Life can be overwhelming.
Our minds fill with chatter, our view of the world becomes tainted and distorted, and our ability to be present is lost.
Does that sound familiar?
It should. Life is often frantic and exhausting. And it is impacting our happiness, health, education, work, and even the economy.
So, what is your escape plan?
There is growing recognition that mindfulness-based therapies offer support for our mental health. Perhaps less well known, these techniques also dramatically improve our physical wellbeing.
Mindfulness takes us beyond coping and making do. The techniques help us to see the world differently, grow, flourish, and live a more compassionate, fulfilled life.
If mindfulness were a pill, we should all be taking it.
This article will not solve all your problems. It will introduce you to the importance of mindfulness and explore some of the reasons why you should be practicing it.
Before you read on, we thought you might like to download our three Mindfulness Exercises for free. These science-based, comprehensive exercises will help you cultivate a sense of inner peace throughout your daily life and give you tools to enhance the mindfulness of your clients, students, or employees.
This article contains:
Why Is Practicing Mindfulness Important?
Our mind is not a good fit for how and where we live.
By practicing mindfulness, though, we have the power to respond to our environment differently.
Why don’t we fit?
Homo sapiens – us – evolved over 200,000 years ago. Our bodies and minds are the results of an incredible series of adaptations brought about by a combination of random genetic mutations, reproductive success, and inheritance.
Such adaptations enabled the human race to survive the harshest environments on earth against all the odds. Living in small groups, and tackling challenges together, humans were “on a camping trip that lasted a lifetime, and they had to solve many different kinds of problems well to survive and reproduce” (Cosmides & Tooby, 2013).
As a result, human nature excels at focusing on short-term, local problems. We are good at finding food, seeking shelter, and avoiding being eaten. We are not so successful at tackling less immediate challenges: climate change, obesity, war, pandemics, and the plight of refugees (Giphart, 2019).
Following thousands of years of relative stability, the last few hundred generations have witnessed incredible cultural revolutions. Farming, industry, and technology have all dramatically impacted the way we sleep, eat, communicate, and survive.
Our minds have failed to keep up with our changing lifestyles.
The brain and its processes are no longer a good fit for the modern world, known by evolutionary psychologists as a ‘psychological mismatch.’ This lack of alignment impacts our ability to cope.
We are left stressed, anxious, and depressed. But it doesn’t have to be so.
Saving the nation’s health
The Mindful Nation Report was published in 2015 by the UK government.
It had a goal unlike any other policy document that had gone before it:
To use positive psychology to change an entire nation.
Breaking it down, the authors aimed to find a way to:
- Improve mental health across the UK
- Increase creativity and productivity in the economy
- Help those suffering from long-term health conditions
And most exciting of all:
Encourage “the flourishing and wellbeing of a healthy nation”
According to the report, in 2015, up to 10% of the UK adult population was experiencing depression, with only one in three receiving support.
However, there is hope. We can learn ways to overcome our small-scale, ancestral brain.
Mindfulness holds the solution
The UK report found that the best way to tackle the problem is to encourage the practice of mindfulness in the workplace, education, health, and criminal justice systems.
Perhaps the biggest advantage of mindfulness is that it comes with very few barriers to entry.
Indeed, millions of people around the world practice mindfulness. It is seen as a natural, safe, and accessible approach to benefiting our mental health, in much the same way as jogging is to physical fitness.
So, what is this thing called mindfulness?
To be mindful means to pay attention to what is happening in the mind, body, and immediate environment and to remain present, while both curious and compassionate.
Moreover, mindfulness is not complicated.
It improves in response to a straightforward set of meditation practices that develop an increased awareness of thoughts, sensations, and feelings. Combined with increased kindness and passion, mindfulness improves our capacity to cope by identifying the options available to us.
Mindfulness leads to greater wellbeing and mental clarity, and an increased ability to care for both yourself and others.
The practice can be as simple as an awareness of breath and body. We observe our thoughts and emotions as they come and go before gently returning focus to physical sensations, while remaining curious, compassionate, and accepting.
Check out our body-scan meditation. Use the script or audio to take you through the steps.
How does mindfulness help?
We can all benefit from increasing our awareness while being less reactive and judgmental.
Take the following example:
She ignored me when I said hello.
I feel angry.
The first point describes what you believe you observed. And yet, it could be incomplete or incorrect.
The second point is a thought based on that observation. This mental event is not you. It can be observed objectively, without judgment.
I didn’t know at the time she had just heard some bad news. A close family member had died. She was distracted.
Mindfulness can help you foster more healthy, compassionate responses to your own experiences and those of others around you.
And no less incredible, it can, in a very literal sense, change your physical and mental wellbeing.
20+ Empirically Proven Benefits of Mindfulness
But does mindfulness really make a difference to our psychology and physiology? It’s not scientifically proven, is it?
The answer to both is a straightforward ‘yes!’
What follows is a discussion, based on peer-reviewed science, of the positive impact mindfulness has on our physical and mental wellbeing.
The benefits of mindfulness
Countless research studies have proven that mindfulness has many significant psychological, cognitive, and physical benefits.
Modified from Dr. Shapiro’s excellent guide to the science and practice of mindfulness, Rewire Your Mind: Discover the Science and Practice of Mindfulness (2020),we have captured many of them in the diagram below:
If it were not for the wealth of research in high-profile journals that underpin these claims, the impact of mindfulness on our brain and body would be almost unbelievable.
Below, we look at several psychological, cognitive, and emotional benefits and the research that upholds those claims.
In a recent study, researchers identified that undergraduates higher in mindfulness were less stressed, both psychologically and physiologically (Hicks et al., 2020).
In another study, children higher in mindfulness that had witnessed the trauma of a hurricane were less impacted by post-traumatic stress disorder (Cutright, Padgett, Awada, Pabis, & Pittman, 2019).
It appears that mindfulness helps us manage existing stress and offers protection from future upset.
Several recent studies have confirmed how important mindfulness is in managing our perceived happiness. And happiness is not just something that feels good; it offers protection against disease (morbidity) and even death (mortality). Indeed, maintaining a positive mindset is crucial to keeping healthy.
When mindfulness training was given to patients with diabetes, not only did their measures of happiness increase, but also, amazingly, their blood glucose levels were better controlled (Zarifsanaiey, Jamalian, Bazrafcan, Keshavarzy, & Shahraki, 2020).
And technology can help. In a 2014 study, an intervention using a smartphone app significantly enhanced wellbeing, including happiness (Howells, Ivtzan, & Eiroa-Orosa 2014).
Similar improvements have been seen in people with low mood, anxiety, and even depression.
If you want to boost your brain, then try some mindfulness techniques.
Mindfulness practices not only have a positive effect on stress; they also benefit sleep and memory (Brisbon & Lachman, 2017). As a result, significantly upping our mindfulness improves our chances of recalling information.
Indeed, mindfulness practices have proven so powerful that even a three-minute session provides immediate improvements to memory performance (Lloyd, Szani, Rubenstein, Colgary, & Pereira-Pasarin, 2016). It is so effective that the authors of the study suggest that a brief mindfulness session could reduce false recall in eyewitness statements in court.
Haven’t we all returned from a walk or run with new ideas to tackle existing problems?
Recently, research has uncovered that mindfulness sessions aid focus and increase creativity in both individuals and groups (Baas, Nevicka, & Velden, 2020).
And there are other cognitive benefits too. Mindfulness directly improves our ability to tackle problems. It reduces mind wandering and offers the potential to increase capacity in the rest of the brain for extra cognitive processing.
The physical benefits of mindfulness are extensive and backed by science.
Not only do we see improvements in our general health, but research has confirmed that mindfulness improves telomerase activity. This vital enzyme controls cellular aging and ultimately the age-related decline of the entire body (Jacobs et al., 2011).
Does this mean mindfulness keeps us young? Possibly.
Immunity is a critical factor in maintaining good health, particularly for anyone with a compromised immune function.
One particular study of women in the early stages of breast cancer found that mindfulness training not only reduced the women’s stress, fatigue, and sleep disturbances, but also optimized their immune system (Janusek, Tell, & Mathews, 2019).
Next, we take a look at the physical impact of mindfulness on the brain itself.
Can Mindfulness Change Your Brain?
Your brain is not fixed; you can change it.
Grow who you want to be
Scientists used to believe that after a certain age, the human brain stopped changing. Research has proved this to be untrue.
While our genetics and our early years partially define who we are, the rest is malleable. “With every passing day, we are literally training our minds and changing our brains, so we can flourish individually and collectively,” says Dr. Shauna Shapiro in Rewire Your Mind: Discover the Science and Practice of Mindfulness (2020).
This realization is hugely important and freeing.
Our parents and our upbringing matter, but the rest of who we are is a choice we make. We can either see this as an existential crisis – the horror that we must take responsibility for who we are – or as an opportunity to be who or what we want.
The concept of neuroplasticity means that our brain continually develops throughout life. At any age, you can change your brain’s physical architecture. And it makes sense in evolutionary terms; we strengthen essential pathways and prune back ones that serve no purpose.
So, if we don’t have to stick with our old patterns of thinking and behavior, why do we?
Well, it requires effort to practice. There are no free passes.
The question then is: what do you want to grow?
And yes, this is where mindfulness comes in.
So, what changes in the brain?
We have already seen the positive influence of mindfulness on the workings of our brain, the psychological and cognitive processing.
Surprisingly, we also have clear evidence that mindfulness impacts not only the software of the brain, but the hardware (or wetware as its sometimes called).
In a 2018 study of peer-reviewed research using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) Young et al. found that mindfulness changed activity in the brain’s insular cortex.
This part of the brain is involved in an overwhelming variety of functions, including decision making, sensory processing, and handling feelings and emotions. It is also associated with awareness of internal reactions, or in a very literal sense, our ability to be in the moment (Young et al., 2018).
Other studies have found that mindfulness increases the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (Cahn, Goodman, Peterson, Maturi, & Mills, 2017). This essential protein encourages the development, survival, and plasticity of neurons in the brain.
All scientific evidence points to the ability of mindfulness to rewire the brain, impacting our learning, memory, and cognition.
3 Benefits of Mindfulness in Schools
Governments around the world are beginning to see the vast potential of mindfulness in education.
Mindfulness in schools can help by:
- Improving academic results
- Increasing children’s mental health
- Fostering resilience and character building
As a result, many schools are now focusing their energies and resources on strengthening these key elements and promoting overall wellbeing.
Indeed, mindfulness improves the capacity of a child’s brain to manage cognitive processes such as problem solving, memory, and reasoning. Long term, this ability to understand and manage emotions predicts health, income, and the likelihood of criminal behavior in later life (Moffitt et al., 2011).
And fortunately, those who need the most help experience the most significant benefits from mindfulness.
If it’s so good, how do we teach mindfulness in schools?
Well, there are several initiatives in progress in UK schools and beyond, including the Inner Explorer program, Learning to Breathe, Mindful Schools, and .b mindfulness.
Recent reviews of such mindfulness-based training programs have reported considerable success. The programs are practical to implement and improve attention, working memory, problem solving, self-control, and resilience in children. They also help both students and teachers to manage stress within the school environment (Semple, Droutman, & Reid, 2016).
Is It Important in the Workplace?
While our mental wellbeing is crucial to ourselves and our family, it also dramatically affects businesses and the broader economy.
Indeed, some 70 million sick days are taken each year in the UK due to poor mental health.
Is mindfulness the answer?
Yes, at least partly. Though much of the research is still in its early stages, some progressive, world-leading companies seem to think mindfulness has a big part to play.
Google has found considerable success with its employee program Search Inside Yourself (Confino, 2014). Not only has it seen productivity improvements, but it is also recognized as the reason that Google ranks as one of the best employers in the world.
And it doesn’t stop there.
Mindfulness has some other equally strong supporters including Nike, Bill Gates, and Oprah Winfrey (Dube, 2019).
Research has found improvements to mental wellbeing across a wide array of professions from schoolteachers to police and fire services. It has also led to some unexpected improvements. Mindfulness reportedly reduces racial and age-related discrimination.
The workplace can become happier, more productive, and fairer.
However, I offer a note of caution.
While mindfulness offers a wealth of benefits to both the individual and the organization, it does not fix an entire business. It cannot correct overly excessive workloads, poor management, or a bad working environment.
Rather, while mindfulness builds more productive, focused, and compassionate staff, it relies on sound business and economic decisions to help the company flourish (Bhojani & Kurucz, 2020).
A Take-Home Message
Mindfulness changes you psychologically, cognitively, and physically.
Choose mindfulness and you are deciding to be happier, less stressed, more focused, and more creative while improving your sleep, immunity, and your life expectancy.
But there is one more thing. Mindfulness also offers an incredible opportunity to flourish in life. You will learn how to stop, breathe, see beauty, and live with compassion and joy.
While mindfulness does not change all that happens to you, it does change your relationships with what happens.
It provides space between events and how you respond. In that moment, you can ask yourself: ‘how do I want to act?’ and ‘how do I want to live?’
Visit some of our learnings and exercises on mindfulness. The techniques provided will help you to experience your life fully, regain a sense of control, and become the very best version of yourself.
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Mindfulness Exercises for free.
- Baas, M., Nevicka, B., & Velden, F. S. (2020). When paying attention pays off: The mindfulness skill act with awareness promotes creative idea generation in groups. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 4, 619–632.
- Bhojani Z., & Kurucz E. C. (2020) Sustainable happiness, well-being, and mindfulness in the workplace. In S. Dhiman (Ed.) The Palgrave handbook of workplace well-being. Palgrave Macmillan.
- Brisbon, N. M., & Lachman, M. E. (2017) Dispositional mindfulness and memory problems: The role of perceived stress and sleep quality. Mindfulness, 8, 379–386.
- Cahn, B. R., Goodman, M. S., Peterson, C. T., Maturi, R., & Mills, P. J. (2017). 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, 11.
- Confino, J. (2014, May 14). Google’s head of mindfulness: ‘Goodness is good for business’. The Guardian. Retrieved July 10, 2020, from http://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/google-meditation-mindfulness-technology
- Cosmides, L., & Tooby, J. (2013). Evolutionary psychology: New perspectives on cognition and motivation. Annual Review of Psychology, 64(1), 201–229.
- Cutright, N. L., Padgett, E. E., Awada, S. R., Pabis, J. M., & Pittman, L. D. (2019) The role of mindfulness in psychological outcomes for children following hurricane exposure. Mindfulness, 10, 1760–1767.
- Dube, R. (2019, March 25). Why more companies are cultivating a culture of mindfulness. Forbes. Retrieved July 10, 2020, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/robdube/2019/03/25/why-more-companies-are-cultivating-a-culture-of-mindfulness/
- Giphart, R. (2019). Mismatch: How our Stone-Age brain deceives us every day. Little, Brown Book Group Limited.
- Hicks, A., Siwik, C., Phillips, K., Zimmaro, L. A., Salmon, P., Burke, N., … Sephton, S. E. (2020). Dispositional mindfulness is associated with lower basal sympathetic arousal and less psychological stress. International Journal of Stress Management, 27(1), 88–92.
- Howells, A., Ivtzan, I., & Eiroa-Orosa, F. J. (2014). Putting the “app” in happiness: A randomised controlled trial of a smartphone-based mindfulness intervention to enhance wellbeing. Journal of Happiness Studies, 17(1), 163–185.
- Jacobs, T. L., Epel, E. S., Lin, J., Blackburn, E. H., Wolkowitz, O. M., Bridwell, D. A., … King, B. G. (2011). Intensive meditation training, immune cell telomerase activity, and psychological mediators. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 36(5), 664–681.
- Janusek, L. W., Tell, D., & Mathews, H. L. (2019). Mindfulness-based stress reduction provides psychological benefit and restores immune function of women newly diagnosed with breast cancer: A randomized trial with active control. Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, 80, 358–373.
- Lloyd, M., Szani, A., Rubenstein, K., Colgary, C., & Pereira-Pasarin, L. (2016). A brief mindfulness exercise before retrieval reduces recognition memory false alarms. Mindfulness, 7(3), 606–613.
- Moffitt, T. E., Arseneault, L., Belsky, D., Dickson, N., Hancox, R. J., Harrington, H., … Sears, M. R. (2011). A gradient of childhood self-control predicts health, wealth, and public safety. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(7), 2693–2698.
- Semple, R. J., Droutman, V., & Reid, B. A. (2016). Mindfulness goes to schools: Things learned (so far) from research and real-world experiences. Psychology in the Schools, 54(1), 29–52.
- Shapiro, S. L. (2020). Rewire your mind: Discover the science and practice of mindfulness. Aster. (Amazon)
- Young, K. S., van der Velden, A. M., Craske, M. G., Pallesen, K. J., Fjorback, L., Roepstorff, A., & Parsons, C. E. (2018). The impact of mindfulness-based interventions on brain activity: A systematic review of functional magnetic resonance imaging studies. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 84, 424–433.
- Zarifsanaiey, N., Jamalian, K., Bazrafcan, L., Keshavarzy, F., & Shahraki, H. R. (2020). The effects of mindfulness training on the level of happiness and blood sugar in diabetes patients. Journal of Diabetes & Metabolic Disorders, 19(1), 311–317.