Mindfulness training has been proven to help relieve anxiety, stress and depression whilst boosting intelligence and creative thinking. It also enhances feelings of compassion and empathy. Some have claimed that these changes can make us 'better people'. Obviously this is all good news, but it's also necessary to have a degree of 'toughness' (we prefer the term 'resilience') to withstand life's knocks and kick-backs.
Can Mindfulness help with this too? Or will regular meditation make you 'too' nice?
There's good news on this front. Mindfulness has been found to boost resilience to quite a remarkable degree. Hardiness varies hugely from person to person. Some people thrive on stressful challenges that may daunt many others, whether these involve meeting ever-increasing work performance targets, trekking to the South Pole or being able to cope with three kids, a stressful job and mortgage payments.
What is it that makes 'hardy' people able to cope where others might wilt? Dr Suzanne Kobasa at City University of New York narrowed the field down to three psychological traits which she termed control, commitment and challenge. Another eminent psychologist, Dr Aaron Antonovsky, an Israeli medical sociologist, has also attempted to pin down the key psychological traits that allowed some to withstand extreme stress while others did not. He focused on Holocaust survivors and narrowed the search down to three traits which together add to having a sense of coherence: comprehensibility, manageability and meaningfulness. So 'hardy' people have a belief that their situation has inherent meaning that they can commit themselves to, that they can manage their life, and that their situation is understandable - that it is basically comprehensible, even if it seems chaotic and out of control.
To a large degree, all of the traits identified by both Kobasa and Antonovsky govern how resilient we are. Generally speaking, the higher you score on their scales the more able you are to cope with life's trials and tribulations.
As part of their ongoing evaluation of the impact of their eight-week mindfulness training course, Jon Kabat-Zinn's team at the University of Massachusetts Medical School decided to see whether meditation could boost these scores and thereby enhance hardiness. And the results were very clear cut indeed. In general, not only did the participants feel happier, more energised and less stressed, they also felt that they had far more control over their lives. They found that their lives had more meaning and that challenges should be seen as opportunities rather than threats. Other studies have replicated this finding.
But perhaps most intriguing of all is the realisation that these 'fundamental' character traits are not unchangeable after all. They can be changed for the better by just eight weeks of mindfulness training. And these transformations should not be underestimated because they can have huge significance for our day-to-day lives. While empathy, compassion and inner serenity are vital for overall wellbeing, a certain degree of hardiness is required too. And the cultivation of mindfulness can have a dramatic impact on these crucial aspects of our lives.
Overall 'hardiness' can be boosted by following the eight-week Mindfulness programme in the book: 'Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World' by Professor Mark Williams (of Oxford University) and Dr Danny Penman.