The benefits of mindfulness are widely known.
A quick internet search highlights its incredible potential for improving how we cope with stress, set goals, manage symptoms of depression, and even find meaning and fulfillment in life (Sevinc et al., 2018; Ivtzan, Chan, Gardner, & Prashar, 2011).
Furthermore, the claims are backed up by well-thought-out and repeatable research studies (Shapiro, 2020).
Nevertheless, it is vital that we understand the meaning and science behind mindfulness. How does it influence and benefit both our psychological and physiological wellbeing?
In this article, we explore just that. We look at the meaning by mindfulness, its psychology, and its application across our life domains.
Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our 3 Mindfulness Exercises for free. These science-based, comprehensive exercises will help you cultivate a sense of inner peace throughout your daily life and will also give you the tools to enhance the mindfulness of your clients, students, or employees.
This Article Contains:
What Is the Meaning of Mindfulness?
Mindfulness, or sampajañña in Pali–one of the major languages of the Buddhist scriptures–means clear comprehension. Its definition aligns with its purpose, to help us see more clearly, respond more effectively to what life throws at us, and ultimately make wiser choices (Shapiro, 2020).
When used as a noun, mindfulness typically suggests a state of mind: one of calmness, gratitude, and compassion that can have a profound effect on us.
When used as a verb, for example, “to be mindful,” it points to entering that state, practicing a way of being, a moment-by-moment gentle and nurturing awareness of our emotions, thoughts, and bodily sensations. And research backs up anecdotal evidence that obtaining a mindful brain can lead to a happier and more productive life (Shapiro, 2020; Williams & Penman, 2016).
While mindfulness has its origins in ancient Chinese medicine, in recent years, it has been widely integrated into modern western therapies for treating a broad range of psychological and physiological conditions (Tang, 2018).
After all, “mindfulness training can improve mental activity and change brain connectivity and bodily processes”, writes Professor of Psychological Science and Internal Medicine at Texas Tech University, Yi-Yuan Tang (Tang, 2018, p. viii).
Indeed, its effects are so rapid that even as few as five sessions of practice can lead to improvements in both the central and autonomic nervous systems—essential for regulating involuntary bodily functions, processing stress and danger, and the connection between our brain and our internal organs (Tang, 2018).
Deeply ingrained in the idea and meaning of mindfulness is the recognition that we are far from being fixed in who we are—we are ‘neuroplastic.’ This is how neuroscientists refer to our ability to learn, unlearn, and grow.
The idea that our brain is constantly changing throughout our lives means that our sense of happiness, contentment, and meaningful living, can be transformed through how we experience the present (Shapiro, 2020; Eysenck & Keane, 2015).
A Look at the Psychology of Mindfulness
Having extensively researched and written about mindfulness and how to conceptualize it, Shauna Shapiro says that “mindfulness isn’t just about paying attention.
It’s about how we pay attention” (Shapiro, 2020, p. 9). Shapiro describes the three vital psychological elements of mindfulness as follows:
- Intention – how we use our heart as our compass, directing and reflecting our most profound hopes and values;
- Attention – training and grounding our mind in the present moment;
- Attitude – paying attention with an attitude of compassion and curiosity.
Psychology shows that mindfulness can help us escape the vicious cycle of negative thinking, allowing us to “step outside the chattering negative self-talk” and our reactive impulses and emotions (Williams & Penman, 2016, p. 30).
After all, while we cannot stop the triggering of unhappy or upsetting memories, judgmental ways of thinking, and the noise of negative self-talk, we can choose what happens next. Mindfulness offers a pause, a reset, and an alternate way of seeing ourselves and our environment by stepping out of ‘doing’ and into ‘being.’
As such, the mind can do more than merely think – it can be aware of its thinking. Such presence–or metacognition–allows us to experience the world more directly and with less bias. We can look at the world with eyes wide open, with positive emotions–such as wonder, awe, and gratitude–that encourage us to enter an upward spiral of positivity (Fredrickson, 2010).
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), research suggests that, despite not being fully understood, the benefits of mindfulness come from its ability to help us “dial down the body’s response to stress” (American Psychological Association, 2019, para. 10).
It seems that by changing activity within regions of the brain associated with attention and emotional regulation, mindfulness lowers our response to stress, driving positive downstream effects throughout the body.
Changing behavior–even when unhealthy or unhelpful–is often tricky, seemingly beyond our conscious control. After all, according to Tang’s research, consciousness is not a requirement of behavior or a precursor towards changing it (Tang, 2018).
Mindfulness offers a solution by unconsciously transforming how we think, feel, and act. Indeed, mindfulness has been shown to help those wishing to reduce or stop smoking and drinking through an improved process of self-awareness of thought patterns, often lacking in those with addictions (Tang, 2018).
Mindfulness and Positive Psychology: What Are the Links?
As Martin Seligman, often credited as the father of Positive Psychology, suggested, positive psychology must continue to evolve beyond being only from the ‘neck up’ to include and integrate the whole body.
Such transformation and inclusion have led to engaging with many cutting-edge therapeutic and neurofeedback techniques, such as biofeedback and mindfulness, which have proved highly successful in treating anxiety and other conditions associated with mental ill-health (Lomas et al., 2014).
Mindfulness can also be entirely supportive and conducive to positive psychology that supports a focus on positive emotions, such as gratitude and compassion. Mindfulness and meditation can promote sustained reflection on emotions and thoughts – this can encourage movement away from the bias of dwelling on negative emotions towards more positive ones to increase an individual’s experience of them (Lomas, Hefferon, & Ivtzan, 2014).
Like positive psychology, mindfulness encourages acceptance and awareness that emotions are often influenced by, and affected upon, bodily sensations, along with an acknowledgment that even the most painful emotions are transient – they’re distressing effects typically wane or change over time (Lomas et al., 2014).
“Growing evidence has indicated that mindfulness practice induces both state and trait changes” (Tang, 2018, p. 30). Mindfulness meditation appears in the immediate sense to change the brain’s condition, connectivity, and pattern of activity temporarily. And yet, following more extended periods of engagement, such techniques may even change our disposition to mindfulness itself and make small shifts to an individual’s personality.
The potential to help clients manage difficult circumstances, emotions, and thought patterns is considerable.
Indeed, intervention programs have been successfully created that combine the approaches and goals of positive psychology with mindfulness. One in particular, created by Itai Ivtzan and colleagues, combined ideas from the ‘best possible self’ intervention with mindfulness meditation practice to focus on ways to create more meaningful lives (Ivtzan, Lomas, Hefferon, & Worth, 2016).
Mindfulness and Psychology – Practical Applications
Mindfulness is increasingly being combined and incorporated into other psychological approaches and therapeutic styles across all domains of life.
We’ll look at the top three:
1. Mindfulness in education
Research shows that even brief mindfulness exercises have positive and immediate effects on memory performance (Lloyd et al., 2016).
Furthermore, beyond the cognitive benefits, when students were given simple breathing meditation practice, their blood pressure and heart rate reduced, leaving them in a better position for learning and being examined (Tang, 2018).
Mindful communication–speaking and listening with mindfulness–requires that our words reflect our values and a deeper connection to who we are, which can positively affect education – improving decision-making, focus, and attention. Mindfulness has also been found to reduce stereotyping and cross-cultural misunderstandings, to create a supportive and positive learning environment and experience (Tang, 2018).
Adopting mindfulness in educational institutions encourages rational thinking, intuition, and creativity. When age-appropriate mindfulness exercises and games were introduced in schools, those least skilled in attention, planning, and organization were seen to improve the most (Tang, 2018).
2. Mindfulness at work
Workplace environments are an increasing source of stress and anxiety and may benefit the most from the positive impact of mindfulness training. After all, a non-judgmental, compassionate focus on the present can boost positive emotions, focus, attention, and imagination, all vital to occupational performance (Baas, Nevicka, & Velden, 2020; Seligman, 2011).
“Fortune 500 companies such as Google, Proctor & Gamble, Aetna, Facebook, and General Mills have been implementing large-scale mindfulness programs over the past few years” (Shapiro, 2020, p. 155).
Such companies have witnessed considerable success from such interventions, not least decreased stress, improved decision-making, greater company loyalty, improved innovation, and boosted productivity. Indeed, an improved attitude, including compassion, kindness, and curiosity–central to mindfulness–can create an environment of psychological safety more conducive to teamwork, success, and creativity (Shapiro, 2020).
3. Mindfulness therapy
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) embraces mindfulness techniques, with considerable success, in treating anxiety and related conditions. Through mindfulness, the client is encouraged to adopt a more compassionate acceptance of harmful or toxic emotions rather than struggle, or fight, against them.
“Mindful acceptance is an active, fully conscious, softer stance toward your mind and body and your life experiences,” and it has the power and potential to help you get unstuck and move forward (Forsyth & Eifert, 2016, p. 165).
Like ACT, Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) is another third-wave cognitive behavioral treatment. It combines mindfulness meditation practices with existing therapeutic approaches to encourage both acceptance and compassion towards internal experiences.
MBCT’s approach recognizes that difficult emotions are intrinsically associated with certain situations and events, and that mindfulness can facilitate new orientations towards them.
MBCT has shown particular effectiveness with clients suffering from depression, helping them bring attention to their bodily sensations, emotions, and thoughts “and to respond adaptively to the early warning signs of relapse” (Crane, 2009, p. 3).
Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) combines cognitive, behavioral, and mindfulness-based strategies to treat self-injuring and suicidal clients with borderline personality disorder.
Individuals are encouraged to identify and accept things as they are, rather than reject or deny their reality, and non-judgementally focus on the present. Mindfulness techniques encourage paying attention, with purpose, and without judgment, to reduce feelings of suffering and being overwhelmed – balancing emotion and reason (Dobson & Dozois, 2021).
There are various ways to teach mindfulness, as explained in depth in the linked article.
Indeed, with modern technology, mindfulness techniques can be successfully shared in person or remotely through online videos, podcasts, and even via smartphone apps.
While approaches and settings may vary, classes may be found in athletic clubs, hospitals, private clinics, and yoga studios. Those participating must recognize that mindfulness should be practiced consistently and is best learned from a trained practitioner for it to be most beneficial.
Research has also shown that online taught mindfulness programs can positively affect mental health (American Psychological Association, 2019).
Best Resources From PositivePsychology.com
We have many resources available to support therapists as they teach their clients mindfulness skills and techniques to help them become more grounded in the present and compassionate toward how they think and feel.
Why not download our free mindfulness pack and test the powerful tools contained within, including:
The Wheel of Awareness
The script and audio available for this practice provide a valuable means to support clients as they boost mindful awareness of themselves and the outside world. The diagram included provides an effective tool for visualizing the individual’s wheel of awareness, comprising their mental activities, the interior of their body, touch-taste-smell-sight-hearing, and their interconnectedness.
Eye of the Hurricane Meditation
Through this exercise, clients learn the importance of using their breath to create inner peace while disconnecting from upsetting and unhelpful thoughts, emotions, and other harmful stressors. The goal is to instruct clients how to explore their inner peace as though in the eye of a hurricane protected from strong and turbulent winds. With practice, the client moves from reacting to merely observing.
Other free resources include:
- Creating a mindfulness anxiety plan
The steps within this activity create a mindfulness plan for anxiety triggers. Use them with clients to help them expect what might happen and learn to process even unexpected events.
- Workplace mindfulness
Learning to become more compassionate to ourselves and others can benefit how we handle stress in the workplace. Use these three elements of mindfulness to help decrease stress and improve workplace satisfaction.
- Mindfulness X©
The Mindfulness X© Masterclass, created by our very own Dr. Hugo Alberts, offers a comprehensive eight-session mindfulness training program that includes everything you need to offer mindfulness training, including videos, exercises, worksheets, and slides.
We also have many other mindfulness tools and activities available with a subscription to the Positive Psychology Toolkit©.
A Take-Home Message
No single therapeutic approach or set of interventions can help everyone suffering from mental health issues all the time. However, mindfulness has proven effective in various situations, including helping clients who suffer from anxiety, depression, and addictive behavior.
Not only that, mindfulness can easily be integrated into other approaches, such as Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, as seen in newer, third-wave methods, including Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Dialectical Behavior Therapy, and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy.
Because of the ease with which mindfulness techniques can be taught–including online, in-person, video training, and app-based–skills can be acquired quickly and used in multiple settings, including work, education, and parenting.
However, it is important that mindfulness techniques are recognized as most beneficial when performed over protracted periods. While there are some immediate changes to the brain during and after mindfulness sessions, when used over time, clients can experience improvement in how they handle stress, form and maintain relationships, and set meaningful, value-based goals for how they wish to live their lives.
- American Psychological Association. (2019, October 30). Mindfulness meditation: A research-proven way to reduce stress. Retrieved September 29, 2022 from https://www.apa.org/topics/mindfulness/meditation
- 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, 1-14.
- Crane, R. (2009). Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy. Hove, E Sussex: Routledge.
- Dobson, K. S., & Dozois, D. J. (2021). Handbook of cognitive-behavioral therapies. The Guilford Press.
- Eysenck, M. W., & Keane, M. T. (2015). Cognitive psychology: A student’s handbook. New York: Psychology Press.
- Forsyth, J. P., & Eifert, G. H. (2016). The Mindfulness & Acceptance Workbook for Anxiety: A Guide to breaking free from anxiety, Phobias & Worry Using Acceptance & Commitment therapy. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.
- Fredrickson, B. (2010). Positivity: Groundbreaking research reveals how to release your inner optimist and thrive. Richmond: Oneworld.
- Ivtzan, I., Chan, C. P. L., Gardner, H. E., & Prashar, K. (2011). Linking Religion and Spirituality with Psychological Well-being: Examining Self-actualisation, Meaning in Life, and Personal Growth Initiative. Journal of Religion and Health, 52(3), 915–929.
- Ivtzan, I., Lomas, T., Hefferon, K., & Worth, P. (2016). Second wave positive psychology: Embracing the Dark Side of Life. London: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.
- 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.
- Lomas, T., Hefferon, K., & Ivtzan, I. (2014). Applied positive psychology: Integrated positive practice. Los Angeles: SAGE.
- Seligman, M. (2011). Flourish: A new understanding of happiness and well-being and how to achieve them. London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing.
- Sevinc, G., Hölzel, B. K., Hashmi, J., Greenberg, J., McCallister, A., Treadway, M., . . . Lazar, S. W. (2018). Common and dissociable neural activity after mindfulness-based stress reduction and relaxation response programs. Psychosomatic Medicine, 80(5), 439-451.
- Shapiro, S. L. (2020). Rewire your mind: Discover the science + practice of mindfulness. London: Aster.
- Tang, Y. (2018). Neuroscience of mindfulness meditation: How the body and mind work together to change our … behaviour. Palgrave Macmillan.
- Williams, M., & Penman, D. (2016). Mindfulness: A practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world. United States: Joosr.