Mindfulness, experts say, is a practice that helps us self-regulate our attention — in other words, mindfulness helps us pay attention to our thoughts. Staying mindful, or in the moment, allows us to appreciate life as it happens. When our minds are busy focusing on the present, it’s impossible to also be ruminating about the past or worrying about the future.
Beyond the reduction of negative thought patterns, a host of benefits can be reaped simply by staying in the moment, research shows.
“When I start talking about all the things mindfulness can do, I sound like a snake-oil salesman,” jokes Richard Sears, of the Center for Clinical Mindfulness and Meditation at Union Institute and University in Cincinnati. “It increases happiness, improves relationships, helps alleviate
conditions like depression and chronic pain….But really, what’s going on is awareness. It’s about paying attention, bringing us back to what is going on right now.”
Based on a 2,600-year-old Buddhist practice, mindfulness has sparked global interest in recent years. Today, mindfulness is frequently practiced independently of any religious context. But if sitting in the lotus position doesn’t sound very comfortable to you, don’t worry.
Although mindfulness is a form of meditation, it doesn’t necessarily require chanting or sitting cross-legged on the floor. (But if a certain position or phrase helps you focus, have at it!)
“It doesn’t have to be done in the same formal way as what we would normally think of as meditation,” Sears explains. “Mindfulness can be taking a breath, taking a moment to notice the trees while taking a walk; it’s more about setting aside time to be with yourself — in whatever form that may take.”
Happy Act: Break the Rules
What do you do on a regular basis simply because “everyone” likes it? If you don’t like it, stop doing it! Carve your own path to happiness.
The Wisdom of Mindfulness
The mind-body connection has been well-proven over time, and mindfulness proponents and practitioners say it holds many keys to creating a healthier, happier life by positively influencing the body. “It’s not a cure-all, but it will assist in whatever a person is struggling with, whetherthat’s physical, mental or emotional,” says Ryan M. Niemiec, education director at the VIA Institute on Character and author of “Mindfulness and Character Strengths.” “It offers support and assistance in whatever you’re trying to accomplish. Take, for example, someone with chronic pain; to learn how to face that directly is a huge challenge. But to bring an honest
awareness to your own suffering can completely change your relationship with it.”
“Before” and “after” brain scans show that certain areas of the brain develop new neural connections after practicing mindfulness for about eight weeks. Richard Sears equates these physical changes in the brain to building muscle by lifting weights—over time, you get stronger, but it has to be maintained in order for the results to continue.
Some clinical studies have focused on how mindfulness can influence specific ailments, including substance abuse, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, autism, cancer, multiple sclerosis, heart disease, AIDS, high blood pressure and headaches. On the broadest level, mindfulness is seen as a tool to improve health, because it boosts our immune system. Scientists explain that, when practiced regularly, mindfulness can lead to lower secretions of cortisol and adrenaline, hormones that suppress the immune system.
Happy Act: Smile
Smile at strangers today. Pay attention to how you feel when you share a genuine smile with someone.
Four Ways to Get Started
- Take a breath. Breathe in deeply through your nose. Feel the air come into your body and fill your lungs and diaphragm. Hold your breath for a beat, and then exhale slowly, noticing how it feels when the air leaves your body.
- Take a bite. Pay attention to the food in your mouth—the texture and flavor. Chew slowly. Enjoy the taste.
- Take a moment to be aware of your body. From head to toe, notice how you feel—from the inside out. Notice any tension and consciously relax those muscles.
- Focus on the moment. Practice doing one thing at a time. Give your full attention to the task at hand.