How often are you in a meeting at work and you are thinking about what you need to pick up at the market? Or you are sitting at the dinner table and while your spouse or children are talking about their day you are thinking about all the things you didn’t get done at work today? We spend a lot of time not in the present contemplating events that happened in the past, might happen in the future or may never happen at all. We blast through our present moments with thoughts of the weekend, vacation, spring and so on. Unlike any other animal we have the ability to mind-wander. This is a good skill as it helps us learn, reason and plan but it also comes with an emotional cost.
Researcher Matt Killingsworth’s project, Track Your Happiness, looks at the correlation between happiness and mind-wandering. Killingsworth created an app then sends participants text messages throughout the day and asks them how they feel, what they are doing, and whether they are mind wandering about pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral things. So far he has collected over 650,000 responses from 15,000 people. His data shows that people are less happy when their minds are wandering even if they are doing unpleasant activities like commuting and he was also able to show that mind-wandering leads to unhappiness, rather than the other way around.
Our minds will always wander, we just need to know how to bring it back to the present and become more mindful. We may think that mindfulness and mind-wandering are opposites, but that’s not quite true. According to pioneer Jon Kabat-Zinn, mindfulness is deliberately paying attention to the present moment in a non-judgmental way. Mindfulness is awareness which can be cultivated and developed through meditation. We can actually be mindful while observing the wanderings of mind. Kabat-Zinn states that meditation is not the goal, the point of cultivating mindfulness is to learn to live our lives that they really matter now, rather than living in constant regret or anticipation.
There are many different types of mindfulness techniques, including breathing, sitting, and walking meditations; loving-kindness meditation; the body scan; yoga; and prayer. One of the most famous techniques is the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program developed by Kabat-Zinn in 1979 at the Massachusetts Medical School. The program translates the Eastern traditions of mindfulness into a secular and mainstream context and has been gaining some real momentum in the millennial as scientists have been able to prove that MBSR training reduces anxiety; depression; chronic pain and improves our overall well-being. Most exciting is the recent research associating the practice of mindfulness directly to longevity. Telomeres are the caps at the end of each strand of DNA that protect our chromosomes, like the plastic tips at the ends of shoelaces. Telomeres shorten over our lifespan. One study has shown that mindfulness practice can make telomeres grow longer.
Mindfulness is practiced all over the world by teachers, executives, athletes, police officers, veterans and hospital staffs. It is not easy, especially when technology has made it very difficult to us to power down. Try each day to become more aware. When you wake up pull yourself back from your long list of to do’s and from immediately grabbing your mobile device off the nightstand. Instead just lie in bed for a few minutes recognizing your breathing. When you go into the shower, just shower – feel the water on your body. When you eat breakfast – just eat breakfast. No device, no newspaper, no TV. Just enjoy the taste of the first foods of your day.
Make mindfulness matter in your life!