Matthieu Ricard cites ‘meditation and mindfulness’ as the key to a happy life. Ricard, who graduated from the Pasteur Institute in France with a doctorate in molecular genetics, eventually renounced his work and life in France to become a monk in the Himalayas. Over 30 years later he was also found to be the happiest man on the planet by Dr. Richard Davidson during a study at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The title is a result of the unprecedented levels of gamma waves detected in Ricard’s brain. While the use of the two terms is fairly ubiquitous, mindfulness is often ignored, brushed away or conveniently overlooked. As it turns out, it may very well be essential to living a fulfilling life.
Mindfulness in a world of full minds
Mindfulness is a state of ease in which one is completely aware of one’s surroundings and one’s state of mind. While the idea seems obvious and even primitive, mindfulness is often elusive. In a fast-paced world with a constant onslaught of information, mindfulness is a quality to be cultivated.
A commonly prescribed practice is to pay attention to all that’s around you while taking deep breaths. This is referred to as mindfulness meditation.
A Mindful Intervention
The practice of mindfulness is often used to reduce the symptoms of chronic pain, psychological symptoms. Such interventions, which are based on internal awareness are termed MBIs or Mindfulness-based interventions. Mindfulness is used to cultivate two qualities-
First is the ability to focus on the present moment. The second is meta-awareness—an awareness of one’s mental landscape, which includes thoughts, observations, etc.
When people hear the word mindfulness, they often conjure up images of a serene Himalayan location and a monk sitting with closed eyes and a placid expression.
While the image is impressive, research demonstrates that none of these factors are required to cause a paradigm shift toward mindfulness. Mindfulness, when cultivated and nurtured as a quality, seeps into all areas of life.
Mindfulness & Food- The 5 Chocolate Chip Challenge
A few psychology students at the Mid-Atlantic university in the U.S were divided into two groups. One group was asked to eat chocolate chips mindfully, and the other distractedly. Group 1 had to pay attention to the chocolate’s colour, smell, flavour and texture. Group 2 participants had to solve a word puzzle while eating the chocolate. There were five rounds of chocolate chip eating, with the participants eating one chocolate chip in each round.
The researchers discovered that those who were conscious of their chocolate had superior sensory perception and a more enriched, joyful experience than those who weren’t. You might argue that chocolate is mostly loved. What about something that isn’t a universal favourite? What about raisins, for example?
In study 2, the same set of conditions were created with an exception- the object of attention was a raisin. The results were clear- those who were mindful showed higher levels of enjoyment than those who didn’t.
A risk that follows if the results are taken into account is that- if we become more mindful and therefore enjoy the experience of eating more, will that lead to excessive food intake? In Study 3, the participants were given a plethora of packaged food choices. This time around, an audio recording was played for group 1 that had instructions on mindful eating. Group 2 was given free eating time. The results: those who were mindful consumed fewer calories. In other words, mindfulness, rather than distraction, aided in quickly sensing a full stomach.
Mindfulness and Movement
While it’s common knowledge that a consistent exercise regimen makes a huge impact on well-being, just going about your workout isn’t enough.
Over the course of six months, a study of 62 women found that those who included mindfulness meditation in their daily routine exercised more and got fitter.
Dispositional mindfulness is a quality where one becomes aware of thoughts and observations as and when they show up in the mind. It is this very tool when combined with exercise, leads to better results. Mindfulness is also positively associated with better consistency, performance, and outcome in workouts.
A group of Italian athletes who practiced mindful breathing outperformed those who didn’t, and reacted to stimuli more quickly and efficiently. Furthermore, when mindfulness is practiced throughout the day rather than just during an exercise session, it leads to better performance.
Mindfulness and Stress
A study done at the Center for Healthy Minds at Madison-Wisconsin was aimed to find the effect of mindfulness on police officers who had experienced high amounts of stress. Continued exposure to such stressors invariably impacts health.
In this study, 30 officers from the Madison Police Department were made a part of an eight-week mindfulness program based on mindfulness stress reduction (MBSR) techniques. The program preceded a follow-up procedure that was conducted five months later.
Completion of the eight-week program saw a reduction in stress, symptoms of anxiety, PTSD-like symptoms, and an increase in sleep quality. In addition to this, the officers also reported lower levels of perceived stress, and burnout at work. Participants who had exhibited hyperarousal at the start of the study showed a significant reduction in the same.
The intervention of mindfulness significantly improved the well-being of those who had been continuously exposed to stress. The proof was in the pudding, and almost 80% of the participants continued the practice after the study.
While research in the area of mindfulness and positive psychology is ongoing, the results are conclusive. Just being aware of one’s thoughts and the immediate environment around us helps us to experience it fully.
While the idea of being continuously mindful might seem impossible, consistent actionable steps yield results. Ricard’s word of advice, therefore, is not only sound but backed by research.
So, the next time you rush out the door for work or eat mindlessly, stop and pay attention to the scent of the flowers or the warmth of a spoonful. It is more important than you think.
. . .
Maitreyee is a student of Pharmacy at AISSMS and aims to pursue research in Molecular Biology. She
hopes to combine her love for languages and Science to reach out to those who are less
privileged. Being an ardent Oprah devotee, her goal is to evolve to be the best version of herself.
She’s usually found around bookshelves and dogs.
He has completed his Masters in Medical Biotechnology from The Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda and is currently an active researcher in Molecular Epidemiology at The Centre for Cancer Epidemiology, Navi Mumbai. His journey in Science and Creativity began together during his childhood days. He believes that Art and Science indeed have a beautiful world altogether in them and sailing across its spectrum inspires him to sow his thoughts deep into Science and carve out the pillars of Art through them! Being a Science enthusiast and an Artist, he wishes to devote a good share of his life to wildlife and marine conservation as he feels that the creativity of nature needs to be taken care of in the current era.