A UT Professor Explains What the Mindfulness Buzz is All About

 

Mindfulness is everywhere right now. Articles in magazines tout its effectiveness at reducing stress. People talk about mindfulness as an antidote to the modern world. There are apps like Aura, Calm, and Insight Timer to get you to engage in mindfulness exercises.

So, what’s the buzz all about?

Psychologists suggest mindfulness is a set of thinking habits that involve focusing on the present moment, being aware of the environment and your thoughts, and reserving judgment about yourself and others. Mindfulness habits also promote an acceptance of your thoughts and feelings. As a result of these habits, people tend to be willing to accept the experience of their emotions (even painful ones), and may reduce their tendency to act impulsively in emotional situations.

For some people, these habits come naturally, but for others, there are techniques to increase mindfulness. Many of these techniques draw on meditation practices drawn from Buddhist philosophy, which advocates acceptance of your thoughts and feelings rather than achievement of particular outcomes.

This sounds pretty good. A lot of people experience anxiety because they are concerned they don’t measure up to the standards of others and they worry that their reactions to things are somehow inappropriate. An acceptance of who you are and what you are feeling seems like a benefit.

In many cases, it is.

Studies suggest that increasing these mindfulness habits decreases stress and anxiety.  Because anxiety and depression are often interrelated, some people also experience a relief from symptoms of depression through mindfulness. And stress and anxiety can have a negative impact on physical health in the long-term as well. So, mindfulness can also improve long-term physical health.

Of course, none of this makes mindfulness a panacea.

While mindfulness can reduce stress, anxiety, and depression, that does not mean that someone suffering from clinical anxiety or depression should just buy an app. Just like cereal companies told us that their products were part of a balanced breakfast, mindfulness is just one technique of many that people with serious mental health problems should engage in.

Additionally, studies suggest that there are a number of positive outcomes that mindfulness does not improve. For example, a review of 20 studies in the journal Personality and Individual Differences found that mindfulness will not make you more creative.

As another example, because mindfulness leads to an acceptance of your emotional state, that can sometimes get in the way of engaging the effort to change your situation. Research by Ayelet Fishbach and her colleagues show that your motivation to get a promotion at work requires dissatisfaction with your current job. You don’t want to act impulsively based on your feelings about work (and mindfulness can help with that), but you may also want to harness your dissatisfaction to move your career forward.

Mindfulness may mess with your memory. When you try to remember the events of your life, you have to recall both the content of what happened as well as the source of the memory.  After all, I went to see the movie Black Panther in February. I wouldn’t want to believe that I had visited Wakanda just because I have a visual memory of what it looks like there. I need to remember that the memory came from seeing a movie.

A 2015 paper in the journal Psychological Science by Brent Wilson and his colleagues demonstrates that mindfulness can make it harder to associate memories with their source. As a result, it may actually make it harder for people to recall which memories happened to them directly and which involved other sources, like being told a piece of information by someone else.

Finally, the acceptance of self and others is not always a benefit. Research by June Tangney and colleagues published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin on criminal populations points out that part of the thought pattern associated with criminal behavior involves a failure to accept responsibility for actions and a lack of awareness of the impact of crime. It turns out that the habits of mindfulness that leads people to withhold judgment of themselves and others can exacerbate thought patterns related to criminal behavior in those who have a tendency to think that way already.  Simply put, a little self-judgment can be a good thing when you’re contemplating a crime.

For most of us, though, a little more mindfulness is probably a good thing. You don’t need to get an app, of course. Just spend a few minutes without a screen in front of your face looking at the world and noticing what you are thinking and feeling.  Pay attention to how amazing it is in that moment just to be you.

Illustration by Drue Wagner

 
 
 

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