Several major Eastern philosophies stress the importance of mindfulness, but is there really a mental health benefit to being more conscious and more focused on what's happening in the here and now?
In the April issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, University of Rochester researchers report that individuals who are mindful are more attuned to their emotions and act in ways that are compatible with their values and interests. Mindfulness, which is an enhanced attention to and awareness of the present, can be linked to better mood, higher self-esteem, life satisfaction, and optimism-all signs of positive psychological health.
Co-authors Kirk Warren Brown and Richard M. Ryan researched the phenomenon of mindfulness and tracked indicators of psychological well-being. They designed a scale to measure this quality of consciousness and administered it to subjects from college students and working adults to people who meditate and those with cancer.
"Mindfulness appears to heighten the joys one can experience in everyday events, as well as to be in better touch with what one really needs and feels," says Ryan, professor of psychology and psychiatry. "It helps people make better choices in a complex world."
With roots in Buddhist and other contemplative traditions, mindfulness is the subject of innumerable books, seminars, and workshops designed to facilitate this state of consciousness as a means to help people live richer, happier lives. But very little research has examined its direct role in psychological health and well-being, the psychologists say.
"We've shown that mindfulness can be reliably and validly measured and has a significant role to play in mental health," says Brown, visiting assistant professor of psychology. "It does appear to make a meaningful difference in how happy people are."
Brown and Ryan designed the Mindful Attention Awareness Scale (MAAS) to measure this quality of consciousness. In a mindful state, two experiences work in tandem: focusing on present, ongoing experience while allowing new experiences to come into your awareness. Higher scores on the MAAS scale predicted better mood states on a day-to-day basis in both college students and working adults.
Participants who scored high in these positive psychological indicators also came through with lower levels of depression, anxiety, and stress.
Very few of the study participants already knew about or practiced mindfulness. Yet results of the research showed that students of Zen, who actively cultivate a heightened awareness of what's taking place in the present moment, scored higher on the scale than a sample of adults of the same age and gender. With practice, there's evidence that mindfulness can be enhanced.
In a clinical study with early-stage cancer patients who received training in mindfulness, patients experienced greater declines in mood disturbance and stress as assessed by the MAAS scale. Mindfulness was a central element in an eight-week stress reduction program for them.
The research was supported in part by grants from the National Institute of Mental Health, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the Russell Sage Foundation, and the Society of the Psychological Study of Social Issues.