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The benefits of mindfulness

Updated: May 2

I've written already about what mindfulness is, and how meditation strengthens it, but why should you want it? If mindfulness is one of the benefits of meditation, what are the benefits of mindfulness?

N.B. these are the benefits of mindfulness as reported by people who practise it and as theorised by psychologists. What the empirical research says about mindfulness is another matter, which I'll get to in another post.

1) Enjoying the present moment

If you are not aware of what's happening in the here-and-now (because you're lost in thought) then you can't enjoy it. So, If I go on holiday but spend the whole time lost in thought about problems at work, then I won't enjoy my holiday. The beach, the food, the happy smiles of my children will be far less vivid that my stressful thoughts about my colleagues, deadlines, and so on. And it's possible to dramatically reduce your enjoyment in life this way: your own thoughts might be more vivid than most things in your life, so that you're only half-engaged with all of the moments that would otherwise be most meaningful and enjoyable.

There's also a subtler level to this aspect of mindfulness, and that is the enjoyment that is available from almost any moment, even if nothing obviously enjoyable is happening. People who practise mindfulness report finding enjoyment in the most everyday things: the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of ordinary life. When you learn to pay more attention to them, many sensory experiences reveal themselves to be interesting and subtly pleasurable, from the pattern your milk makes as it hits your tea, to the complex soundscape of a city street. It's a stereotype or cliche about mindfulness - the annoying mindful person staring rapt at a leaf - but it's true. There is a lot of rich and pleasurable sensory experience that you miss out on when you're lost in thought.

2) Stepping back from thoughts

By definition, when you are mindful, you are not lost in thought. Your thoughts don't stop, but they no longer absorb so much of your attention. You could say that they move from the foreground to the background of your experience, or that you step back from them, having previously been so close that you're pretty much glued to them. And this is a jolly good thing, for two reasons.

First, most of our thoughts are unpleasant. Evolution has endowed us with what psychologists call a negativity bias: a tendency to focus on the negative, so as to identify and head off threats, thus promoting (in our caveperson past) survival. But in the present, this means that much of our thinking is painfully problem-focussed: regrets, worries, and criticism of ourselves and others. To be lost in these negative thoughts is painful; stepping back from them is a relief.

Second, our thoughts make us do stupid stuff. Whenever we do something stupid, it's because we thought it would be a good idea. Every bad move, from eating too much cake to starting a war, has always been preceded by a thought. So when we are mindful - when we step back from our thoughts instead of being glued to them and dominated by them - we are less likely to do what they tell us. Instead of slavishly following their commands, we acquire the freedom to choose whether to act on them or not. (You might wonder how we make that choice, if not by thinking about it. That's a fair point, and hard to answer in a completely coherent way. But as a practical matter, with more mindfulness you are likely to feel that you have more control over your actions and make better choices).

3) Stepping back from feelings

This is much the same thing as stepping back from thoughts, especially given that feelings are partly composed of and often triggered by thoughts (more on this in a future post). But it's still worth mentioning. When you are aware of what's happening as it's happening, you are likely to notice your feelings, instead of being glued to the thoughts associated with them. So you might notice that you are angry, instead of being entirely consumed by angry thoughts about how you've been mistreated and how best to retaliate. And when you step back from your feelings in this way, you are less likely to act them out. When you notice that you are angry, you might be less likely to snap at your partner, or fire off that ill-advised email to your colleague.

4) Antecedents and consequences

This one is beloved of behaviourists - the psychologists who think about...behaviour. They are concerned with how our behaviour is triggered by our circumstances, and shaped by the consequences of our own actions. So, if eating chocolate causes me to experience a delicious taste, then the next time I see a bar of chocolate, that might be a trigger for me to eat it. Whereas if I touch a wasp and it stings me, then the next time I see one, it will be a trigger for me to flap my arms about and shriek.

But without mindfulness, this process can't operate properly (or so some behaviourists suppose), because you are liable not to notice what's happening around you, or the consequences of your own actions. The behaviourist mindfulness researcher Judson Brewer offers a great example here: at the start of his mindfulness-based stop-smoking programme, he asks his participants to go home and smoke a cigarette with full mindful awareness: to tune in to the taste, the smell, the feeling, and so on. And every time, someone in the group will quit smoking just as a result of doing that exercise. When they actually pay attention to the experience of smoking a cigarette, they find that it's not what they thought it was: it tastes bad, it smells bad, and it doesn't feel that great either. Their thoughts had been telling them how much they liked smoking, but when they tuned in to the raw, direct, sensory experience of it, they found that the consequences of smoking a cigarette weren't actually that nice at all. And this can happen with many things in life: when you're paying close attention to what's actually happening, instead of your own thoughts, you might find that you respond to it more appropriately.

5) Acceptance

You might have heard that it would be good to accept some of what's painful for you, rather than struggling against it. And you may have thought, "Sounds good, but how on Earth do I actually do that?" Well, mindfulness is the way. Because when we fail to accept whatever is happening, that failure mostly consists of having thoughts and feelings about not liking what's happening, not wanting it, and wanting it to be different. When you use mindfulness to step back from those thoughts and feelings, instead of being lost in them, they lose some of their power: you no longer struggle so much against whatever is happening. So when I go to the dentist, for example, and he sticks some alarmingly sharp implement in my mouth, instead of being consumed by thoughts saying "It's going to hurt! I want it to stop!", a feeling of fear, and a physical urge to jump up and run out of the room, I notice those thoughts, feelings, and urges, and they lose some of their power over me. And thus I am able to accept what's happening. And this is of great value, because it lets me do all sorts of things that are uncomfortable but worthwhile, from going the dentist to making important but scary changes in my life.


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