Welcome to our limited series on The Science of Happiness. Introduction: here | Week One: here | Week Two: here | Week Three: here | Week Four: here | Week Five: here | Week Six: here | Week Seven: here | Week Eight: here | Week Nine: here
When last we left our fearless course, we were just finishing up the midterm exams. (I got an 88; would have aced it if I’d actually studied.) The second half of the course starts with a subject that is everywhere in the spiritual community these days – mindfulness.
What is the Mindfulness of Which You Speak?
Every New Age blogger and fitness guru from Brooklyn to Bermuda is preaching the Gospel of Mindfulness these days, and for good reason. According to numerous studies, engaging in a steady mindfulness practice including (but not limited to) meditation or yoga can have multiple health benefits.
- Reduces physical, psychological, and emotional distress
- Reduces anxiety and depression
- Improves attention and focus
- Increases the practitioner’s awareness of their own emotional state and makes them more resilient and quicker to recover from stressful incidents.
- Gives patients a practical, easily implemented set of skills to deal with their problems.
But what is mindfulness? Shauna Shapiro, a researcher at Santa Clara University, defines mindfulness as “…the awareness that arises out of intentionally paying attention in an open, kind, and discerning way.” Not rocket surgery, right?
Mindfulness through the Ages
Now, mindfulness is not a new concept. Pretty much every philosophical and religious tradition throughout history has incorporated mindfulness into their practices – meditation, prayer, yoga, loving-kindness.
But the scientific study of mindfulness can be traced back to Jon Kabat-Zinn, the Founding Executive Director of the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, and his research on Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). The practice has it’s roots in Buddhist meditation, but the practice is secular in nature. Launched in 1979 at UMass Medical School, the program has students meeting 2-3 hours per week for eight weeks with at home practice between classes. Practices include such activities as a focused body scan, yoga, sitting meditation, and something called the “raisin meditation,” where students slowly use all their senses, one after another, to observe a raisin in great detail.
The MSBR program has been around for over almost 40 years, and thousands of studies have documented the physical and mental health benefits of the program. The program has been adapted for use in schools, prisons, hospitals, veterans’ centers, and countless other organizations.
Where Can I Get My Very Own Mindfulness?
The good news about mindfulness is that (a) you don’t have to meditate for hours a day to see benefits, and (b) there are lots of ways to increase your levels of mindfulness. And since the brain can be trained through repetition, a steady practice actually reforms your brain (see: Neuroplasticity) to become happier!
- Mindful Breathing: Simply focus on your breath for 15 minutes a day at least three times a week. Experts believe that a regular practice of mindful breathing can make it easier to access in times of stress. If you are stressed and need to kick start, just take an exaggerated breath through your nose and hold it for two seconds, then slowly exhale through your mouth. This will set your breathing, and then you can just observe your breath naturally moving forward.
- Body Scan Meditation: Systematically focus your attention on different parts of your body, either from feet to head of vice versa. I often will tense the body areas slightly and release as I go through. This practice helps you develop a mindful awareness of your body sensations as well as help to relieve tension. It can reduce stress, improve well-being, and decrease aches and pains. Research suggests that people who practice body scan meditation longer reap more benefits, but 20-45 minutes, three days a week, is often enough to see results.
- Loving-Kindness Meditation: Also known as metta meditation, loving kindness is the simple practice of directing good wishes to others during meditation. The “how” is fairly easy, and the benefits are numerous from a decrease of migraines and chronic pain to relief from PTSD.
I’m Not Just a Spokesperson: I’m a Member
This week’s lesson has been very personal for me. I’ve lived with clinical depression and anxiety for the better part of 40 years. I’ve been through therapy, medications, and lots of very difficult times. One of the best gifts I ever gave myself was learning to meditate. It’s not a cure-all, and it certainly doesn’t replace the need for professional treatment of my disease, but it has given me enormous relief from my suffering. In a world that often seems out of control, mindfulness meditation is something I can do, for free, anytime and anywhere, to gain control over my own emotions. If you try none of the other exercises in this series, I urge you to at least try this one.
Thanks for joining us this week. Coming up in Week Seven: Self-Compassion and its connection to happiness.
If you’d like to audit The Science of Happiness for free, sign up at the Greater Good Science Center here. You can also listen to the excellent podcast of the same name from Public Radio International.