Learn to live in the 'now' and health benefits may follow


The practice of mindfulness seems to be mentioned everywhere these days. Throughout January local papers were full of ads for self-improvement classes, including mindfulness where participants learn meditation skills and habit releasers which add randomness to life.

The John Murray RTÉ 1 radio show is recruiting people to attend a mindfulness workshop run by Tony Bates, psychologist and Irish Times columnist.

So is being mindful just another fad or is it good for you? Certainly a wandering mind is an unhappy mind. Harvard researchers analysed data from more than 2,000 adults to find out how often minds wander, where they wander to, and how these wanderings affect happiness.

Half the participants’ minds wandered when carrying out 22 typical daily activities and a majority spent their time thinking about events that happened in the past, might happen in the future, or never happen at all.

The most frequent activities engaged in on a daily basis were: working, watching TV, commuting and eating, and the least frequent were exercising and having sex.

The study showed that people felt less happy when their minds were wandering and this was true for all activities, including the least enjoyable. Participants were no happier when mind-wandering about pleasant topics than concentrating on their current activity, and were most unhappy when thinking about neutral or unpleasant topics.

The authors concluded that a human mind is a wandering mind and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind. “Mind wandering appears to be the brain’s default mode of operation.”

‘Being’ in the moment

In contrast, mindfulness is about tuning into what is happening in the present, instead of living life mindlessly or on autopilot.

Books on mindfulness all emphasise the importance of “being” in the moment, rather than busy doing mindless activities or engaging in mental time travel, such as reliving past events and the pain associated with them, or pre-living future imagined disasters and pre-feeling the impacts.

Mindlessness is easier to understand than mindfulness. Humans have a tendency to operate on autopilot, from habit, routine, or just not paying attention.

Few people realise the extent of their own mindlessness because they are, in effect, “absent” from their own lives. Noticing is being mindful. Curiosity is being mindful and it is hard to be curious and unhappy at the same time.

Habits and routines

There is nothing wrong with habits or routines and without them it would be impossible to get through the day because every decision would have to be made as if for the first time.

Deciding what to eat for breakfast, how to get to work, car, bus, walk and every other decision made about daily activities would have a paralysing effect on life.

The problem arises when routines are carried out mindlessly such as eating breakfast without savouring it or becoming enraged with traffic problems when travelling to work.

Simple things such as using a different chair or sowing some seeds can help with living in the now.

Mindfulness is good for health. Research shows that mindfulness-based stress-reduction interventions and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy can help a broad range of individuals cope with clinical and non-clinical problems, including: chronic pain, psychological distress associated with cancer and other serious diseases, heart disease, depression and anxiety.

It is also a viable tool for the promotion of self-care and wellbeing. In fact, according to a recent analysis of 20 studies, the consistently strong level of effect across very different types of samples “indicates that mindfulness training might enhance general features of coping with distress and disability in everyday life, as well as under more extraordinary conditions of serious disorder or stress”.

The main drawback to using mindfulness is that, like every other behaviour that is good for health, you have to actually do it. There’s the rub. It is a practice, not a feeling or an attitude, and the development of mindfulness is predicated on regular and repeated use.

It takes time – about 45 minutes each day. Spending the same amount of time walking or cooking fresh food as opposed to eating ready-to-heat or ready-to-eat, would reap the same health benefits.

In fact, spending 45 minutes every day on any form of meditation or any enjoyable activity that is good for health would have the same positive effect.

Mindfulness is just another habit to be added to all the other good habits. As if we don’t already have enough to do. Why not just walk mindfully, which will double the health benefits?

Dr Jacky Jones is a former HSE regional manager of health promotion

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