
Mindfulness meditation has been described appealingly as a practice that unilaterally promotes well-being. Moreover, it has been reckoned to be “all natural and costs nothing” by Jonathan Haidt in his book “Happiness Hypothesis.”
Is this true? In the Science of Well-Being psychology class this semester, we had sixty Purdue students practice mindfulness meditation as part of the practice portion of promoting well-being. We were interested in approaching the practice scientifically, and each student tracked and assessed their own well-being over the course of four days. On aggregate, we found that those who were more engaged in taking time to engage in mindfulness had more positive outcomes. Several students personally mentioned to me that the practice helped substantially lower their stress and anxiety.
Clearly, the non-experimental approach we had in class is insufficient to determine the efficacy of mindfulness meditation. However, meta-analytic research shows positive effects such as reduced anxiety, lowered depression, and lowered pain. These effects tended to hold even in the long-run of 3-6 months. On the other hand, mindfulness meditation did not do better than other active treatments. In a sense, there is some truth to Haidt’s observation. The self-practice of mindfulness meditation has positive effects and appears to do as well as other potential types of expensive active treatments, like drugs and behavioral therapies.
Given these known positive benefits, how do we go about the practice of mindfulness meditation?
Mindfulness is the act of suspending judgment. One becomes fully aware of one’s thoughts, feelings, body, and surroundings in the moment. The practice of mindfulness meditation is to carve time each day to quiet oneself and remain in the present.
Mindfulness meditation is a practice that can be incorporated in your life, whether you are religious or not. It has been applied in religious settings, often in the contemplative tradition of practicing stillness before God. It has also been applied in non-religious settings, where the goal is to be mindfully present, rather than rehashing the past or worrying about the future.
You can start by finding a quiet place free from distraction. Close your eyes, and spend 5 minutes to focus on your breathing. You will find that you will have many thoughts spinning in your mind, but each time, practice letting those go and returning back to your breath and the sensations you are feeling. You can pair it with other restful activities such as yoga, prayer, writing your diary, or listening to music.
Over time, you will find that you can be mindful for a longer period of time. You may find yourself being more present when you talk with others and have less self-critical intrusive thoughts. And – I hope you experience greater peace as you engage in mindfulness meditation.
Dr. Louis Tay
Tay is an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences. He has expertise in well-being, assessments, and data science. Check back each week for his wellness tip of the week! Be sure to check back each week for another wellness tip of the week!
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