During periods of extreme life stress, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, it would be nice to find a new source of happiness. The media covers all the bad news from around the world, but even the daily reports include coverage of morale-boosting stories ranging from the heroism of health care workers to community efforts to spread cheer in forms such as “birthday parades.” You’ve probably already been able to stream live broadcasts from the arts, whether in the form of “Zoom concerts” or free releases of plays, musicals, and movies.
These boosts can perk you up and give you a chance to escape from the day-to-day difficulties that you are currently experiencing. However, are there steps you can take on your own to prop up your mood?
According to a new study by Zarah Rowland and colleagues (2020) of the Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, you may be able to instill your own influx of good feelings through a dose of momentary mindfulness. Rather than view mindfulness as a trait or ability that some people have and some people don’t, the German researchers propose that you can turn your mindfulness on at will. In what they define as “momentary mindfulness,” you can take advantage of this happiness hack by becoming more accepting of your negative feelings and allowing them, in the process, to dissipate.
As Rowland et al. point out, based on previous research, people who are good at being mindful have less negative affect, are less likely to ruminate when things go wrong, better at regulating their emotions, and just plain feel better. The authors cite the Monitor and Acceptance Theory (MAT) as potentially responsible for these beneficial outcomes. According to MAT, “monitoring one’s current sensations increases affective responses toward affect relevant stimuli. However, if these observed affective experiences were also accepted, this could help to reduce affective responses by noticing present feelings and letting them pass by” (p. 437).
In other words, even if those relevant stimuli produce negative emotions (such as media coverage of the pandemic), you can avoid being thrown into despondency by noticing the bad feelings you’re experiencing and then just letting them go.
Sometimes your mood changes, though, for reasons that are entirely internally generated as you ruminate over a past event. Perhaps you recently had an encounter on a video chat with a relative when you said something you later regretted. You try not to think about this unpleasant exchange, but the thought reappears every now and again without any prompting on your part. You’d like to purge the memory of the event from your consciousness, but it just won’t go away, and your bad mood lingers unabated.
The philosophy behind mindfulness is that you don’t try to drown out your negative thoughts or feelings but instead bring them front and center into conscious awareness. As you do so, you exchange regret with acceptance and in the process, your mood paradoxically improves. For people who are naturally mindful or who have been through mindfulness training, this process can occur almost automatically, but this doesn’t mean that if you don’t have that ability, you’re out of luck.
The researchers believe that you can tap into momentary mindfulness whether or not mindfulness comes naturally to you. In fact, the German scientists believe that mindfulness can be switched on and off as needed once you’ve learned the basics of how to put it into practice. There may be times when you’re more mindful than others, furthermore, depending on the “affect dynamics” (mood changes) of your life’s daily rhythms.
To test their proposal that you can bring mindfulness to bear on your well-being in the moment, the Meinz University researchers tested the impact of mindfulness training on both dispositional and momentary mindfulness. For the study, the research team recruited a sample of 125 undergraduate students for a 6-week randomized controlled trial in which about half participated in mindfulness training and the other half were placed into a waitlist control. Those in the waitlist control group received their treatment after the first group completed their training.
The mindfulness intervention itself took the form of a weekly training session in which participants took part in a breathing exercise in which they were encouraged to concentrate on the sensations of inhaling and exhaling. Any other thoughts or feelings they had were to be noticed, but not judged. When those extraneous ideas and emotions popped into people’s minds, they were to follow the instructions of just guiding their attention back to their own breathing. The point of the intervention wasn’t to create a mood of delirious joy, but “to improve adaptive affective reactivity and recovery and to implement a stable, calm, and positive stance” (p. 439).
Using a variant of the method known as experience sampling called “Ambulatory Assessment,” Rowland and her colleagues asked participants to complete a mindfulness assessment when randomly prompted throughout the day via a smartphone app. The mindfulness measure asked participants to indicate how much they were aware of what was happening to them in the moment.
At the same time, participants also provided ratings of their positive and negative affect using scales tapping into positive feelings such as happy, excited, and satisfied as well as negative emotional states such as anxious, angry, and sad. As a check against the role of dispositional mindfulness, the researchers also obtained measures of the extent to which participants reported being able to observe, describe, accept without judgment, and act with awareness on a scale of rarely to always.
You can see, then, that there’s a difference between the mindfulness you might typically feel and the mindfulness you’re experiencing at a given point in time. To check this out, ask yourself whether you feel you can enter this state without much effort on a “typical” basis, and then ask yourself whether you’re doing so right now. With luck, you’re actually reading this article and focusing on the words rather than letting your mind wander off to contemplating what you’ll be doing when you’re finished. When you’re being mindful, you fixate only on the situation you’re in. You’re not thinking about that prior video conversation with the relative that didn’t go quite as planned, nor are you planning your next meal.
As the authors predicted, there were differences in positive affect between people higher and lower in dispositional mindfulness. However, supporting the idea of momentary mindfulness as adding above and beyond a person’s general level of ability, mindfulness training helped individuals become more mindful in the moment which, in turn, was related to an “upward spiral” (p. 447) in which positive affect built upon itself. As people became better at momentary mindfulness, furthermore, they were less likely to switch from a positive to a negative mood. The mindfulness training specifically appeared to help people into that “stable, calm and positive stance” and avoid getting stuck in a bad mood should they enter that state momentarily.
The German study offers insights into a very practical happiness hack. You don’t have to “try” to become happy or be annoyed with yourself when you’re not. Instead of dwelling on your feelings at all, notice what’s going on around, or in. you. That focus on breathing is a good attention-grabber because it gives you something to become aware of other than your feelings. You don’t have to think about your breathing all the time, of course, but the training provided by that type of meditation can help you become less judgmental about yourself when you start to enter negative mood territory.
To sum up, mindfulness is a quality that researchers increasingly believe to be beneficial for your mental health. The little effort it takes to exercise it in the moment will more than pay off in your longer-term feelings of fulfillment.
Rowland, Z., Wenzel, M., & Kubiak, T. (2020). A mind full of happiness: How mindfulness shapes affect dynamics in daily life. Emotion, 20(3), 436–451. doi: 10.1037/emo0000562.supp (Supplemental)