Ronald Siegel, PsyD, Contributing Editor Harvard Health Blog
When I gave a talk at Google a few months ago about using mindfulness to help relieve anxiety, depression, and other common forms of psychological distress, I was impressed by the company’s commitment to taking care of their employees. From the organic juice bars in every building to the gyms and meditation and yoga facilities scattered around the campus, it was clear that they’re thinking a healthy employee will be a productive employee (not to mention an employee who needs fewer expensive medical services). In fact, they had a whole team devoted just to teaching mindfulness meditation, and offered regular practice sessions that workers could attend either in person or online throughout the day.
But can mindfulness practice really help employees’ mental health? Is it something that more businesses should be investing in, or just another fad for ex-hippies in Silicon Valley? The results of the best-designed study to date that addresses this question are just in, and the answer is impressive: mindfulness really can help workers, even those far from California.
What the study found
The new study comes from Taiwan, where researchers surveyed 3,270 factory workers to identify those with high levels of psychological distress. They then invited these particularly unhappy workers to participate in the study. The 144 workers who ultimately agreed to participate were assigned to either an active intervention group, in which they completed an eight-week mindfulness training program consisting of two-hour classes each week at work and 45 minutes of daily meditation homework, or a control group, who reported regularly on their psychological well-being but didn’t receive any mindfulness training.
What did they find? Compared with the control group, the workers who took the mindfulness class reported feeling much better. They had less prolonged fatigue — that feeling of exhaustion that doesn’t go away even after having a chance to rest. They also felt less stressed, reported reduced anxiety and depression, and had fewer sleep difficulties, aches and pains, and problems getting along with others.
So what exactly was this mindfulness training that helped them? Mindfulness involves bringing our attention into the present moment and accepting whatever is happening here and now. That sounds very simple, but when we begin to try to actually practice mindfulness — by picking a sensory experience such as the breath, bringing our attention to it, and working to accept whatever arises in our awareness — most of us find not only that our minds quickly wander off into all sorts of thoughts about the past and the future, but they also generate all sorts of negative judgments about what’s happening.
The good news is that like any skill, mindfulness can be learned. It just requires a bit of instruction, and setting aside some time to practice. Numerous research studies have shown that by practicing mindfulness, we can actually change both the structure and the functioning of our brains in ways that are consistent with feeling happier and more engaged in our lives. These changes also help us to have an easier time dealing with both physical and emotional pain.
How you can reap the benefits of mindfulness
So how might you begin if you wanted to become more mindful? One way that doesn’t require any extra time is to simply pick a few activities, such as walking the dog, showering, or eating a meal alone, and decide to do them as mindfulness practices. That means instead of checking our smartphone, going over our to-do list, or listening to music, we try to bring our attention to the sights, sounds, and bodily sensations occurring during the activity. Since mindfulness practice is very dose-related, the more we try to do this throughout the day, the more mindful we become.
While these informal practices will indeed help you to develop some mindfulness, to develop more, it’s helpful to set aside time for meditation practice, like they do at Google. Most studies documenting the effectiveness of mindfulness involve people meditating regularly. It’s easiest to begin a regular meditation practice by following recorded instructions. While there are many sources for these, you can listen for free to some that I recorded at www.mindfulness-solution.com. May you have many mindful moments!