We live in a fast-paced world filled with distractions. Even if you switch on your phone’s “Do Not Disturb While Driving” function, you’ll still find your mind wandering at the wheel, going anywhere from your grocery list to that serious conversation with your partner that you’ve been putting off. We’ve all seen the memes poking fun at those of us who are already planning our dinner while still eating lunch, and part of the reason it makes us laugh is because it rings so true. When you feel like someone else can relate, it makes it a lot easier to ignore the concerning part of a behavioral issue when something really hits home.
However, our increasing inability to concentrate on one task at a time and live in the moment really is a behavioral problem. According to proponents of mindfulness and the growing body of research that supports it, this one tiny tweak in our mindset could actually be the secret to happiness. It may be a small change, but it’s one that is profound, or could have profound results that affect everything from our job performance to our tolerance for pain.
So what exactly is mindfulness? It’s defined as “the quality or state of being conscious or aware of something,” or “a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique.” And the benefits are undeniable.
According to a comprehensive study by Case Western Reserve University, injecting a corporate culture with mindfulness can improve employee focus, as well as enable staff to work better together. Researchers from the University of Seville found that students who had practiced mindfulness had increased capacity to solve problems and thereby obtain better results, while countless papers have been published about the positive effects of mindfulness on stress.
In one of these, the US Army Research Laboratory partnered with scientists from the University of North Texas to quantifiably measure stress and found that the practice of mindfulness meditation can create physiological changes in our brains and hearts and genuinely reduce stress as a direct result of meditation. What’s more, researchers at the University of Kent found that practicing mindfulness and meditation could even be used as a sport rehabilitation process to help athletes improve their tolerance for pain, and it has also been shown to actually change the way our bodies choose to respond to pain.
However, with so many distractions in our modern world and in a society where people struggle with issues of comparison, self-esteem, and definitions of identity, achieving mindfulness isn’t always easy. You might even wonder if we were built for it – especially when thinking back to the past or forward to the future comes so naturally to us. According to American psychologist and author Martin Seligman, it’s actually in our capacity for prospection (or the act of anticipating and foresight, of looking to the future) that we differ from many other animals – and it’s this ability to contemplate the future that has allowed human beings to advance so much as a civilization.
It makes sense; our memory isn’t just there to give us the warm and fuzzies, but rather it’s a function through which our brains can retain certain experiences and associations to create learnings for the future. Research from the University of Pittsburgh found that this continuity of thought is what enables us to keep past decisions in mind as we move through life, and that it is through our ability to use our past decisions and outcomes as learning experiences that we can guide our future behavior. It’s clear that – as humans – we were not designed to live solely in the moment.
The key here isn’t to live in the present at all times; it’s to use mindfulness as a way to enjoy certain moments fully, to slow down, and to give our minds a well-deserved rest. Think of it as exercise for your brain. A study conducted in 2016 found that, while regular practice yields the best results, even one session can already have a beneficial effect. For starters, you could try to be mindful – or in the moment – when sitting with friends, eating a meal, or reading a book. Meditation is also a great way to learn how to focus on the sensations of the present. If you’re looking to dip your toes into this practice, here are some of our favorite apps to download: