Mindfulness is a term that gets tossed around a lot these days. So much, in fact, that you might not pay it much, well, mind.
Turns out, though, being more mindful can significantly impact your life, improving everything from your career and relationships to your health. “Mindfulness is the key to happiness,” says Judson Brewer, MD, PhD, associate professor of medicine and psychiatry at University of Massachusetts Medical School (UMMS) and director of research at the UMMS Center for Mindfulness in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts.
Sound too good to be true? Not when you understand the science behind mindfulness. Here’s the best part about mindfulness, though: Although Buddhist monks have been practicing it for centuries, it doesn’t take a retreat to a monastery to learn how to do it. Practice helps, of course, but being more mindful is something you can start doing right now.
What does it mean to be mindful?
Mindfulness might be a mouthful to pronounce, but by definition, it’s a basic concept. “It’s about being present in the moment in a nonjudgmental way,” says Susan Albers, PsyD, clinical psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio and author of Eating Mindfully (New Harbinger, 2012). You’re basically taking yourself off autopilot—do you even remember going to work or what you ate for lunch?—and getting in tune with your feelings and thoughts, which will help you make better decisions. You’re not getting pushed or pulled in one direction or another, instead just resting in awareness and being with whatever is, Brewer adds.
Easy, right? In theory, yes, but, unless you’re a child, it can be challenging at first. Kids are born with a natural curiosity about the world, which breeds mindfulness. “When you’re curious, you have a single-minded focus on whatever you’re curious about,” Brewer says.
Unfortunately, though, you lose that curiosity as you age. “Your adult mind thinks it knows how everything works, so instead of being curious, your mind sits around and looks for something to do,” Brewer says. As a result, you might start regretting things you’ve done in the past or worrying about things you need to do in the future, all of which equates with mind-wandering. Because your brain is designed to learn, the more it’s rewarded for mind-wandering (such as when you dream of being on vacation) the more it starts to do it.
How much your mind wanders may surprise you. Most people spend almost 50 percent of their waking hours mind- wandering, or thinking about something other than what they’re supposed to be focused on, according to a Harvard University study of more than 2,000 people ages 18 to 88. The unexpected consequence? Mind-wandering made most people unhappy, which is why researchers concluded that a wandering mind is an unhappy one.
When you become more mindful, however, changes take place in your brain, as Brewer has proven in imaging studies on the brains of people who meditate and those who don’t. “Being in the moment deactivates a part of the brain called the default mode network (DMN), a region that’s involved with daydreaming,” he says. When the DMN gets switched off, the brain is better able to focus.
The benefits of becoming more mindful
It’s well established that less mental wandering leads to greater happiness, which is the ultimate benefit of mindfulness. Yet how exactly does mindfulness get you there? Numerous physical and psychological benefits contribute to that happier countenance.
Start with the control you’ll gain over your life, especially when it comes to food, which may impact your weight and, thus, your health. “Mindfulness can help you eat healthier and cope with cravings better,” Albers says. (Mindfulness has also been shown to help smokers quell nicotine cravings, Brewer adds.) How many times during the day, after all, have you scarfed down food without paying attention to what you’re eating or if you're even hungry, for that matter? Maybe you’re eating in front of the TV, and before you know it, you’ve demolished a bag of chips. “Without mindfulness, you’re often making unconscious choices based on habits,” adds Albers.
One solution, then, to weight loss might simply be paying more attention to food. A study from the International Journal of Behavioral Medicine revealed that people who were more aware of and paid more attention to their thoughts and feelings had less abdominal fat and were less likely to be obese than their unaware peers. Although researchers note that this study didn’t prove mindfulness causes weight loss, they do suggest that mindfulness could overcome natural instincts that lead to stocking up on calories and even help people get over their aversion to starting to exercise.
Even without weight loss, certain health parameters may improve. As reported in the journal Obesity, when obese adults participated in an almost six-month program with or without mindfulness training, those who received mindfulness training had better fasting blood glucose levels and improved cholesterol levels at 18 months, reducing the risk for both type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
Mindfulness also effectively fights stress. “One of the most immediate results is feeling less stressed, which is widely acknowledged as a primary cause of disease,” says Sean Fargo, mindfulness teacher in Oakland, California, and founder of mindfulnessexercises.com.
Other brain benefits include increased productivity and smarts. “Studies show that meditating facilitates neuroplasticity, or your brain’s ability to build new pathways of functioning and understanding, which can make you more smart,” Fargo says. What’s more, mindfulness is the foundation of emotional intelligence, giving you greater ability to perceive your thoughts and feelings, which you can harness to deal with high-level problem solving and other complicated tasks and relationships.
Making mindfulness part of your daily routine
The good news about becoming more mindful is that anybody can do it, no matter where you are or what you’re doing. “One of the biggest misconceptions is that you have to be sitting in a certain pose or chair to be more mindful,” says Fargo, adding, though, that activities like yoga and meditation can foster mindfulness.
Start by paying attention to your body and noticing if you feel contracted or expansive. What’s the difference? Let’s say you cross the finish line of a race with your fists pumping. In that moment, you’re contracted, your muscles tense. “You’re separating yourself from the rest of the world,” Brewer explains.
But when you’re expansive, which is the feeling you get when doing yoga or meditation, you’re curious and being drawn out of yourself, and overall, you feel uplifted. Not there? Just let your body loosen and relax, Brewer says.
Paying attention to your breath is another good way to drop into the moment. Simply ask yourself what your breathing feels like, Fargo says. Note what the inhale and exhale feel like and how each breath feels different. And finally, note your thoughts by attaching a one-word label to each one. If you notice you’re feeling more distracted as you chat with your partner, for instance, maybe your label is “distraction.” Make sure, however, that the word is simply a label, not a judgment. “You’re not trying to get rid of anything or push anything away,” Fargo says.
For those moments when mindfulness feels challenging, simply quit multitasking, which takes you out of the moment. Instead, focus on doing only one thing at a time. “If you get into the habit of doing this, mindfulness will become automatic,” Albers says.
That’s because mindfulness is like a muscle, and just like the muscles in your body, it needs regular training, even if that’s just 30 seconds seven days of the week. The more you use your mindfulness muscle and the more consistent you are about it, the stronger it will become, which is one reason Albers advocates mindful eating. “You’ll have at least three times a day where you can practice becoming more mindful,” she says.
Just don’t be surprised if you become addicted, so to speak, to becoming more mindful. “Once you get it,” Brewer says, “you won’t want to stop.”