Happiness through Mindfulness
Happiness through Mindfulness
Have you ever eaten a bag of popcorn or chips while watching television, and when you reached into the bag for more you discovered that it was empty? Or maybe you’ve read a page in a book, but then had to go back and re-read the page again because your thoughts had drifted elsewhere. These are examples of us behaving on autopilot. We have all done it; in fact, a study conducted by Norman Farb at the University of Toronto showed that many of us are not consciously focused on the present and are on “autopilot” 46.9% of the time. That means that we spend almost half of our time thinking about something other than what we are doing! In our busy deadline-driven modern world where we have so much to do, it's easy for our minds to wander to the past or the future rather than being focused on the present. So, how can you learn to stay focused on the present moment? We will examine a practice that will help you stay in the present moment; it's called Mindfulness. In this beginner blog we'll also explore how incorporating Mindfulness into your life can enhance your happiness and well-being.
What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is the exact opposite of being on autopilot; in fact, one of its central aims is to focus on the here and now, to be in the moment, to still your thoughts. Mounting scientific evidence suggests that practicing Mindfulness on a regular basis can have a positive effect on not only your physical health, but also on your happiness and cognitive and emotional well-being. While reading this blog, I encourage you to try to be as fully present as possible. When you sense your mind wandering gently bring it back to this content.
Jon Kabat-Zinn is an internationally known professor of medicine emeritus and the creator of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. He has studied Mindfulness for over 35 years and is credited for bringing it to the mainstream. He defines Mindfulness as 'paying attention on purpose in the present moment and non-judgmentally.' This means training your attention on the here and now and accepting without reacting to each feeling, sensation, or thought that you experience.
Mindfulness traces its origins back thousands of years. The word mindfulness is a translation of 'sati' which is a word in the Pali language. Pali is a language of ancient India. Scholars know that many of the original Buddhist texts were written in Pali. Sati means 'moment to moment awareness of present events' and is one of the seven factors of enlightenment in Buddhism.
A secular version of mindfulness was brought to the United States in the 1970s.
Mindfulness vs Meditation
Often the terms mindfulness and meditation are used interchangeably and while there is some overlap there are differences according to Prevention Magazine's 'Mindfulness Manual' edition. Mindfulness often directs your attention outward on the world; whereas meditation is more of an inward focus which stresses focusing your attention on breathing to calm the mind. The article goes on to state that many of the breathing techniques that one acquires through meditation can have a significant positive effect on your mindfulness practice.
Why Practice Mindfulness?
So why should you fully immerse yourself in the present moment, and what are the benefits that you can reap from practicing Mindfulness on a regular basis? Two scientific studies attempted to answer this question. Dr. Sara Lazar, a Harvard University Associate Researcher in the Psychiatry Department at Massachusetts General Hospital and an Assistant Professor in Psychology at Harvard Medical School, asked participants with little experience with Mindfulness to take an 8-week mindfulness meditation course. After the course ended, the results of her study showed that compared to the control group, the group that took the course displayed physical changes in their brain structure particularly in the areas that affect learning, memory, and emotion. Their brains were larger in these areas and smaller in the area that governs stress. The study noted that this is the opposite result of the brain of someone who is chronically stressed. Further studies have substantiated Dr. Lazar's work that regular Mindfulness training or practice can have a healing effect on the brain.
According to the American Psychological Association, Mindfulness is associated with many health benefits:
- Improved focus
- Less rumination
- Better sleep
- Lowered stress and anxiety levels (read our blog 14 Tips to Reduce Anxiety and Stress for more on this topic)
- Better memory
- Improved emotional regulation
Incorporating Mindfulness in Your Day
Here are some easy ways to incorporate Mindfulness into your day. Choose the one that resonates most with you to try first.
Do One Thing at a Time
Are you adept at reading your emails while talking on the phone or cooking dinner while helping your children with their homework? If you are, you're not alone. Until recently, I used to pride myself on my ability to perform more than one activity simultaneously until I realized that doing this was leading to stress and exhaustion. According to the National Library of Medicine and contrary to popular belief, multitasking may actually make you less efficient. Research shows that the human brain prefers to focus on one thing at a time. Excessive multitasking may reduce gray matter and lead to an inability to focus on any one thing well. What is the antidote for multitasking? It's Mindfulness. So, the next time you're tempted to read your emails during a meeting, keep your focus on one activity and see if your productivity increases over time.
Practice Mindful Eating
Between meals and snacks, most of us eat multiple times per day, yet when we eat, we are often distracted doing something else such as watching TV, reading, texting, driving, or talking. If we are not consciously aware of what we are eating, we may miss out on the flavor, aroma, texture, and even the taste of our food. This can lead to overeating. Mindful eating means being aware of the food that you're consuming. One of the easiest ways to do this is to try to minimize or eliminate multitasking when eating. When you do eat, sit at a table with a plate, knife, and fork, and take a few moments to appreciate the food in front of you noting its appearance and smell. As you take each bite chew slowly and really savor the food - is it sweet, salty, tangy, or crunchy? Eating more slowly aids with digestion and may even reduce overeating and weight gain as you become more in tune with your body's cues around hunger and satiety. There are many books and articles on mindful eating; one of our favorites is by Harvard Health Publishing.
Discover Mindful Walking
“Be happy in the moment, that’s enough. Each moment is all we need, not more.” ― Mother Teresa
You may be asking yourself how a mindful walk differs from a regular walk? Just as Mindfulness focuses on awareness of the present moment, taking a mindful walk means focusing on the journey not the destination. The next time you head out for a walk slow down and be in tune with your breath and the sensations you feel while outdoors. Immerse your senses in the outside world: what do you smell, hear, and see as you move? Do you feel the wind on your face or the breath in your lungs? If you sense your mind wondering to the past or future while engaging in this activity, gently bring yourself back to the present by focusing on the breath. Often when we are walking our minds are focused on something else, it could be what we must do later today, where we are going, or who we happen to be speaking to on the other line if we are on the phone. Being fully present in the moment allows us to reap the physical benefits gained from walking with the calming and soothing effects of nature. This can help you relax and ease stress.
Listen to Another Person with Your Full Attention
"You cannot truly listen to anyone and do anything else at the same time." -- M. Scott Peck
How often have you engaged in a conversation with a friend or colleague and when they've finished speaking you realize that you can't remember much of what was said. Perhaps you may not be interested in the topic of conversation or maybe your mind has wondered to something that you have to do shortly. It's happened to us all. In fact, it is so rare to encounter a person who is engaged in active listening that when it happens, you may remember it for some time. Recently, I had to speak with an agency about a companion for my mother to help with her stroke recovery. While chatting to the health care professional, I asked a few times if she was still there as there was silence on the other line. Each time I asked, she either summarized what I had just spoken about or asked several thoughtful questions about my mom's health, which indicated that she had been listening to each word that I said. I was so surprised by this encounter that I am sharing it in this blog! That is how memorable our interaction was. So, how can we give the gift of mindful listening?
Here are some tips for Mindful Listening:
- When you feel the need to interrupt, refrain, and allow the speaker to finish Pay attention to the speaker's intonation, body language, and facial expressions
- Listen with empathy
- If your mind wanders during the conversation, gently bring it back to the present
- Remove all distractions when listening such as cell phones, televisions, and other gadgets
- Use key points in the conversation where there is a natural pause to summarize what the speaker said or ask questions
In his inspiring book The Power of Now spiritual healer and self-help author Ekhart Tolle writes about the power of the present moment: “all negativity is caused by an accumulation of psychological time and denial of the present. Unease, anxiety, tension, stress, worry – all forms of fear – are caused by too much future, and not enough presence. Guilt, regret, resentment, grievances, sadness, bitterness, and all forms of non-forgiveness is caused by too much past, and not enough presence.”
This Happiness through Mindfulness blog is an introduction to this topic and is written for educational purposes only. If you enjoyed this content, please subscribe to our mailing list below.