How is mindfulness improving our wellbeing?

Mindfulness has grown in popularity enormously, businesses across the world have adopted such techniques to improve their workforce. But how are these practices improving our wellbeing?

First, what is mindfulness? It’s a concept that many are unsure about what it actually means, often mixing it up with other practices and ideas.

“Mindfulness is basically just being aware, and can be practiced both informally and formally—which is what many people don’t understand,” according to mindfulness expert Elisha Goldstein. “When you’re practicing it informally, that means that you’re simply attempting to be more aware in everything that you do—and that mentality can be infused into pretty much anything. But the formal practice of mindfulness is mindfulness meditation.”

So how can practising mindfulness informally improve our wellbeing? According to the National Institute for Health and Care Excellent (NICE), it’s one way of preventing depression in adults. They recommend adults who have had three or more episodes of depression in the past should be offered mindfulness-based cognitive therapy as a way of reducing the tendency to react to negative thoughts.

“Mindfulness also allows us to become more aware of the stream of thoughts and feelings that we experience, and to see how we can become entangled in that stream in ways that are not helpful,” Professor Mark Williams, former director of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre, says. “This lets us stand back from our thoughts and start to see their patterns. Gradually, we can train ourselves to notice when our thoughts are taking over and realise that thoughts are simply 'mental events' that do not have to control us.

“Most of us have issues that we find hard to let go and mindfulness can help us deal with them more productively. We can ask: ‘Is trying to solve this by brooding about it helpful, or am I just getting caught up in my thoughts?’

“It's about allowing ourselves to see the present moment clearly. When we do that, it can positively change the way we see ourselves and our lives.”

As for formally practising mindfulness through meditation, there are studies that suggest it can have a profound effect on the physical wellbeing of the brain. A 2015 study from UCLA compared people who had meditated for years with those who didn’t meditate at all. Researchers found that those who meditated showed a lower frequency of loss of grey matter from the brain as they aged.

“We expected rather small and distinct effects located in some of the regions that had previously been associated with meditating,” Dr. Florian Kurth, a co-author of the study, said. “Instead, what we actually observed was a widespread effect of meditation that encompassed regions throughout the entire brain.”

This is supported by another new study, which found that experienced meditators have brains that are on average 7.5 years younger than non-meditators. Using a computer programme to identify age from brain scan images, researchers measured the difference in brain age in two groups of people – meditators and non-meditators – and found that the meditators’ brains appeared to be younger.

There are, of course, some things to bear in mind with this research, as Christian Jarrett, editor of Research Digest from the British Psychological Society points out. “We don't know if people who meditate do other healthy things that non-meditators don't do,” he says. “Another caveat: this study just looked at the physical characteristics of the participants' brains, there was no test of their mental functioning. As a final aside, the researchers also noted that their female participants had more youthful brains than men – at age 50, they appeared three years younger, on average.”

But, even with those cautions, the research and anecdotal evidence is compelling. Compelling enough, in fact, that the likes of Google, Apple, Sony, Ikea and Transport for London have all adopted mindfulness or meditation as part of the employee packages, hoping to create a happier, more productive workforce.

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