The Surprising Reason Mindfulness Makes You Happier
Research shows it's not just neutral observation.
Posted January 27, 2020 | Reviewed by Devon Frye
Experiencing positive feelings can improve our health and quality of life. However, positive emotions are difficult to change because almost half of our happiness seems to be a function of genetic factors.
Nevertheless, some practices have been shown to increase positive emotions, including practicing gratitude, spending money on others, doing loving-kindness meditation, and practicing mindfulness. Mindfulness is both a set of skills and an orientation to life that involves maintaining open attention on whatever is happening in the present moment and bringing an attitude of acceptance and openness to whatever is going on internally or externally. Some studies have shown that mindfulness interventions increase positive feelings, but we don’t really know why this happens. A recent research study sought to delve deeper into this issue.
Observing Your Present-Moment Experiences
One facet of practicing mindfulness involves slowing down and deliberately focusing on different aspects of your experience, such as what you feel in your body (e.g., body temperature, breathing, muscles); what you feel in your thoughts, emotions, or senses (what you see, hear, taste, feel or smell); or what is happening around you (e.g., listening mindfully to someone who is talking). When your attention wanders, you begin to notice this shift and deliberately bring it back to whatever you have decided to focus on. This deliberate direction of attention is called monitoring.
Monitoring your ongoing experience may make you feel happier by helping you slow down to appreciate things or to notice more of the happy things that are going on around you. You may begin to pay more attention to the trees and flowers, enjoy the feel of the sun on your skin, or bask in the warmth of your partner’s or child’s loving gaze.
On the other hand, paying attention to both positive and negative feelings as they arise may also make you more aware of negative feelings and sensations, such as tension, in your body. Some feelings or thoughts may be uncomfortable or difficult to tolerate. Positive feelings may be observed but then quickly replaced by negative ones. Therefore, it may take more than monitoring to help us be happier.
Accepting Your Inner Experiences
A second facet of mindfulness is acceptance. Practicing acceptance means allowing your experiences (e.g., thoughts, feelings, sensations, cravings) to be as they are, viewing them with kindness, gentleness, and openness. It is the middle ground between suppressing your feelings or over-identifying with them. When you sit with difficult experiences and give them space, they can become less aversive.
Acceptance is the opposite of judgment or clinging. Judging and criticizing yourself means not accepting that things are as they are and cannot be changed in this moment. Clinging means not allowing positive experiences to end, forcing ourselves to feel happy when we don’t, or trying to avoid the natural pain and ups and downs of life.
Acceptance can increase positive feelings because it can change the meaning of our stressors, making them more tolerable. By not trying to force our lives or experiences to be a certain way by judging less, we can be more open to the present moment and our naturally arising feelings of contentment, interest, pride, joy, curiosity and so on.
The researchers compared the effects of two different mindfulness training programs: Monitoring only (teaching only one skill) versus monitoring plus acceptance (teaching both skills) with a control condition (no treatment or inactive treatment) in two different studies of stressed community adults. One study used in-person mindfulness training while the other study taught these skills via smartphone. Both positive and negative emotions were assessed at the end of the day (via diaries) and also at four random times each day, using the smartphone, for three days before and after the study.
Results showed that while all the active mindfulness interventions (monitoring only and monitoring + acceptance) reduced negative feelings equally from before to after the study, they differed in their effects on positive feelings. For improving positive feelings, the monitoring + acceptance group had a significantly stronger effect, compared to monitoring only and control conditions.
These results mean that practicing mindfulness may make us happier only if we learn to tolerate, make space for, and accept whatever experiences arise, rather than judging them, letting them define us, or running away from them. Perhaps acceptance leads to a mindset shift in which we can let go and be ok with things as they are, rather than focusing on what we don’t have, what we should have done, or what might happen in the future. Letting go of trying to control everything can make space for you to take a breath and feel the joy of the present moment, whether it’s walking your dog, hugging your child, having lunch with a friend, or doing interesting work.
Becoming aware of what you feel—including negative thoughts, or the tension in your body (monitoring)—is only part of the work. You also need to practice allowing those feelings and sensations to be there without trying to force them away, worrying about them, letting yourself be defined by them or judging yourself for having them.
Allowing the Feeling In
Below is an exercise to help you practice acceptance in your daily life:
If you are struggling with feeling something that you don’t want to feel (e.g., anger or sadness), try to make room for that feeling. Start by giving it a name (e.g., I’m feeling angry) and then notice where you feel it in your body (e.g., your chest). Try to bring curiosity to the experience, letting the anger be there and noticing if it moves in your body, goes down or increases, whether it’s hot or cold, expansive or tight, and other qualities of it. Notice what the anger makes you want to do (e.g., shout and scream) and notice that you have a choice whether to do that or not. To begin with, you can just watch the impulse to give yourself more time to process the situation before you act.
Lindsay, E. K., Chin, B., Greco, C. M., Young, S., Brown, K. W., Wright, A. G. C., Smyth, J. M., Burkett, D., & Creswell, J. D. (2018). How mindfulness training promotes positive emotions: Dismantling acceptance skills training in two randomized controlled trials. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 115(6), 944–973. https://doi.org/10.1037/pspa0000134