Part 4: Awareness – Live life mindfully

Ever felt there must be more to life? Well good news, there is! And it's right here in front of us. We just need to stop and take notice. Learning to be more mindful and aware can do wonders for our well-being in all areas of life - like our walk to work, the way we eat or our relationships. It helps us get in tune with our feelings and stops us dwelling on the past or worrying about the future - so we get more out of the day-to-day.

Why take notice?

The key to taking notice is 'mindfulness'. Mindfulness is often defined as "the state of being attentive to and aware of what is taking place in the present".  Two critical elements of mindfulness are that:

  • It is intentional (i.e. we are consciously doing it); and
  • We are accepting, rather than judging, of what we notice.

In other words, mindfulness is "openly experiencing what is there." It is about having as full as possible awareness of what is around us - what we can see, hear, touch and taste. And what is happening inside - our thoughts and feelings. Crucially it is about observing all this but not getting caught up in thinking and worrying about what we are observing. It then gives us more control of what we decide to give our attention to.

A growing number of scientific studies are showing the benefits of mindfulness in many aspects of our lives including our physical and mental well-being, our relationships and our performance at school and at work. And it appears to have benefits for everyone, from children through to the elderly. One researcher even suggests that once learnt, mindfulness has a 'transmitting' quality. Its benefits increase over time and with practice and can spread to many areas of our daily lives.

Yet mindfulness is something that, in today's busy, multi-tasking world, few of us do naturally - but it's something everyone can learn and benefit from. It's simple, yet can feel hard until you learn how. That's why it takes practice.

Mindlessness costs

Think - have you ever gone into a different room to get something and forgotten what that was? Or been in a conversation with someone but realised you haven't listened to what they said? Or eaten a meal without really tasting it (for example while watching TV or reading)? Or found yourself on autopilot having taken a familiar journey, like getting to work, school or college, and arrived not being able to remember anything about your journey that day? Well these are all examples of 'mindlessness'. And it is very, very common.

Normally we are so caught up in our thoughts about what has happened or is about to happen - i.e. the past or the future - we get a lot less out of the present. And yet the startling thing is that the only thing we can truly be sure of is what is happening in the here and now.

Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer warns that mindlessness may be very costly to us in terms of our health and happiness. What's worse, she says, is that when we are mindless we are of course unaware we are being so! But the good news is, although mindlessness is a habit, its one we can learn to replace.

So what is mindfulness like?

You can bring mindfulness into your day at any time when you're awake. It is a skill that is often associated with meditation, but it's not just practiced when sitting silently. Learning how to meditate is just one way (albeit a very good one) of learning and practicing mindfulness.

Being more engaged in the present moment can lead to a richer experience of the things that might otherwise pass us by while we are wrapped up in thoughts about the past or relentlessly thinking about what we are doing next. For example noticing the leaves dancing on a tree, a bird soaring in the wind, the smell of new blossom, the colour of the sky or the smile on the face of someone as they pass by.

Of course we need to plan and to recollect and process experience, but if we begin to be more mindful we are likely to be surprised at just how much time we usually spend outside the present moment and how pleasurable and calming being in it can be.

To be mindful is not something mystical - it has been practiced across different cultures for millennia, and forms of it can be found in all the major faiths including Christianity, Judaism, Islam as well as Buddhism. But mindfulness does not require any form of religious faith or belief - it is available to all. And perhaps it's better thought of as something that has been lost in recent generations as the speed of life and amount of information we process has increased.

Physical benefits of mindfulness

Mindfulness has been shown to help people manage pain, reduce blood pressure, anxiety and depression. In some situations it has been shown to benefit the immune system and improve certain skin conditions. It has even been shown to be related to elderly people living longer. Indeed mindfulness is increasingly used in a variety of healthcare settings.

Recent research suggests that mindfulness literally changes our brains - for the better. People who have practiced it regularly, show fewer signs of stress, positive changes in the parts of the brain associated with positive emotion, distinct patterns of activity associated compassion towards others and thickening of the areas of the brain associated with sensory processing.

Mindfulness, positive emotions and happiness

in addition to its benefits for our health and psychological functioning, mindfulness has been shown to directly increase our level of positive emotions in a number of different scientific studies. For example the brains of people who have been practicing mindfulness regularly show patterns of activation in the areas of our brain associated with feeling good (and reduced activation of the areas associated with worrying and stress).

One study showed that a group that received a happiness enhancement programme along with meditation instruction showed increased happiness than those receiving the happiness programme alone. Other studies have shown that individual levels of mindfulness are associated with increased emotional, psychological and social well-being and likewise with higher levels of life satisfaction and positive emotions and lower levels of negative emotions.

Recently, psychologist Barbara Fredrickson showed that learning and practicing loving-kindness meditation increased the experience of positive emotions over time leading to increases in a range of personal 'resources' which in turn, predicted increased life satisfaction and reduced depressive symptoms.

Other psychologists have shown that our ability to savour positive experiences in our life is an important component of happiness. While we can savour past experiences and look forward to future ones, savouring the present is important. It is a way of being more mindful that we can bring into our day-to-day activities to extract the maximum from the everyday. For example, eating a favourite food, walking to school or work, sitting in a garden or park or relaxing in a hot bath.

So a significant key to happiness is to live in the present and "to stop and smell the roses", as it will remind you of how good things are - right now!