The secret to finding happiness... pay attention
This week we’re going to talking about Happiness Pillar #3 - Mindfulness. What is it? How does it contribute to happiness? How can we be more mindful? Will we need incense? Read on to find out…
Ever get totally in the zone when you’re playing sport? Ever find yourself fully involved in the flavours and texture of a mouthful? You were being mindful. Essentially, mindfulness is paying attention.
Most people encounter the term mindfulness in the context of meditation practice, and meditation practice is definitely one way of practising mindfulness, or becoming more mindful, but there’s more to it than that. Mindfulness can be trained in all sorts of ways. By the way we eat, or the way we work, or move or bodies. Even in the way we breathe. Jon Kabat-Zin, the founder of the modern mindfulness movement says:
“Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally”
Sounds pretty simple, but as anybody getting started in meditation practice will tell you, maintaining that sort of intention for more than a couple of seconds can feel like a whole lot of work. Our minds, especially nowadays, conditioned as they are by smartphones and modern life to flit from thought to thought without a moment’s respite, find it extremely difficult to slow down and focus. Asked to concentrate simply on the sensations of what’s happening right now with your breath, and before very long at all you’ll be dreaming about your next holiday, or singing a little song in your head, or thinking about your ex long before you even notice you’re doing it. So if it’s such a big ask, why bother with all the effort. What is to be gained from all this paying attention?
The health benefits of mindfulness practice are extensive and well documented. Its effects have been tested all over the world from Tibetan Monasteries to prisons to the US Marines. It has been shown, alongside many other things, to reduce stress (and we all know how bad that is for us), improve sleep, reduce anxiety, lower blood pressure, help with chronic pain, even improve our immune systems. So we really all ought to be trying to include some sort of mindfulness practice in our daily routines anyway, even if we just want to be physically healthier and live longer. But how does mindfulness actually make us happy?
Well, the principal aim of mindfulness is to become present. To pay attention to the here and the now, and to fully experience the moment. If it’s a happy moment, like swimming in the sea, or nibbling a custard cream, or watching your favourite band on stage, then it’s obvious how paying more attention and fully immersing yourself in the experience will bring you more of the happiness therein. But simply by training our minds to pay more attention, and to do it dispassionately, without judgement, we put ourselves into a position of power. We become more able to stop ourselves from getting carried away by thoughts and to choose what we want to attend to.
We can start to pay attention to all the little things in our life which bring us happiness. The cat on the corner who always comes over for a stroke. The way ice cream feels as it hits our tongue. The flowers in the park. The cool of the other side of the pillow. Mindfulness, when we bring it into our daily lives, brings with it gratitude for the richness of our lives, and we can learn to live fuller, more interested and less caught up in mind churn.
In training us to be in the present, mindfulness practice also helps us to avoid two of the things which are guaranteed to bring you the opposite of happiness, worrying about the future, and dwelling in the past. The Buddhists, who know a thing or two about mindfulness, have an expression for this sort of mindless mind-meandering; monkey mind. When our monkey mind is in control, we alternate between remembering, and imagining, launch ourselves off into flights of fancy, full of what ifs and if onlys. But wallowing in regrets or lusting after an unknown future, causes us to live in a constant state of dissatisfaction. We’re not happy in the now, because we wish things had gone differently in the past, and we don’t have what we’re hoping for in the future. Mindfulness is a way of stopping to smell the flowers.
Mindfulness practice has also been shown in several studies to increase our resilience, that is our ability to deal with stress and setbacks and bounce back again. We’ll be getting much deeper into that in next week’s post, as resilience is Happiness Pillar #4, but suffice to say that when it comes to avoiding unhappiness, resilience is paramount, and if you want more resilience, mindfulness practice is a very good way to get it.
In a word, practice.
The good news is that thanks to a little something called neuroplasticity, our brains can be trained just like our muscles, and the evidence for the effects of mindfulness practice are impressive. Meditation practice has been shown to increase grey matter in areas of the brain associated with joy and pleasure, emotional regulation, and perspective taking, and in some studies brain scans even suggest it shrinks the amygdala, the area responsible for fear and fight or flight, and thickens the pre-frontal cortex, the area associated with higher order functions like decision-making, and concentration.
It might feel like you’re doing nothing, but you’re actually making a huge difference to the way you think and react. And as we know by now, that has far more influence on your levels of happiness than your circumstances. So there you have it. Mindfulness, our Happiness Pillar #3. Get some practice in your life. Wake up and really smell the coffee, and then notice exactly what it tastes like, and how it feels in your mouth. Try our free meditation for beginners in the Mindshine App. Go for a walk and feel every sensation. Pay attention more. You only get one go at this life. Don’t miss it!
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