Mindfulness classes for politicians might not be such a good idea
A study suggests mindfulness encourages narcissistic individuals to focus more on self-aggrandising thoughts
There is evidence that mindfulness-based meditation and stress training can have an impact on levels of depression and anxiety in particular
Mindfulness hour is to bring “an oasis of calm to Leinster House”. Or so a recent RTÉ headline claimed. An eight-week course will be available to sitting politicians, free of charge in the first instance, to encourage parliamentarians to learn the difference between “response and reaction” and to ensure decisions are being made from a point of balance or equilibrium. This all sounds very laudable.
We should perhaps not be surprised by this turn of events. Recent years have seen an explosion of interest in mindfulness with a remarkable uptake of online courses, sale of self-help books and plenty of media coverage. Mindfulness is often presented as a tool for enhancing individual wellbeing, happiness and peace of mind in everyday life, work and relationship contexts.
Central to mindfulness is an effort to bring attention to one’s own internal psychological feelings and experiences in the moment. The practice has its roots in Buddhist traditions. Indeed those interested in the history of psychology have equated the practice with contemplative prayer, or listening prayer in Christianity.
Efforts to prevent and promote wellbeing in everyday behaviour and practice are to be welcomed. It is good to see discourse about mental health and push back against the increasing, and often times over reliance, on medication to manage mental health concerns.
But make no mistake, mindfulness is business too. Independent, solid evidence of the many claims regarding the value of mindfulness are important to adjudicate before we all embrace the practice. Of course mindfulness, like all practices, has its proponents, some of whom are zealous rather than evidence-based in their support for the approach.
That said, mindfulness has become the topic of serious scientific interest. More than 500 papers a year have been published on the topic.
Reviewing the many studies over recent years, it becomes clear that mindfulness is not a panacea. But there is evidence that mindfulness-based meditation and stress training can have an impact on levels of depression and anxiety in particular.
About two-thirds of people who take part in these interventions report less stress than is reported on average in control groups. So the weight of this literature relating to stress and anxiety is positive. However, more recent work has begun to look at potentially negative outcomes. It would appear that the focus on internal thoughts can be harmful for those at risk of psychotic symptoms, panic attacks and suicidal ideation and so they may not be well served by this approach.
Mindfulness is also believed to boost self-compassion. Though we are often kind to others, we can hold ourselves to higher standards. So mindfulness encourages people to think and observe their feelings in an uncritical way, thereby boosting compassion and empathy for ourselves and others.
Taking all of the evidence together, it would seem that mindfulness is likely to be a useful tool for some who are trying to manage their own stress. It isn’t for everyone and it certainly isn’t a magic bullet. A recent review of more than 50 studies suggested mindfulness was likely to be as useful as any activity that forced attention away from the stresses of everyday life such as baking, appreciating nature or even watching a TV documentary. These and many other activities can provide useful decompression opportunities. The trick is knowing what suits you best.
But here’s the rub, at least as far as politicians go. It would appear that mindfulness intervention increases empathy only in those without narcissistic traits. Narcissists participating in mindfulness intervention actually show reduced empathy. This led the authors of this study to suggest that mindfulness may license narcissistic individuals to focus more exclusively on their self-aggrandising thoughts.
Given their predilections, this might lead cynics to question the wisdom of politicians of all people being encouraged to partake in mindfulness.
But ultimately mindfulness is an approach to managing mental health that is highly individualised. It suggest that, in order to negotiate the stresses of life, you just need to change your mindset. There is something very dodgy about the politics of this position.
One of the best predictors we have of stress and anxiety continues to be social inequality. If we want to experience less stress, anxiety and depression we need a more equal society, as least as measured by the Gini coefficient. Sometimes, rather than seeking joy in the moment we should fight for change. Again, that is surely something we should be encouraging in our politicians.
Orla Muldoon is professor of psychology at the University of Limerick