If you’re reading this, you’re breathing. What’s interesting about breathing is we do it regardless of whether we’re thinking about it — that is, this essential bodily function is subconscious or involuntary, according to the book Human Biology published by Thompson Rivers University. Yet we can also voluntarily control our breathing when we are conscious of our breathing patterns. For example, we can choose to control our breath by slowing it down or speeding it up, or by taking shallow or deep breaths.
How we breathe affects our health. By breathing more deeply or controlling our breath intentionally, we can impact our body in a number of positive ways, says Baxter Bell, MD, a former family doctor who now works as a certified yoga instructor and practices medical acupuncture. “For starters, we can lower our blood pressure and stress level, and think more clearly,” he says. Feeling calm and centered after deep breathing is common, and a breathing practice can promote a greater sense of well-being, he says.
If you’re interested in how deep-breathing works and how it can be beneficial, keep reading to find out more about this valuable health tool that requires no special equipment and can be accessed at any moment of your day.
What Is the Function of Breathing?
There are two phases of breathing: inhaling (taking breath in) and exhaling (breathing out). When you inhale, the diaphragm — which is the big, dome-shaped muscle located between your lungs and your heart — contracts and moves downward. This creates extra space in the chest cavity, and the lungs expand into it. When you exhale, the diaphragm relaxes as the amount of air in the lungs is reduced.
Breathing is essential to life because our bodies require oxygen to function; moving your muscles, digesting food, and even reading these words are all body processes that require oxygen. Breathing also helps the body get rid of carbon dioxide, which is created as a waste product of these processes.
What Is Deep Breathing?
Controlling the breath can be part of a yoga or mindfulness practice, but breath-focused meditation doesn’t have to be deep breathing, says Dr. Riehl. “Some yoga breathing can be similar to diaphragmatic breathing, but it can sometimes be very different. For example, [for] some breathing patterns in yoga, you are supposed to keep your mouth closed,” she says. In diaphragmatic breathing or deep breathing, you typically are encouraged breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth, she says.
“Breath-focused meditation can be an entry point of bringing you to a mindful place, accepting the present moment for what it is. Your breath is the one true thing that is present in the moment — you can’t breathe ahead, and you can’t breathe backwards,” says Riehl.
“In meditation or guided relaxation, oftentimes the practice will begin with an awareness of your breath as you breathe in and out, but you might not practice deep breathing or change anything about your breath pattern,” she says.
“It might just be an invitation to pay attention to or notice: Are you breathing quickly or slowly? Is it shallow or deep? That aspect of mindfulness or starting a meditation is a little bit different from intentionally practicing diaphragmatic breathing,” says Riehl.
Downsides of Shallow Breathing
“Stress can shift our breathing,” says Riehl. “We can become shallow breathers in the face of stress or tension.”
This usually has to do with our body’s sympathetic arousal, which can be activated in times of stress, she says. This is also known as the “fight or flight response,” and the release of hormones can drive up our breathing rate, heart rate, and blood pressure, says Riehl. This response prepares the body to survive a real or perceived threat, so whether there’s a car swerving at you or you’re going to talk to your boss about a raise, the body’s sympathetic system responds similarly, as an article published in July 2021 in StatPearls notes.
Shallow breathing can lead to physical tension in different parts of your body, including your shoulders, jaw, hands, or back, she says. “That tension also is associated with increased GI distress. Overall, it can have a snowball effect — stress might trigger more shallow breathing, and then the physical effects can lead to more stress,” she says.
Abdominal vs. Chest Breathing
We’re all born as deep breathers, says Riehl. “Think about a sleeping infant. Their little bellies rise and fall slowly and peacefully — you can see that really clearly,” she says.
When we move out of infancy and begin to move and run around more, we shift from being belly breathers or deeper breathers to breathing from our chest more, says Riehl.
Chest breathing still gets the job done of moving the air through our lungs, but the breath tends to be shorter and more shallow, says Dr. Lin. “For most of us, when we’re engaged in our everyday breathing, we’re just breathing using the upper half or top third of our lungs. When you take a deep breath in, your chest is rising, but for most people, your abdomen is not moving at all,” she says.
Abdominal breathing starts in the nose and moves to the stomach as the diaphragm contracts, causing the belly to expand and the lungs to fill with air.
Compared with chest breathing, abdominal breathing not only brings in more oxygen, but it’s also more efficient, because it pulls down on the lungs. The negative pressure that’s created results in more air flowing into the lungs.
Potential Health Benefits of Deep Breathing
A key benefit of deep breathing is that it can help manage stress, which is a contributor to many health conditions, says Bell. While research results on deep breathing vary, experts agree deep breathing is safe for most people to try.
Whether done alone, as a meditation, or in combination with a movement practice like yoga, this complementary approach may be worth trying if you are dealing with a health condition. For instance, deep breathing may help you manage or improve:
High blood sugar levels and oxidative stress, which contribute to disease progression, in type 2 diabetes
Recovery from COVID-19 because it can help boost lung capacity, improve diaphragm function, and lessen stress levels associated with the novel coronavirus
Riehl has witnessed the benefits of deep breathing among her patients with GI conditions, which include IBS and UC. The way the diaphragm moves in deep breathing can allow for a reduction in tension in the digestive tracts, she says. “This can aid digestion and help with GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease) symptoms, constipation, and diarrhea,” says Riehl.
In terms of emotional wellness, the ability to employ deep breathing when you find yourself overwhelmed or overstressed can be very helpful in the way we feel and think. “The more stressed we become, the harder it can be for us to think clearly,” she says.
Though their origins are complex, mental health disorders are associated with high stress levels.
Often people who are facing chronic stress, which has gotten even more common since the pandemic, have their normal breath rhythm disrupted, explains Bell. “That imbalance could contribute to anxiety, insomnia, or any number of unwanted effects. By doing mindful breath exercises, they can start to rebalance their breath system,” he says.
Are There Any Health Risks Associated With Deep Breathing?
In the scheme of interventions, deep breathing is very low risk, says Riehl. “Sometimes people will say when they are learning diaphragmatic breathing that they can feel a little light-headed. That’s because they are putting more oxygen in their body than they are typically used to,” she says, and levels of carbon dioxide are lowered, notes MedlinePlus. It might make you feel different from how you typically feel when you breathe, but it’s not dangerous in any capacity, she adds. If you have any concerns or discomfort such as pain or excessive light-headedness when starting a deep breathing technique, consult your healthcare team.
How to Start Practicing Deep Breathing
You might plan to set aside time each day to practice deep breathing, or you can choose to do it whenever you find yourself feeling stressed or overwhelmed, says Riehl. Because deep breathing can be a natural sleep aid, doing it before bedtime can also be helpful.
“In those stressful times, you might even catch yourself holding your breath or gasping a little bit. If you can shift that through deep breathing or another relaxation technique, you can have a little bit more control of activating what’s called our parasympathetic system, or our body’s relaxation response. By doing that, we can bring things back to baseline,” she says.
A Simple Deep-Breathing Exercise for Beginners
Riehl regularly works with deep-breathing newbies, and she suggests the following exercise to get started.
Place one hand on your chest and one hand on your belly. Breathe normally; you’ll probably notice how the top hand is moving more than the bottom hand. Riehl says your goal is to shift that so that the top hand remains steady and the bottom hand begins to move as the belly rises and falls.
Allow your belly to be soft as you take a deep breath in through your nose. Counting to yourself can be helpful to get into a rhythm; breathe in through your nose to about a count of 4, she says. As you breathe in, the belly is going to rise very slowly and then as you exhale, the belly will fall. “Try to make your exhale last a second or two longer than your inhale,” says Riehl. “Practice that for 6 to 10 breaths; you don’t need to do this for 20 minutes if you’re new to deep breathing.”
Once you get comfortable with it, you can let go of counting if you want to, she says. “Just notice it takes a couple seconds to breathe in and for that belly to rise, and then a couple seconds to breathe out and for the belly to fall, aiming to have your exhale last just a little bit longer than your inhale.”
Slowing down and controlling breath during a difficult situation — whether you’re feeling anxious, have a flare-up of lower back pain, or something else — can make a real difference, says Bell. “It can give a sense of control in situations where we often feel out of control. It’s empowering to have something you can immediately put into action,” he says.
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Chaddha A, et al. Device and Non-Device-Guided Slow Breathing to Reduce Blood Pressure: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Complementary Therapy Medicine. August 2019.
Ma X, et al. The Effect of Diaphragmatic Breathing on Attention, Negative Affect and Stress in Healthy Adults. Frontiers in Psychology. June 2017.
Huang AJ et al. A Randomized Controlled Trial of Device Guided, Slow-Paced Respiration in Women With Overactive Bladder Syndrome. Journal of Urology. September 6, 2019.
Ubolnuar N et al. Effects of Breathing Exercises in Patients With Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease: Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Annals of Rehabilitation Medicine. August 21, 2019.
Breathing Exercises for Asthma. Cochrane. March 25, 2020.
Chan BR et al. Yoga, Meditation and Mind-Body Health: Increased BDNF, Cortisol Awakening Response, and Altered Inflammatory Marker Expression After a 3-Month Yoga and Meditation Retreat. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. June 26, 2017.
If you’ve been following this blog, you know that there are countless ways to apply mindfulness in your everyday life.
You have probably also noticed that there are tons of benefits of practicing mindfulness regularly.
Although we’ve talked about these benefits in a few other places, we thought it would be helpful to provide one resource that breaks down all of the great benefits of practicing mindfulness in one place, with sources to back them up.
If you’re wondering what you can get out of being mindful, read on to learn about all the great things mindfulness can do for you!
Before you read on, we thought you might like to download our 3 Mindfulness Exercises for free. These science-based, comprehensive exercises will not only help you cultivate a sense of inner peace throughout your daily life but will also give you the tools to enhance the mindfulness of your clients, students or employees.
An entire stress reduction program, with decades of experience and tens of thousands of practitioners, is an excellent indication that mindfulness works.
In addition to the outcomes of MBSR, there have been numerous studies supporting the idea that mindfulness reduces stress.
One study on present-moment awareness found that it facilitates an adaptive response to daily stressors (Donald, Atkins, Parker, Christie, & Ryan, 2016). Another study by Donald and Atkins (2016) found evidence that mindfulness produced less avoidance and more approach coping as a response to stress than relaxation or self-affirmation controls.
Mindfulness can also help alleviate stress by improving emotion regulation, leading to a better mood and better ability to handle stress (Remmers, Topolinski, & Koole, 2016).
The impact of mindfulness on stress can also be seen in several specific groups, including:
Those who suffer from restless legs syndrome (Bablas, Yap, Cunnington, Swieca, & Greenwood, 2016);
For an excellent dive into how mindfulness affects the experience of stress, check out the Little Book of Mindfulness by Rebecca Howden and Medibank. I’ll leave it to them to dive into the nitty-gritty, but I’ll describe their explanation of the relaxation response.
Howden and Medibank first list the symptoms of stress, including:
Constantly feeling anxious and worried;
Feeling irritable, agitated and easily annoyed;
Argumentative and defensive with friends and family;
Low levels of energy, often waking up feeling tired;
Restless and frenetic mind;
Often self-critical and/or critical of others;
Feeling flat and uninspired;
Having difficulty concentrating;
Skin rashes and conditions;
Clenching your jaw muscles and grinding your teeth at night;
Headaches and migraines.
When you induce a state of relaxation, which can be achieved through mindfulness, another kind of meditation, or other activities, you can reap the benefits, including:
Higher brain functioning;
Increased immune function;
Lowered blood pressure;
Lowered heart rate;
Increased attention and focus;
Increased clarity in thinking and perception;
Lowered anxiety levels;
Experience of being calm and internally still;
Experience of feeling connected.
Gaining these benefits can be as simple as closing your eyes and being silent for a few minutes a day. This is a practice that is so easy, anyone can do it!
2. Enhanced Ability to Deal with Illness
Perhaps one of the most studied groups in terms of the impacts of mindfulness is cancer patients and others who are suffering from a chronic or potentially terminal illness.
Mindfulness may not take away their symptoms, but it can help make them more manageable.
For example, the eCALM trial, a therapy program for cancer patients, found that mindfulness can reduce symptoms of stress, enhance spirituality and non-reactivity to experience, facilitate post-traumatic growth, and enhance vigor while relieving fatigue (Zernicke, Campbell, Speca, ruff, Tamagawa, & Carlson, 2016).
Another cancer-specific mindfulness program decreased rumination and worry and increased observing and nonjudging in cancer patients (Labelle, Campbell, Faris, & Carlson, 2015).
An exploration of MBSR for those suffering from chronic low back pain found that mindfulness improved patients’ ability to function independently and resulted in less back pain than treatment as usual (Cherkin, Sherman, Balderson, Cook, Anderson, Hawkes, Hansen, & Turner, 2016).
Mindfulness can also help patients to focus less on the pain, improving their quality of life
(Garland & Howard, 2013).
A study on the use of MBSR with lung cancer patients and their partners showed that mindfulness can instigate a process of positive change in patients and their partners, as well as relieving caregiver burden in partners (van den Hurk, Schellekens, Molema, Speckens, & van der Drift, 2015).
Similarly, a review of MBSR for family caregivers found that mindfulness can decrease stress, depression, and anxiety in those caring for a loved one who is sick (Li, Yuan, & Zhang, 2016).
3. Facilitation of Recovery
Mindfulness can not only help you deal with a chronic or potentially terminal illness or life-threatening event, but it can also help you move on from it.
A study of MBSR in Chinese breast cancer survivors provided evidence that mindfulness can enhance post-traumatic growth and decrease stress and anxiety in cancer patients (Zhang, Zhou, Feng, Fan, Zeng, & Wei, 2017).
Another study of young breast cancer survivors showed that women who practiced mindfulness were more likely to experience increased self-kindness, decreased rumination, and decreased stress (Boyle, Stanton, Ganz, Crespi, & Bower, 2017).
Mindfulness, yoga, and meditation have also been found to decrease anxiety and facilitate post-traumatic growth in breast cancer survivors, in addition to increasing vigor and spirituality (Tamagawa, Speca, Stephen, Lawlor-Savage, & Carlson, 2015).
4. Decreased Depressive Symptoms
Mindfulness has long been considered an effective supplemental treatment for depression.
It has been found to decrease depressive symptoms, anxiety, and stress in college students, as well as increasing self-compassion when compared with yoga alone (Falsafi, 2016).
One of the ways in which mindfulness can help treat depression is through enhancing practitioners’ ability to regulate their emotions. Mindfulness provides the tools needed to step back from intense negative emotions, identify them, and accept them instead of fighting them. This allows mindful thinkers to better regulate their emotions, leading to better coping and management of depression.
A study by Costa and Barnhofer (2016) backs this theory. They found that, when compared to guided imagery relaxation, a brief training in mindfulness helped participants struggling with depression to reduce their symptoms through greater emotion regulation.
Another study found that MBCT reduced depressive episodes, which not only helped participants feel better but also had positive impacts on their health care costs (Shawyer, Enticott, Özmen, Inder, & Meadows, 2016).
Mindfulness is even effective for people dealing with the most critical of depressive symptoms: suicidal ideation, or thoughts of suicide. In chronically depressed participants with suicidal thoughts, mindfulness was more effective than treatment as usual in reducing these thoughts (Forkmann, Brakemeier, Teismann, Schramm, & Michalak, 2016).
5. Improved General Health
Beyond the many mental health benefits of mindfulness, it can also improve your general health.
For example, a study of how the two facets of mindfulness impact health behaviors found that practicing mindfulness can enhance or increase multiple behaviors related to health, like getting regular health check-ups, being physically active, using seat belts, and avoiding nicotine and alcohol (Jacobs, Wollny, Sim, & Horsch, 2016).
Another study on mindfulness and health showed that mindfulness is related to improved cardiovascular health through a lower incidence of smoking, more physical activity, and a healthier body mass index (Loucks, Britton, Howe, Eaton, & Buka, 2015).
Additionally, mindfulness has been positively linked with lower blood pressure, especially when the practitioner is skilled in nonjudging and nonreactivity (Timor, Pung, Mills, & Edwards, 2015).
Finally, in a study on the impacts of mindfulness on the psychological and physical health of obese or overweight adults, researchers found that mindfulness helped participants lose weight, improve their eating behaviors and attitudes, and decrease depression and anxiety (Rogers, Ferrari, Mosely, Lang, & Brennan, 2017).
While all of these benefits of mindfulness can be experienced by children as well as adults, there are some benefits that have been found specifically in young people. These are outlined in the next section.
Health Benefits of Mindfulness for Kids and Students
Many studies have been conducted using college students as participants, as they are an easily accessible population that is often willing to participate for simple incentives like extra credit or some extra spending money.
Mindfulness studies with children as the participants are becoming more common as well, as more and more benefits of mindfulness on early development are discovered. We’ll describe some of the amazing outcomes associated with mindfulness on children, teens, and young adults here.
Benefits for College Students
Adults are not the only ones who can reap the benefits of mindfulness.
College students have also experienced incredible positive impacts resulting from the practice of mindfulness.
A study on mindfulness in college students found that medical and psychology students who practiced mindfulness reported improvements in a wide range of areas, including decreased reactivity, increased curiosity and affect tolerance, improved patience, and self-acceptance, and enhanced relational qualities (Solhaug, Eriksen, de Vibe, Haavind, Friborg, Sørlie, & Rosenvinge, 2016).
Problems with alcohol are more prevalent in college students than many other populations and can lead to serious issues with both academic progress and life in general. Mindfulness may be an effective tool for addressing this issue, as it has been negatively linked with alcohol problems and can help students deal with the stress that may prompt drinking in this population (Bodenlos, Noonan, & Wells, 2013).
Mindfulness has also been shown to be an important link between the depressive symptoms that spring from alcohol-related problems and the incidence of drinking to cope in college students (Bravo, Pearson, Stevens, & Henson, 2016).
College students who practice or have practiced mindfulness were less likely to experience depression stemming from the use of alcohol to cope with their problems.
Another study on drinking in college students found that those who practice mindfulness are engaged in lower rates of problematic drinking, especially those proficient in acting with awareness and nonjudging (Vinci, Spears, Peltier, & Copeland, 2016).
The effects of mindfulness on the likelihood of drinking may be due in part to the impact of mindfulness on self-control. College students who participated in mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) reported enhanced self-control and vitality, among other outcomes (Canby, Cameron, Calhoun, & Buchanan, 2015).
Similarly, a study on mindfulness and emotion regulation in college students found that higher levels of mindfulness predicted better regulation of emotions and suppression of thoughts (MacDonald & Baxter, 2016). Better self-regulation and self-control contribute to the more effective positive inhibition of destructive behaviors and, in turn, greater psychological well-being.
In general, children are not likely to have the same problems college students do (especially problems like over-imbibing!), but there are many areas in which mindfulness can have positive outcomes for children.
Improved Academic Success
Mindfulness is known to be effective in helping students achieve academic success in a variety of ways, and this benefit is not reserved for any specific group.
The following groups of children have enjoyed the benefits of mindfulness when it comes to their academic performance:
Elementary students who practice mindfulness exhibit greater prosocial behaviors, emotion regulation, and academic performance (Harpin, Rossi, Kim, & Swanson, 2016);
Teenagers studying for a general education certificate who participated in a mindfulness program experienced lower depression and anxiety, which contributed to improved academic attainment (Bennett & Dorjee, 2016);
Children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds who participated in a five-week mindfulness program reported decreased stress, allowing them to focus on school (Costello & Lawler, 2014);
Urban male youth who participated in MBSR experienced less stress, anxiety, and negative coping, improving their ability to deal with academic stress and achieve academic success (Sibinga, Perry-Parrish, Chung, Johnson, Smith, & Ellen, 2013);
Children with ADHD displayed less aggression and conduct problems when exposed to mindfulness therapy, which helps them focus on their academics (Singh, Soamya, & Ramnath, 2016);
Homeless middle school students who participated in a mindfulness course reported greater well-being and a higher incidence of using mindfulness in school, which can lead to greater quality of life and academic achievement (Viafora, Mathiesen, & Unsworth, 2015).
Buffer against Bullying and Depression
Mindfulness can even help kids deal with bullies!
A Chinese study on bullying victims and depression showed that mindfulness can protect children against the depressive symptoms that can arise from being victimized by bullies (Zhou, Liu, Niu, Sun, & Fan, 2017).
A dissertation by Sandra Mccloy (2005) on mindfulness as a coping tool for bullying suggested that mindfulness can help children consider perspectives other than their own and find constructive reactions in the face of bullying.
Mindfulness may even be an effective tool for addressing bullying at the source. Improving empathy with tools like mindfulness and improving social and emotional learning could be the key to stopping bullies before they become bullies (Kaldis & Abramiuk, 2016).
Provide Support and Boost Resilience
Mindfulness can also aid children who have been involved in the welfare or mental health care system. A study on a mindfulness program for vulnerable children found that mindfulness improved emotion regulation, mood, empathy, confidence and self-esteem, coping and social skills, and ability to pay attention and focus (Coholic & Eys, 2016).
Resilience is a very effective skill for children to cope with daily struggles and develop emotionally, psychologically, and academically. Mindfulness training has been shown to boost resilience in children and help them understand and regulate their own emotions (Coholic, 2011; Coholic, Eys, & Lougheed, 2012).
In the classroom, mindfulness can be as simple as adding a station for students to visit any time they are feeling a hard emotion. This station can have crayons and be a “pause” station for students to spend 5-10 minutes before reflecting on the emotion.
Another study showed that mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for children reduced problem behaviors, attention problems, and anxiety while improving children’s social-emotional resiliency (Semple, Lee, Rosa, & Miller, 2010).
And the benefits of mindfulness don’t stop here. Mindfulness in the workplace also has numerous benefits for all levels of staff.
Advantages of Integrating Mindfulness in the Workplace
Although many of the benefits of mindfulness described above can and do affect individuals in all areas of their lives including work, mindfulness’ impact on job performance may be the outcome that gets the most attention and interest from managers and executives.
There are several ways that mindfulness has been shown to impact job performance, including:
Gallant (2016) found that mindfulness can improve executive functioning by improving inhibition abilities;
Mindfulness in service industry workers improves job performance, even when controlling for workers’ level of engagement (Dane & Brummel, 2014);
De Bruin, Formsma, Frijstein, & Bögels (2017) showed that mindfulness in the workplace can actually increase the number of contract hours worked by employees, a result that will certainly catch the attention of higher-ups;
Office employees who participated in an eight-week mindfulness intervention experienced lower levels of work-related stress, greater job satisfaction, and, ultimately, enhanced job performance as rated by their employers (Shonin, Van Gordon, Dunn, Singh, & Griffiths, 2014).
Beyond job performance, mindfulness has also been applied to the workplace for other benefits that can contribute to a healthy and productive work environment.
Reduced Work-Related Stress and Psychological Distress
One of the most common benefits of practicing mindfulness in the workplace is the decrease in stress experienced by employees.
Researchers Grégoire and Lachance (2015) found that employees at call centers who took part in a brief mindfulness intervention reported decreased stress, anxiety, depression, fatigue, and negative affect, while also experiencing greater satisfaction at work.
Similarly, employees from the Dow Chemical Company enjoyed less stress and increased resiliency and vigor after completing an online mindfulness intervention (Aikens, Astin, Pelletier, Levanovich, Baase, Park, & Bodnar, 2014).
Huang, Li, Huang, and Tang (2015) also found that mindfulness reduces stress, fatigue, and psychological distress, especially for employees struggling with poor mental health.
A study of public sector employees showed that this group was also able to benefit from the mental health effects of mindfulness. These employees reported less stress, reduced psychological distress, and improved social functioning and quality of life (Bartlett, Lovell, Otahal, Sanderson, & Tasmania, 2016).
Decreasing Turnover and Burnout
Along with the decreases in stress, mindfulness can also lower the incidence of burnout and turnover at work.
Researchers Taylor and Millear (2016) found that mindfulness helps employees construct a buffer between their work and becoming burned out.
Dane and Brummel’s (2014) study also discovered an inverse relationship between mindfulness and turnover intention, meaning that employees who are higher in mindfulness are less likely to leave their jobs for any reason. The study referenced earlier by de Bruin and colleagues (2017) also uncovered the reduction in the risk of employees dropping out of work when mindfulness is encouraged in the workplace.
Burnout seems to occur less in workplaces that encourage and offer spaces for mindfulness.
Goodman and Schorling (2012) found that mindfulness-based stress reduction reduced work-related burnout and improved mental well-being among healthcare providers. A study of Australian psychologists added more support to this theory, finding a strong negative association between mindfulness and burnout (Di Benedetto & Swadling, 2014).
Further research on mindfulness at work showed that mindfulness can act as a buffer for unsupportive work environments, enhancing well-being at work and contributing to lower levels of burnout for employees from a range of careers (Schultz, Ryan, Niemiec, Legate, & Williams, 2015).
Clearly, mindfulness has some extremely positive impacts on both individuals and the work they produce. But how does mindfulness produce these outcomes?
Research on Mindfulness and the Brain
Recently, a lot of research has been conducted on what effects mindfulness has on the brain. It’s clear that practicing mindfulness can lead to positive outcomes, but many researchers want to know why it works as well.
This is where neuroplasticity comes in.
Neuroplasticity is, at its most basic level, the ability of the brain to change and adapt over time.
This adaptation happens regularly, as the brain constantly works to make itself more efficient and effective, but neuroplasticity is of specific interest to researchers in the context of brain injuries like a stroke. Our brains can actually reorganize themselves to ensure that functions continue unhindered after a traumatic injury (Honan, 2017).
Whenever we complete a new task or find a more effective way to do something, our brain takes note, often making structural or connection changes to facilitate our next attempt at this task.
When we practice mindfulness, we send the message to our brain that we are more effective at dealing with everyday tasks when we are aware, observant, nonreactive, and nonjudgmental. This causes our brain to make the changes that will improve our ability to function mindfully.
Note: For the more neurobiologically inclined among our readers, continue on in this section to read more about how the brain changes after practicing mindfulness. If you’ve already had enough talk of brain structures and gray matter, feel free to skip the jargon and head straight to the next section!
For example, meditation practice has been linked to an increased thickness in the cortex, an area that is important for a general cognitive function like attention and sensory processing (Lazar et al., 2005).
Similarly, long-term meditation is linked with a denser gray matter in the brain stem, an area that is linked to cardiorespiratory control (Vestergaard-Poulsen, van Beek, Skewes, Bjarkam, Stubberup, Bertelsen, & Reopstorff, 2009). This may help explain how mindfulness produces positive outcomes in cardiovascular, as well as general, health.
A study on an 8-week MBSR program showed that the regular practice of mindfulness increased grey matter in the left hippocampus, an area involved in learning and memory (Hölzel, Carmody, Vangel, Congleton, Yerramsetti, Gard, & Lazar, 2011). This finding can help us make sense of the improvements in academic achievement and job performance that can result from mindfulness.
Mindfulness has also been shown to result in changes in white matter, particularly in areas involving brain interconnection and self-regulation (Tang, Lu, Fan, Yang, & Posner, 2012). You’ll recall from above that improved self-regulation is a key result of mindfulness practice, and can lead to a plethora of advantageous outcomes.
In general, mindfulness is known to impact brain systems that control emotion regulation and self-awareness (Paulus, 2016), which makes sense given the outcomes we have seen in the practice of mindfulness.
Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging
More specifically, one study used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to assess changes in the brain after an eight-week mindfulness course.
Results showed that the prefrontal cortex, the hippocampus, and other areas experienced heightened activity and connectivity, while the amygdala experienced decreased functional activity and earlier deactivation after exposure to emotionally charged stimuli (Gotink, Meijboom, Vernooji, Smits, & Hunink, 2016).
This means that the areas of the brain associated with higher-level functioning were more active, while the area of the brain that handles stress and strong emotions was less involved. These findings match the behavioral changes we see after a mindfulness program, like better emotion regulation, less reactivity, and even better performance on tasks.
Another study of brain activity related to mindfulness found evidence that mindfulness is associated with areas of the brain related to memory retrieval, decision making, and outward attention, all functions which can help link the bridge between mindfulness and improved mental health and job performance, among other outcomes (Gartenschläger, Schreckenberger, Buccholz, Reiner, Beutel, Adler, & Michal, 2017).
While the science of neuroplasticity in relation to mindfulness is still relatively young (as neuroscience as a whole is relatively young!), these studies and others have provided a solid foundation for continuing research on how mindfulness impacts the brain.
The Importance of Consistent Practice
“Each morning we are born again. What we do today is what matters most.”
While everyone has something to gain from practicing mindfulness, there is one caveat: to reap the maximum benefits of mindfulness, it truly needs to be a practice, meaning that it must occur regularly and often.
Nearly all of the articles mentioned above on the benefits of mindfulness are based on a mindfulness practice of five to eight weeks, or more. While a regular practice is vital, it does not need to be a huge commitment. Even a brief, 10-minute daily practice can result in more efficient cognition and better self-regulation (Moore, Gruber, Derose, & Malinowski, 2012)!
Another study on the effects of a 10-minute mindfulness exercise showed that even just a few minutes of mindfulness practice can lead to better executive attention and recognition memory, leading to better performance on a simple task (Watier & Dubois, 2016).
If you need some tips on how to commit to a regular mindfulness practice, try the following (Lucid Living, 2013):
Find the right motivation and intention. If you are experiencing a busy day or just don’t feel like practicing mindfulness, it might help to remind yourself why you practice and what it can do for you.
Find the right attitude and attention. Each practice will be different, but try not to think of them as “better” or “worse.” There is no bad way to become more mindful.
Find the right time and timing. Just as each practice will be different, the length of time appropriate for your practice can vary as well. Some days you may need only a few minutes, and other times you may want to stick with it for a bit longer to make sure you have a rewarding experience.
Find the right spot and posture. It’s important to feel safe and secure, wherever you decide to practice. That may be on a cushion on the floor, in your office chair at work, or even sitting in your car in traffic. You will benefit from finding a comfortable and familiar spot for your regular practice, but there’s no harm in modifying your seat or posture if circumstances require it!
Find the right routine and stick to it! Although the length, location, and posture of your practice can and will change depending on your situation, it’s best to make a minimum commitment when it comes to frequency. Whether practicing once a day works best for you, or multiple times a day, find a routine that you will be able to stick to in the long-term.
Another helpful way to support your commitment to a daily practice of mindfulness is to assign a different value to each day’s practice.
Dr. Amit Sood, the chair of the Mayo Mind Body Initiative, provides the following mindfulness schedule as a template:
Monday: Gratitude – Find things to be thankful for throughout your day, and include them in your loving kindness meditation or a gratitude journal;
Tuesday: Compassion – Set an intention to decrease any pain or suffering in others that you encounter throughout your day;
Wednesday: Acceptance – Accept yourself as you are and others as they are; appreciate yourself and other people without trying to change them;
Thursday: Meaning and Purpose – Think about your ultimate purpose in life, and where and how you find meaning;
Friday: Forgiveness – Forgive yourself first, then extend your forgiveness to others for any past transgressions;
Saturday: Celebration – Make sure to take a day to celebrate all the joy in your life and the lives of others;
Sunday: Reflection – Reflect on your week, your month, your year, or whatever period of time makes sense to you at the moment. This can be accomplished through meditation, prayer, or simple awareness.
A Take-Home Message
This article was packed with a lot of information, but I hope you found that it was worth your time.
To recap, this article included numerous potential benefits of practicing mindfulness for adults, children, and employees, including:
Decreased stress and psychological distress in adults and employees;
Enhanced mental health and functioning;
Increased emotion regulation and self-control;
Decreased anxiety, depression, worry, and rumination;
Reduced incidence of problem drinking and symptoms associated with problem drinking;
Enhanced academic achievement in students, due to improved ability to focus and improved attention;
Improved social and relational skills;
Reduction in aggression and problem behaviors in children;
Reduced symptoms of burnout in employees;
A decrease in turnover and turnover intentions at work;
Enhanced job performance;
Increased ability to cope with bullying;
Enhanced resilience in children.
There are so many amazing benefits to practicing mindfulness, with more being discovered all the time. With such positive potential outcomes, the reasons not to practice mindfulness are quickly evaporating.
Did you know that one in five people these days are affected by mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression? These days many of us are also struggling with stress and overwhelm as the pace and demands of life increase.
I believe now more than ever we all need to commit to making our mental health a priority.
In honour of World Mental Health Day, here are seven proven tips that will improve your mental health and boost your well being.
1. EXERCISE REGULARLY
It’s well known that exercise is important for keeping our bodies healthy, but did you know that exercise is also vital for good mental health? Research shows that people who exercise regularly have better mental health, reduced risk of developing mental illness and greater emotional well being too.
HOW EXERCISE BOOSTS YOUR MENTAL HEALTH
Exercise increases your energy levels both mentally and physically.
Exercise helps you sleep better, and good sleep helps regulate your emotions.
Exercise can improve confidence and self-esteem as you achieve a healthy goal and take care of yourself.
Exercise changes hormones and chemicals in the brain in mood boosting ways including an ‘endorphin rush’ that increases feelings of calm and happiness as well as improving focus and memory.
Physical activity can be an outlet for irritation, frustration and bad moods.
Exercise is a powerful way to alleviate the symptoms of mental illness. For example research suggests exercise can be as effective as medication or speaking to a psychologist for overcoming mild depression.
THINK ABOUT STARTING SMALL
Keeping physically active doesn’t have to mean working out at the gym, it can be simply going for a walk in the park. Experts advise that at least 20 to 30 minutes of exercise at least five days a week is ideal. If you’re not currently exercising why not start small with a goal that feels immediately achievable – like just 5 to 10 minutes a day. Start small and you can build up from there. This is often the best way to form new habits.
2. PRACTICE MINDFULNESS
Mindfulness (a form of meditative awareness) involves training our attention and learning to have a more wise and skillful relationship with our own minds. Mindfulness teaches us to unhook from unhelpful and unproductive thought patterns and behaviours. It involves learning to steady our awareness in the present moment rather than getting lost in our heads worrying, ruminating about problems or locked into self-criticism or negative judgements.
RESEARCH SHOWS THAT MINDFULNESS…
Reduces stress, depression and anxiety
Increases stress resilience
Brings feelings of peace and inner calm
Improves overall sense of well being and life satisfaction
3. EAT A HEALTHY DIET
What we eat affects how we feel. If you’ve ever watched how quickly sugar can have an effect on the mood of small children (and adults too) or if you’ve ever felt dull and tired after a heavy lunch of carbs you’ll have seen and felt the effects that foods we choose to eat can have.
But it’s not just sugar and heavy carbs. All kinds of foods can also have short-term as well as long-lasting effects on your mental health. Your body needs a mix of nutrients and minerals to function well, so making sure you’re eating a good diet is truly vital for mental health.
A HEALTHY DIET INCLUDES
A variety of fresh vegetables and fruits
Nuts and seeds
A good source of protein, from either fish meats (from good sources) or plant-based
Regular water consumption 6- 8 glasses per day
Potentially dairy, grains and complex carbohydrates like beans, lentils, pumpkin etc
TRY TO LIMIT
How much caffeine you drink
How much sugar is in your diet
Taking in a lot of intoxicants
Things you are intolerant or allergic to
4. DRINK IN MODERATION
Many people who overindulge in drinking alcohol (or other substances) commonly do it to change their mood. Although it may numb or overcome a difficult feeling for a while, the effects are short-lived. Alcohol doesn’t deal with the causes of difficult feelings or solve our problems. It makes them worse. There are much healthier ways of dealing with difficult feelings including the other ones listed in this post.
Occasional drinking in moderation is quite healthy and enjoyable for most people. As a useful guide to drinking in moderation, keep in mind that the daily alcohol limit recommended by alcohol.gov.au is no more than two standard drinks per day.
5. PRACTICE SELF-COMPASSION
Do you have a harsh inner critic? It’s common to beat ourselves up and berate ourselves but research shows this habit of self-criticism comes at a price: It makes us lose confidence, feel unhappy with our lives and even leads to depression and anxiety.
Self-compassion is a way of relating to ourselves more kindly and studies show it makes us happier and gives us better overall emotional well being (as well as a whole host of other benefits too).
In a report published by three German psychologists, which examined 79 studies on the link between self-compassion and well-being, they reached this conclusion: People who are kinder to themselves tend to be happier.
Kristin Neff, who has been a pioneer in the study of self-compassion says, “With self-compassion, we give ourselves the same kindness and care we’d give to a good friend.”
We humans are social animals. We crave to feel connected and supported and to feel valued by others. Studies have shown that social connection is a vital key to good mental health.
Good social connection has even been linked to having a longer life. In one study on an elderly population people with strong social and community ties were two to three times less likely to die during the nine-year study.
Sometimes social connection can be a heart-to-heart talk over coffee but sometimes it can be a short phone call, or an email or message. Make sure to make time to connect with the loved ones in your life on a regular basis.
If you feel your current social life isn’t giving you enough connection, you can take steps to form new ones such as
Enroll in a class or hobby that interests you. You’ll be able to connect with others who share a common interest as well as getting out there and trying something new.
Join a book club, hiking club or other group such a knitting, meditation groups, fitness groups, community gardens or mothers groups.
Try volunteer work. Not only will you bond with other volunteers and recipients but helping others gives you that warm fuzzy feeling too.
Reach out and connect to people. Ask people out for coffees, dinners or to events like movies or bands. Try to get out and meet new people.
7. DO SOMETHING YOU LOVE
What activities do you love doing just for the fun of it? You know the ones you really lose yourself in? Take some time each day to do things you love and just enjoy yourself.
It could be engaging in a hobby like music, art, gardening or going hiking or riding and bike. It could be just having a cup of tea in the sun. Take some each week (or even each day) to just enjoy life and let go of all your cares and worries for a while. Research also shows that it improves confidence and self esteem as well as improving our overall sense of well being.
Thank you Tim Urban (and Ted Talks) for your fun way of teaching! This is so much fun to watch – but the message is beautiful. You need to watch it all the way through – but it’s only 14 minutes long. Why wait?
Despite their differences, pride, shame, and guilt all activate similar neural circuits, including the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, amygdala, insula, and the nucleus accumbens. Interestingly, pride is the most powerful of these emotions at triggering activity in these regions — except in the nucleus accumbens, where guilt and shame win out. This explains why it can be so appealing to heap guilt and shame on ourselves — they’re activating the brain’s reward center.
And you worry a lot too. Why? In the short term, worrying makes your brain feel a little better — at least you’re doing something about your problems.
In fact, worrying can help calm the limbic system by increasing activity in the medial prefrontal cortex and decreasing activity in the amygdala. That might seem counterintuitive, but it just goes to show that if you’re feeling anxiety, doing something about it — even worrying — is better than doing nothing.
But guilt, shame and worry are horrible long-term solutions. So what do neuroscientists say you should do? Ask yourself this question:
What am I grateful for?
Yeah, gratitude is awesome… but does it really affect your brain at the biological level? Yup.
You know what the antidepressant Wellbutrin does? Boosts the neurotransmitter dopamine. So does gratitude.
The benefits of gratitude start with the dopamine system, because feeling grateful activates the brain stem region that produces dopamine. Additionally, gratitude toward others increases activity in social dopamine circuits, which makes social interactions more enjoyable…
Know what Prozac does? Boosts the neurotransmitter serotonin. So does gratitude.
One powerful effect of gratitude is that it can boost serotonin. Trying to think of things you are grateful for forces you to focus on the positive aspects of your life. This simple act increases serotonin production in the anterior cingulate cortex.
I know, sometimes life lands a really mean punch in the gut and it feels like there’s nothing to be grateful for. Guess what?
Doesn’t matter. You don’t have to find anything. It’s the searching that counts.
It’s not finding gratitude that matters most; it’s remembering to look in the first place. Remembering to be grateful is a form of emotional intelligence. One study found that it actually affected neuron density in both the ventromedial and lateral prefrontal cortex. These density changes suggest that as emotional intelligence increases, the neurons in these areas become more efficient. With higher emotional intelligence, it simply takes less effort to be grateful.
And gratitude doesn’t just make your brain happy — it can also create a positive feedback loop in your relationships. So express that gratitude to the people you care about.
(For more on how gratitude can make you happier and more successful, click here.)
But what happens when bad feelings completely overtake you? When you’re really in the dumps and don’t even know how to deal with it? There’s an easy answer…
2) Label Negative Feelings
You feel awful. Okay, give that awfulness a name. Sad? Anxious? Angry?
Boom. It’s that simple. Sound stupid? Your noggin disagrees.
…in one fMRI study, appropriately titled “Putting Feelings into Words” participants viewed pictures of people with emotional facial expressions. Predictably, each participant’s amygdala activated to the emotions in the picture. But when they were asked to name the emotion, the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex activated and reduced the emotional amygdala reactivity. In other words, consciously recognizing the emotions reduced their impact.
Suppressing emotions doesn’t work and can backfire on you.
Gross found that people who tried to suppress a negative emotional experience failed to do so. While they thought they looked fine outwardly, inwardly their limbic system was just as aroused as without suppression, and in some cases, even more aroused. Kevin Ochsner, at Columbia, repeated these findings using an fMRI. Trying not to feel something doesn’t work, and in some cases even backfires.
But labeling, on the other hand, makes a big difference.
To reduce arousal, you need to use just a few words to describe an emotion, and ideally use symbolic language, which means using indirect metaphors, metrics, and simplifications of your experience. This requires you to activate your prefrontal cortex, which reduces the arousal in the limbic system. Here’s the bottom line: describe an emotion in just a word or two, and it helps reduce the emotion.
Ancient methods were way ahead of us on this one. Meditation has employed this for centuries. Labeling is a fundamental tool of mindfulness.
In fact, labeling affects the brain so powerfully it works with other people too. Labeling emotions is one of the primary tools used by FBI hostage negotiators.
(To learn more of the secrets of FBI hostage negotiators, click here.)
Okay, hopefully you’re not reading this and labeling your current emotional state as “Bored.” Maybe you’re not feeling awful but you probably have things going on in your life that are causing you some stress. Here’s a simple way to beat them…
3) Make That Decision
Ever make a decision and then your brain finally feels at rest? That’s no random occurrence.
Brain science shows that making decisions reduces worry and anxiety — as well as helping you solve problems.
Making decisions includes creating intentions and setting goals — all three are part of the same neural circuitry and engage the prefrontal cortex in a positive way, reducing worry and anxiety. Making decisions also helps overcome striatum activity, which usually pulls you toward negative impulses and routines. Finally, making decisions changes your perception of the world — finding solutions to your problems and calming the limbic system.
But deciding can be hard. I agree. So what kind of decisions should you make? Neuroscience has an answer…
Make a “good enough” decision. Don’t sweat making the absolute 100% best decision. We all know being a perfectionist can be stressful. And brain studies back this up.
Trying to be perfect overwhelms your brain with emotions and makes you feel out of control.
Trying for the best, instead of good enough, brings too much emotional ventromedial prefrontal activity into the decision-making process. In contrast, recognizing that good enough is good enough activates more dorsolateral prefrontal areas, which helps you feel more in control…
As Swarthmore professor Barry Schwartz said in my interview with him: “Good enough is almost always good enough.”
So when you make a decision, your brain feels you have control. And, as I’ve talked about before, a feeling of control reduces stress. But here’s what’s really fascinating: Deciding also boosts pleasure.
So they both got the same injections of cocaine at the same time, but rat A had to actively press the lever, and rat B didn’t have to do anything. And you guessed it — rat A released more dopamine in its nucleus accumbens.
So what’s the lesson here? Next time you buy cocaine… whoops, wrong lesson. Point is, when you make a decision on a goal and then achieve it, you feel better than when good stuff just happens by chance.
And this answers the eternal mystery of why dragging your butt to the gym can be so hard.
If you go because you feel you have to or you should, well, it’s not really a voluntary decision. Your brain doesn’t get the pleasure boost. It just feels stress. And that’s no way to build a good exercise habit.
We don’t just choose the things we like; we also like the things we choose.
(To learn what neuroscientists say is the best way to use caffeine, click here.)
Okay, you’re being grateful, labeling negative emotions and making more decisions. Great. But this is feeling kinda lonely for a happiness prescription. Let’s get some other people in here.
What’s something you can do with others that neuroscience says is a path to mucho happiness? And something that’s stupidly simple so you don’t get lazy and skip it? Brain docs have an answer for you…
4) Touch People
No, not indiscriminately; that can get you in a lot of trouble.
But we need to feel love and acceptance from others. When we don’t it’s painful. And I don’t mean “awkward” or “disappointing.” I mean actually painful.
Neuroscientists did a study where people played a ball-tossing video game. The other players tossed the ball to you and you tossed it back to them. Actually, there were no other players; that was all done by the computer program.
But the subjects were told the characters were controlled by real people. So what happened when the “other players” stopped playing nice and didn’t share the ball?
Subjects’ brains responded the same way as if they experienced physical pain. Rejection doesn’t just hurt like a broken heart; your brain feels it like a broken leg.
In fact, as demonstrated in an fMRI experiment, social exclusion activates the same circuitry as physical pain… at one point they stopped sharing, only throwing back and forth to each other, ignoring the participant. This small change was enough to elicit feelings of social exclusion, and it activated the anterior cingulate and insula, just like physical pain would.
Relationships are very important to your brain’s feeling of happiness. Want to take that to the next level? Touch people.
One of the primary ways to release oxytocin is through touching. Obviously, it’s not always appropriate to touch most people, but small touches like handshakes and pats on the back are usually okay. For people you’re close with, make more of an effort to touch more often.
In addition, holding hands with someone can help comfort you and your brain through painful situations. One fMRI study scanned married women as they were warned that they were about to get a small electric shock. While anticipating the painful shocks, the brain showed a predictable pattern of response in pain and worrying circuits, with activation in the insula, anterior cingulate, and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. During a separate scan, the women either held their husbands’ hands or the hand of the experimenter. When a subject held her husband’s hand, the threat of shock had a smaller effect. The brain showed reduced activation in both the anterior cingulate cortex and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex— that is, less activity in the pain and worrying circuits. In addition, the stronger the marriage, the lower the discomfort-related insula activity.
So hug someone today. And do not accept little, quick hugs. No, no, no. Tell them your neuroscientist recommended long hugs.
The results are fairly clear that massage boosts your serotonin by as much as 30 percent. Massage also decreases stress hormones and raises dopamine levels, which helps you create new good habits… Massage reduces pain because the oxytocin system activates painkilling endorphins. Massage also improves sleep and reduces fatigue by increasing serotonin and dopamine and decreasing the stress hormone cortisol.
So spend time with other people and give some hugs. Sorry, texting is not enough.
When you put people in a stressful situation and then let them visit loved ones or talk to them on the phone, they felt better. What about when they just texted? Their bodies responded the same as if they had no support at all.
…the text-message group had cortisol and oxytocin levels similar to the no-contact group.
Author’s note: I totally approve of texting if you make a hug appointment.
(To learn what neuroscience says is the best way to get smarter and happier, click here.)
Okay, I don’t want to strain your brain with too much info. Let’s round it up and learn the quickest and easiest way to start that upward spiral of neuroscience-inspired happiness…
Here’s what brain research says will make you happy:
Ask “What am I grateful for?” No answers? Doesn’t matter. Just searching helps.
Label those negative emotions. Give it a name and your brain isn’t so bothered by it.
Decide. Go for “good enough” instead of “best decision ever made on Earth.”
Hugs, hugs, hugs. Don’t text — touch.
So what’s the dead simple way to start that upward spiral of happiness?
Just send someone a thank you email. If you feel awkward about it, you can send them this post to tell them why.
This really can start an upward spiral of happiness in your life. UCLA neuroscience researcher Alex Korb explains:
Everything is interconnected. Gratitude improves sleep. Sleep reduces pain. Reduced pain improves your mood. Improved mood reduces anxiety, which improves focus and planning. Focus and planning help with decision making. Decision making further reduces anxiety and improves enjoyment. Enjoyment gives you more to be grateful for, which keeps that loop of the upward spiral going. Enjoyment also makes it more likely you’ll exercise and be social, which, in turn, will make you happier.
So thank you for reading this.
And send that thank you email now to make you and someone you care about very happy.
Beautiful video about how others see us compared to how we see ourselves. What we think and say matters… From a research standpoint – there are some points we could debate – but a beautiful message either way. Well worth the six minutes.
Do you know what the most common regret people express on their deathbed is? It’s “I wish I had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”
This blog post is about how not to have that regret on your deathbed.
So, what stops people from living a life that’s true to them?
The first thing that stops people from living a life that’s true to them is the fact that they never defined or got clear on what’s true to them. They never got clear on what their own deepest values are and what’s meaningful to them.
When we feel out of touch with the deepest and truest part of ourselves, it’s all to common to fall into just following societal norms and values (which are often very different from your own) or we submit to doing what our loved ones want us to do (often in an attempt to get them to like/approve of us) instead of what we really want to do. Sound familiar?
“‘Cheshire Cat,’ asked Alice. ‘Would you tell me please, which way I ought to go from here?’ ‘That depends a good deal on where you want to go,’ said the Cat. ‘I don’t much care where,’ said Alice. ‘Then it doesn’t matter where you go,’ said the Cat.” –Lewis Carrol
The second thing that stops people from living their truth is a lack of awareness. A lack of mindfulness. Without mindfulness we tend to live much of our lives on ‘autopilot’ and when we’re on autopilot we often fall into conditioned, mechanical patterns of thought and behavior… most of which we did not consciously choose, and most of which was handed down to us from our culture and upbringing. Living in unawareness like this leads to a sense of discontent and disconnection from ourselves.
Mindfulness means waking up out of autopilot and connecting deeply with ourselves and our lives. It’s the ‘art of conscious living’ as Jon Kabat-Zinn likes to say. Mindfulness gives us the capacity not only to ‘listen to our hearts’ and to stay in touch with what’s meaningful to us, but it also gives us the ability to respond (from our values) and not to react (from old conditioning).
In other words, mindfulness is needed in order to LIVE your values on a daily basis.
What Are Values & Why Are They So Important?
We all have values – they are as much a part of us as our blood types or our genetic make up. They are as unique to us as our individual thumbprints. Our core values determine what’s really important and meaningful to us.
Values are who you are in your own deepest nature, not who you think you should be in order to fit in. They’re like a compass that points us to our “true north.”
When the way you think, speak and behave match your values, life feels very good – you feel whole, content, in your power. But when these don’t align with your personal values, then things feel… wrong. Life feels uneasy. You feel out of touch, discontented, restless, unhappy.
As you can see from the number one regret of the dying, there is a steep price to pay for not living according to ‘what’s true to you.’ When life feels ‘wrong’ many people try to ‘fill up’ through external pleasuring or they may try numbing or distracting themselves by keeping busy… but until you come back to living your truth, until you come back to this internal homeostasis of balance and ease, those efforts to ‘fix’ things externally will be futile.
“Follow your bliss. If you do follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while waiting for you, and the life you ought to be living is the one that you are living. When you can see that, you begin to meet people who are in the field of your bliss, and they open the doors to you. I say, follow your bliss and don’t be afraid, and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be. If you follow your bliss, doors will open for you that wouldn’t have opened for anyone else.” –Joseph Campbell
This is why making a conscious effort to identify and live your values is so vitally important. Here is a simple six-step process to help you identify your own core values…
How To Discover Your Core Values in Six Simple Steps…
“Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom. Mastering others is strength; mastering yourself is true power.” — Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching
STEP 1: EXPLORE
Let’s start of with an exercise to help you clearly identify your core values. Grab a pen and paper or perhaps you can choose to take notes on your computer or device.
Can you recall a moment where you felt totally yourself? A peak moment of life when you were in your element, when everything just felt… aligned? A moment when you felt happy and fulfilled? Take some time to recall this peak moment. When you’re ready, take some notes describing this peak moment in some detail.
For example, here is one of my own recent peak moments:
I had been teaching a retreat for four days and we (there were 40 of us all together) were doing a ‘closing circle’ since the retreat was coming to an end. As people began to share one by one, they really opened their hearts and shared very intimate stories, spoke of personal breakthroughs and deep insights into the human condition. There was a real sense of love, tenderness and camaraderie in the room. There were tears of laughter and tears of joy… we all ended up crying together! It felt so intimate, real and deeply connecting. I felt like I was doing exactly what I should be doing.
Once you’ve written down a peak experience of your own then…
STEP 2: EXTRACT
Ok, now that you have your peak experience written down, think about what values were being expressed and felt in that moment. What was important to you about this moment that made it so special?
From the moment I described above, I can extract that I value:
-Love and connection -Working with people to help them suffer less and be happier (Contribution) -Being open, vulnerable and authentic -Feelings of courage and strength -Vitality – a deep sense of aliveness
So now jot down a couple of things from your peak moment. Got them?
STEP 3: CHOOSE
Pick one or two values that you’ve identified as most important to you. Write them down on your paper.
Out of my five values identified above, I feel like ‘contribution’ is the one that is most important to me in my life. A close second would be ‘love.’
STEP 4: DEFINE
Now write a little bit about what your chosen value (or values) means to you. Different words mean different things to different people so it’s important to define what this value means to YOU in your life.
To me ‘contribution’ essentially means that I am being kind and caring… I am expressing the love in my heart. I am helping the world to become more peaceful, happy, healthy and in harmony. Contribution is an outward flow from my innate feelings of love towards life. The value of ‘love’ is very closely related but subtly different to me. Love as mentioned above means to me that I am feeling a deep sense of connection with another being or with life in that moment.
Write what your values mean to you, and then…
STEP 5: NAME
Choose a value name that feels right to YOU. Like I said, different words can mean different things for people so it’s important to define how this word is meaningful to you.
For instance, the word contribution to me is only meaningful if I am truly expressing my innate love for life.
I wouldn’t feel I was expressing my value of contribution if I were doing someone a favor, for example, but doing it begrudgingly. To me it always has to have genuine loving energy behind it. Contribution to me is active. Another word for contribution, in the way I mean it, could be ‘kindness.’ In fact, I feel that word fits better for me so I an going to name this value ‘kindness.’
Also perhaps to someone else ‘love’ would mean romantic love or it might mean speaking and acting in certain ways. My personal value of love means to me that I am experiencing and expressing feelings of connection and intimacy with a being or with life. So ‘love’ is my second value name.
What are yours? Jot them down.
STEP 6: REPEAT & REVEAL YOUR CORE VALUES
Now that you have one or two values you can now repeat steps 1 to 5 until you have a set of 5 to 7 values. We call this your set of core values. You may notice the same ones coming up again and again and that’s fine. See though, if you can explore the new ones that come up as you go through the steps again until you have your core 5 to 7.
Next week we’ll talk about how to LIVE your values in daily life (the most important part!) so stay tuned for that. But one more thing I’d like to make clear about values before we go.
The Difference Between Values and Goals
There is an important distinction that needs to be made between values and goals.
Values provide a deep sense of ongoing direction for our lives – they are not ends in themselves. Goals are things that we want to achieve or do – they are often ends in themselves. Values always exist in the present moment… they can be drawn on at any given moment. Goals are in the future.
Values Are Not Rules Or Commandments
Some spiritual traditions tell people what they should value and how they should act but that’s not what we’re talking about here. Values, in the way we speak of it here, are freely chosen by YOU. Your true values are not imposed on you from external sources. They come from listening to your heart and tuning in to what matters the most to YOU.
In order to live a life that is true to you, you must be willing to be completely honest with yourself about what you value most in life.
Values are not rules or commandments and they’re best held lightly. They don’t need to become rigid or static. Values may take new forms and change and develop over time.
Now you know what your values are. In the next post I’ll give you two powerful mindfulness-based practices to help you live your values in daily life. See you then!
Of course, as always, please let me know if you have questions and comments in the comments section below. I’d love to hear how you go with it
New Research Shows That Mindfulness Is the Secret to Happiness
Reblogged from http://mrsmindfulness.com/ted-talk-happiness-is-mindfulness/
New research is shedding light on the pursuit of happiness—and most of us have been looking in all the wrong places. It turns out, happiness is not found in external things at all, but is a power we hold within ourselves.
Harvard researcher Matt Killingsworth created an app in attempts to answer the question “what makes us happy?” once and for all, and the results have been an eye-opener. According to Mr. Killingworth’s data, we’re happiest when we are mindful of the moment, and we’re least happy when the mind is wandering.
This study took a large sampling of 15,000 individuals. The sampling was diverse—it included people across the socio-economic stratosphere, of varying levels of education, age, occupation, incomes, marital status and across 80 countries.
The premise was simple: throughout the day, at random times, participants were contacted through their phones and asked to rate their current happiness level, what activity they were involved in when the call came, and whether or not their mind was wandering from the activity.
As it turned out, what made people happy had far less to do with what they were doing and significantly more to do with whether their attention was fully present in the moment.
People who focused on their present moment experience (in other words, people who were being ‘mindful’) were significantly happier than people whose minds wandered away from the moment.
You might assume that people who let their minds wander to happy thoughts would have been happy right?—and it is true that people whose minds wandered to happy thoughts were slightly better off than those whose minds wandered to worries or regrets. But people letting their minds wander to pleasant things were still not as happy as people who kept their minds in the moment.
Even if the activity at hand was deemed unpleasant, people were still happier when they engaged their attention fully in the now.
There is plenty of previous research that supports Killingsworth’s findings. We know for instance, that money doesn’t make us happy. Studies have shown that as long as basic needs, such as food and shelter are met, additional wealth and material goods have little bearing on happiness (1).
Dr. Mihaly Chentmihalyi, leading authority on positive psychology, studied happiness extensively in the 1960’s and came up with the same results as Killingsworth. He spoke of the peak state of human beings being a state he called ‘flow’.
According to Killingsworth, the average persons mind is wandering around 47% of our day—and when the mind wanders we don’t feel happy. Spending so much time with the mind wandering makes us vulnerable to depression, stress, anxiety and other negative emotions.
As many people continue to seek external gratification as a source of happiness, their wandering minds are overlooked as the source of their discontent.
This great study by Killingsworth supports the growing body of research on the powerful effects of mindfulness. The data shows us what wisdom traditions have long taught – that the keys to happiness – to true well-being and fulfillment – depend not on the external circumstances of our lives, but on the state of our minds and the quality of our consciousness.