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Live life mindfully

Ever felt there must be more to life? Well good news, there is! And it's right here in front of us. We just need to stop and take notice. Learning to be more mindful and aware can do wonders for our well-being in all areas of life - like our walk to work, the way we eat or our relationships. It helps us get in tune with our feelings and stops us dwelling on the past or worrying about the future - so we get more out of the day-to-day. 

Why Take Notice?

The key to taking notice is 'mindfulness'. Mindfulness is often defined as "the state of being attentive to and aware of what is taking place in the present". [1] Two critical elements of mindfulness are that:

  • It is intentional (i.e. we are consciously doing it); and
  • We are accepting, rather than judging, of what we notice. [2]

In other words, mindfulness is "openly experiencing what is there." [3] It is about having as full as possible awareness of what is around us - what we can see, hear, touch and taste. And what is happening inside - our thoughts and feelings. Crucially it is about observing all this but not getting caught up in thinking and worrying about what we are observing. It then gives us more control of what we decide to give our attention to.

A growing number of scientific studies are showing the benefits of mindfulness in many aspects of our lives including our physical and mental well-being, our relationships and our performance at school and at work. [1][4][5] And it appears to have benefits for everyone, from children [6] through to the elderly. [7] One researcher even suggests that once learnt, mindfulness has a 'transmitting' quality. Its benefits increase over time and with practice and can spread to many areas of our daily lives. [2]

Yet mindfulness is something that, in today's busy, multi-tasking world, few of us do naturally - but it's something everyone can learn and benefit from. It's simple, yet can feel hard until you learn how. That's why it takes practice.

Mindlessness costs

Think - have you ever gone into a different room to get something and forgotten what that was? Or been in a conversation with someone but realised you haven't listened to what they said? Or eaten a meal without really tasting it (for example while watching TV or reading)? Or found yourself on autopilot having taken a familiar journey, like getting to work, school or college, and arrived not being able to remember anything about your journey that day? Well these are all examples of 'mindlessness'. And it is very, very common.

Normally we are so caught up in our thoughts about what has happened or is about to happen - i.e. the past or the future - we get a lot less out of the present. And yet the startling thing is that the only thing we can truly be sure of is what is happening in the here and now.

Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer warns that mindlessness may be very costly to us in terms of our health and happiness. What's worse, she says, is that when we are mindless we are of course unaware we are being so! [8] But the good news is, although mindlessness is a habit, its one we can learn to replace.

So what is mindfulness like?

You can bring mindfulness into your day at any time when you're awake. It is a skill that is often associated with meditation, but it's not just practiced when sitting silently. Learning how to meditate is just one way (albeit a very good one) of learning and practicing mindfulness.

Being more engaged in the present moment can lead to a richer experience of the things that might otherwise pass us by while we are wrapped up in thoughts about the past or relentlessly thinking about what we are doing next. For example noticing the leaves dancing on a tree, a bird soaring in the wind, the smell of new blossom, the colour of the sky or the smile on the face of someone as they pass by.

Of course we need to plan and to recollect and process experience, but if we begin to be more mindful we are likely to be surprised at just how much time we usually spend outside the present moment and how pleasurable and calming being in it can be.

To be mindful is not something mystical - it has been practiced across different cultures for millennia, and forms of it can be found in all the major faiths including Christianity, Judaism, Islam as well as Buddhism. But mindfulness does not require any form of religious faith or belief - it is available to all. [4] And perhaps it's better thought of as something that has been lost in recent generations as the speed of life and amount of information we process has increased.

Research on the benefits of mindfulness

Becoming more mindful has been widely shown to benefit our physical health and happiness. Many studies have been conducted specifically on people who have learnt some form of meditation or completed a programme called 'mindfulness based stress reduction' (MBSR) developed by John Kabat-Zinn, that combines mediation techniques with other aspects of mindfulness.

Some studies of mindfulness have small sample sizes and there are a limited number with randomised controls (which in scientific terms mean we shouldn't rely on them too much). And in some areas of focus, such as the benefits of mindfulness for children, are still in the early days. [6] However, it is becoming an active area of scientific research and there are an increasing number of studies showing benefits across many different aspects of our lives - see below.

Physical benefits of mindfulness

Mindfulness has been shown to help people manage pain, reduce blood pressure, anxiety and depression. [1][4] In some situations it has been shown to benefit the immune system and improve certain skin conditions. [1][4][5] It has even been shown to be related to elderly people living longer. [7] Indeed mindfulness is increasingly used in a variety of healthcare settings. [4]

Recent research suggests that mindfulness literally changes our brains - for the better. People who have practiced it regularly, show fewer signs of stress, positive changes in the parts of the brain associated with positive emotion [9], distinct patterns of activity associated compassion towards others and thickening of the areas of the brain associated with sensory processing. [4]

Mindfulness helps to manage stress

Mindfulness appears to be an effective way of managing stress levels. Several studies have shown that various forms of mindfulness practice are associated with reduced levels of the stress hormone, cortisol. Indeed some researchers argue that mindfulness practice reverses the effects of chronic stress. [4] Another study found that experienced meditators had a heightened initial reaction to a stressful stimulus but recovered more quickly. [4] Other researchers have demonstrated that individuals with higher levels of mindfulness viewed demanding situations as less stressful and were less likely to avoid dealing with them. [10]

Mindfulness is also associated with the benefits of greater relaxation and rest. But it is not the same as these. During the practice of mindfulness, the awareness is active and science has shown that there are physiological differences when compared to periods of rest or relaxation. Interestingly, it also seems to help us be more relaxed but more alert. [4] Higher levels of mindfulness have also been recently associated with better quality sleep. [11]

Mindfulness and our performance

Research shows a number of benefits that mindfulness can have on our ability to perform in addition to enabling us to cope better with stress (see above). For example: several studies have shown that it can improve:

  • Memory and cognitive flexibility;
  • Attention and ability to concentrate;
  • Learning ability and academic performance in school children; and
  • Various aspects of creative thinking and creativity. [4][5]

Other reviews even suggest that mindfulness can have positive benefits for performance in the workplace including decision-making, health and safety and conflict resolution. [5]

Mindfulness and psychological functioning

Some psychologists propose that mindfulness leads to improved well-being and flourishing because it promotes greater regulation of behaviour. It does this because it gives us a fuller awareness of internal and external information, enabling more accurate assessment, more conscious choice and so more flexible, less automatic or impulsive reactions. [12]

Being more mindful of our thoughts and related feelings is also associated with reduced rumination, anxiety and depression, which leads to increased resilience and psychological well-being. [4][5][13]

See also:

Mindfulness, positive emotions and happiness

In addition to its benefits for our health and psychological functioning, mindfulness has been shown to directly increase our level of positive emotions in a number of different scientific studies. For example the brains of people who have been practicing mindfulness regularly show patterns of activation in the areas of our brain associated with feeling good (and reduced activation of the areas associated with worrying and stress). [4]

One study showed that a group that received a happiness enhancement programme along with meditation instruction showed increased happiness than those receiving the happiness programme alone. [14] Other studies have shown that individual levels of mindfulness are associated with increased emotional, psychological and social well-being [3][11][12] and likewise with higher levels of life satisfaction and positive emotions and lower levels of negative emotions. [3]

Recently, psychologist Barbara Fredrickson showed that learning and practicing loving-kindness meditation increased the experience of positive emotions over time leading to increases in a range of personal 'resources' which in turn, predicted increased life satisfaction and reduced depressive symptoms. [15]

Other psychologists have shown that our ability to savour positive experiences in our life is an important component of happiness. While we can savour past experiences and look forward to future ones, savouring the present is important. It is a way of being more mindful that we can bring into our day-to-day activities to extract the maximum from the everyday. For example, eating a favourite food, walking to school or work, sitting in a garden or park or relaxing in a hot bath. [16]

One factor that is toxic to our levels of happiness is social comparison and wanting what we don't have, for example: a better phone or car or a bigger house. A recent study of the financial desires of UK college students and US working adults, indicates that higher mindfulness is related to a smaller difference between what people had and what they wanted and that this was related to greater subjective wellbeing (a measure of how happy people are). Importantly, this did not seem to be due to the level of personal or household income (albeit the group studied could be regarded as middle class). And further, when one group's mindfulness skills were developed, their financial have-want gap decreased and their subjective well-being increased. [17]

Mindfulness, our relationships and our communities

Studies have shown that mindfulness can benefit our relationships with others, and so perhaps can benefit our communities. For example training in mindfulness increases empathy and levels of compassion towards others. [4][12] Many types of meditation or mindfulness practice include a focus on our connections to others and some have been developed for this specifically. And both can positively impact our relationships. [4]

For example, one study of married couples who attended a mindfulness programme that incorporated loving-kindness meditation and focused application of mindfulness to relationship issues, demonstrated significantly increased relationship satisfaction, as well as increased optimism, engagement, spirituality and relaxation. Another study on students found that a different form of meditation had a positive impact on their interpersonal relationships. [4][12]

It is also suggested that mindfulness in the form of meditation may have benefits for our moral and ethical behaviour and so benefit our community and society. For example increasing our sensitivity to thoughts and feelings of others and our levels of empathy and compassion in turn increases our sensitivity to the impact of unethical acts and orientates us to helping others. Indeed a (initial) study has indicated that meditation may potentially have such benefits. [4]

Some of the actions on this website include elements of being mindful with regard to others:

Mindfulness and our environment

Since mindfulness enables us to get more from the present and become more aware of what is around us, could it possibly help us to take care of the natural environment, with knock-on impact for our own and others' happiness?

Like the growing evidence of the benefits of mindfulness for our health and happiness, there is also increasing evidence for the role the natural environment plays in our well-being. [18][19] And so it's likely that the two could be related. [1] Indeed a number of 'ecological' models of well-being propose a relationship between mind, body and spiritual well-being and the natural world. [20] As yet, however, there appears to be few studies relating the two. But we suspect there is a strong connection between being more mindful of our environment, taking care of it, wellbeing and happiness.


[1] Huppert, F.A. (2005). Positive mental health in individuals and populations. In Eds. F.A.Huppert, N.Baylis, & B.Keverne.The Science of Wellbeing. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[2] Shaprio, S.L., Oman, D., Thoresen, C.E., Plante, T.G, & Flinders, T. (2008). Cultivating Mindfulness: Effects on Well-being. Journal of Clinical Psychology,64, 840-862.

[3] Brown, K.W. & Ryan, R.M. (2003). The benefits of being present: Mindfulness and its role in psychological well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 822-848.

[4] Shapiro, S.L. (2009) Meditation and Positive Psychology. In Eds: S.J. Lopez & C.R. Snyder,Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology. NY: Oxford University Press

[5] Marianette, O. & Passmore, J. (2010). Mindfulness at work: Paying attention to enhance well-being and performance. In Eds: P.A. Linley, S.Harrington & N.Garcia,Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology and Work. NY: Oxford University Press

[6] Burke, C.A. (2010) Mindfulness-Based Approaches with Children and Adolescents: A Preliminary Review of Current Research in an Emergent Field. Journal of Child and Family Studies.

[7] Alexander, C.N., Langer, E.J., Newman, R.I., Chandler, H.M. & Davies, J.L. (1989). Transcendental meditation, mindfulness, and longevity: An experimental study with the elderly.Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 57, 950-964

[8] Langer, E. (2009). Mindfulness versus positive evaluation. In Eds: S.J. Lopez & C.R. Snyder, Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology. NY:Oxford University Press

[9] Davidson, R.J., & Kabat-Zinn, J. et al. (2003). Alterations in Brain and Immune Function Produced by Mindfulness Meditation.Psychosomatic Medicine, 65, 564-570

[10] Weinstein, N, Brown, K.W. & Ryan, R.M. (2009). A multi-method examination of the effects of mindfulness on stress attribution, coping and emotional well-being.Journal of Research in Personality, 43, 374-385.

[11] Howell,A.J., Digdon,N.L., Buro,K, & Sheptykcki, A.R. (2008). Relations among mindfulness, well-being and sleep.Personality and Individual Differences, 45, 773-777.

[12] Brown, K.W., Ryan, R.M. & Cresswell, J.M. (2007). Mindfulness: Theoretical foundations and evidence for it's salutary effects. Psychological Inquiry, 18, 211-237.

[13] Leary,M.R. & Tate,E.B. (2007). The multi-faceted nature of mindfulness.Psychological Inquiry,18, 251-255

[14] Smith, W.P., Compton, W.C. & West, W.B. (1995). Meditation as an adjunct to a happiness enhancement program.Journal of Clinical Psychology, 51, 269-273

[15] Fredrickson, B.L., Cohn, M.A., Coffey, K.A., Pek, J., & Finkel, S.M. Open hearts build lives: Positive emotions, induced through loving-kindness meditation, build consequential personal resources.Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,95, 1045-1062

[16] Bryant,F.B. (2003). A four-factor model of perceived control: avoiding, coping, obtaining and savoring. Journal of Personality, 57, 773-797; See also Lyubomirsky, S. (2008). The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach To Getting The Life You Want. Chapter 6. New York: Penguin Press

[17] Brown, K.W., Kasser,T., Ryan, R.M., Linley,P.A. & Orzech, K. (2009). When what one has is enough: Mindfulness, financial desire discrepancy and subjective well-being.Journal of Research in Personality, 43, 727-736.

[18] Bacon,N., Brophy, M., Mguni, N., Mulgan, G. & Shandro A. (2010) The state of happiness: Can public policy shape people's wellbeing and resilience?. London: Young Foundation.

[19] Burns,G.W. 2005). Naturally happy, naturally healthy: the role of the natural environment in well-being. In Eds. F.A.Huppert, N.Baylis, & B.Keverne.The Science of Wellbeing. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[20] Maller, C., Townsend, M., St Leger, L. et al. (2008) Healthy parks, healthy people: the health benefits of contact with nature in a park context. A review of relevant literature. 2nd Edition, Faculty of Health, Medicine, Nursing and Behavioural Sciences, Deakin University, Victoria, Australia


Live life mindfully

Awareness 200

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Mindfulness changes your brain

Recent research has shown that an 8 week mindfulness meditation class can lead to structural brain changes including increased grey-matter density in the hippocampus, known to be important for learning and memory, and in structures associated with self-awareness, compassion and introspection.