Understanding mindfulness

In my book The Confidence Project, I define mindfulness as 'the act of bringing our full attention to the experiences happening to us at any given moment – but doing so in a non-judgemental or accepting way.' It involves paying proper attention to whatever is happening to us rather than letting our minds wander and get distracted.

For example, if you deliberately focus now on any noises you can hear in your vicinity or the sensation of breath entering and leaving your body, those would be acts of mindful attention. However, if your mind unintentionally drifts to past problems or worries about the future, then that would not be considered being mindful.

Separating mindfulness from magic

Some people may be put off practising mindfulness because they may feel that it is merely mystical nonsense. It is true that some bestselling books claim that changing your mindset can have almost miraculous benefits.

Richard Sloan, a professor of behavioural medicine at Columbia University Medical Center in New York, is critical of such books as they often claim that we can achieve anything we want in life – health, wealth, friendship, fame and even love – simply by directing our requests to the universe, which will simply 'respond like a cosmic vending machine and dispense to us what we desire.'

There are also more than a few apps and online gurus who claim that their forms of mental training can lead to similarly extraordinary results, despite being completely unsupported by science. In contrast, modern mindfulness training is a science-based method for teaching the mind to get better at recognising thoughts and feelings.

Appreciating the science behind mindfulness

Scientific studies strongly suggest that cultivating mindfulness has multiple benefits. In 2019, for example, academics led by Larissa Bartlett at the University of Tasmania conducted a review of the effects of mindfulness training in the workplace.

Looking at 23 prior studies, the researchers concluded that mindfulness training was associated with measurable reductions in stress, anxiety, and distress; it also led to improved general well-being and sleep.

If you are interested in the science supporting the benefits of mindfulness, I previously wrote about it in the January 2019 issue of ACCA’s Accounting and Business magazine. However, given that many people are now experiencing higher levels of worry and stress, I want now to point to practical pointers for getting started with mindfulness.

Practising mindfulness in a way that suits you

There are some excellent, free resources online for you to begin trying mindfulness. However, consider that what one person – even a good friend or colleague – enjoys may not suit you. So, try different websites, audio tracks and videos to see what agrees with you most:

  • I recorded a short video for ACCA with guidance on a very brief session of mindfulness.
  • If you prefer audio with no video, you could also try either or both of the two short mindfulness audio tracks that I recorded to go alongside of one of my books. The tracks are available at no cost, but the site may require registration.
  • The UC San Diego Center for Mindfulness offers several videos and audio tracks for free.
  • The Oxford Mindfulness Centre charges for many of its services. However, this page offers a half-dozen guided audio sessions for free.
  • For a better understanding of and broader education on mindfulness, consider the free four-week online course offered by Monash University.

Using game-based apps

There are also mobile apps teaching mindfulness – many of which charge a fee. A great deal of these apps use elements of so-called gamification – the use of game design features such as point scores, badges, challenges and leaderboards to motivate people to use the apps.

Evidence suggests that not all apps may be of equal benefit. In one research paper, a team of academics led by Daniel Johnson at Queensland University of Technology looked at 17 prior studies on the effectiveness of different apps. They found that eight of the earlier investigations reported positive results. However, nine other investigations found either neutral or even mixed – ie some positive, but also some negative – results.

One study, led by Aino Ahtinen of the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, asked participants to try a mobile app for a month. The participants reported reduced levels of stress. However, they also said that 'collecting points, rewards and achievements would not sit well with a mental wellness app or fit the philosophy of mindfulness.' Instead, the participants suggested that they would have preferred to have focused on the real benefits of learning and self-improvement.

Gamification does not suit everybody. Some users of gamified mindfulness apps are very happy with them; others find them distracting or even annoying.

Consider also that some apps claim to offer mindfulness but actually offer something else. Having reviewed a variety of apps on behalf of my clients, my opinion is that some apps in reality offer services that offer nothing more substantial than wishful thinking.

My suggestion would be to begin your mindfulness practice with some of the excellent, free resources created by universities and qualified therapists. That way, you will be better equipped to evaluate the effectiveness of any apps should you decide to try them out.

Beginning the practice of mindfulness

In the January 2019 piece that I wrote on mindfulness, I suggested that there is likely to be a dose-response relationship between mindfulness and the various beneficial outcomes. In other words, if you do a certain amount of mindfulness, you would get some benefit; do more mindfulness and you should get more benefit.

However, the latest research published online only in March 2020 by applied psychologist Sarah Strohmaier suggests that this may not be the case. After conducting an analysis of 203 earlier studies looking at the benefits of mindfulness, the researcher concluded that 'there was no evidence that larger doses are more helpful than smaller doses for predicting psychological outcomes' in novice practitioners of mindfulness.

It may be that deeper benefits come after only many months or years of much more intense mindfulness practice. However, for people who were new to mindfulness, it seemed that practising it even relatively briefly led to reduced depression, anxiety and stress.

So, if you are yet to try mindfulness, that may be good news. Do even just a little bit and you may still get quite a benefit from it.

Dr Rob Yeung is a chartered psychologist at leadership consultancy Talentspace (www.talentspace.co.uk). You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/robyeung