Recently I came across two new, unrelated studies that together provide new evidence about the impact of mindfulness practice. One looked at the potential impact of being “in the moment” when you’re facing stressful problems or challenges that often arise in daily life—perhaps even more so, now, during the pandemic. Does it really help? Or can it hinder figuring out what you need to do to diminish your stress? The other study also looked at mindfulness, but with a broader focus: how it may affect or impede well-being over time as you deal with change over the years.
Interest in practicing mindfulness has become pretty mainstream in recent years as a way to help you stay focused and centered in the face of distracting emotions and thoughts. Many practice it in their daily lives, and it’s being applied to the workplace and leadership development, as well.
One new study from researchers at North Carolina State University looked specifically at how staying centered and living in the moment helped with daily stress, compared with coping strategies and trying to plan ahead to ward off future sources of stress. Is it more helpful to stay in the moment or better to engage in “proactive coping”?
The researchers found that it’s not either-or. The study consisted of 223 people—half young adults through their late 30s, half between 60 and 90, and they reported their level of mindfulness over time. It found evidence that proactive efforts to reduce the stressful situation were helpful in specific situations—but only when combined with mindfulness. On those days when the participant reported low mindfulness, the proactive strategy lost its apparent usefulness for minimizing the impact of daily stress.
Described in this report, these findings have significance for building resilience and adaptation in the face of disturbing events and emotions. According to one of the researchers, Shevaun Neupert, "Our results show that a combination of proactive coping and high mindfulness results in study participants of all ages being more resilient against daily stressors."
Those who are more prone to look down the road at future situations and how to minimize their potential stress that may arise "may be more inclined to think ahead to the future at the expense of remaining in the present." Of course, a downside there is that looking too much down the road can take your attention away from dealing with stress in the immediate situation. Neupert points out that a greater focus on practicing mindfulness practice may be helpful to people with those tendencies. The study was published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences.
These findings complement, in a way, another recent study that examined several characteristics of mindfulness more broadly: in relation to age and overall well-being. This research, from Flinders University in Australia, defined mindfulness as the ability to be aware of one’s experiences and to pay attention to the present moment in a purposeful, receptive, and non-judgmental way.
The researchers emphasized in this summary that using mindfulness techniques can be instrumental in reducing stress and promoting positive psychological outcomes. Here, they sought to investigate the relationship between aging—from middle age onward—and such capacities as staying attentive to the present moment; being non-judgmental; acceptance of age-related changes; and overall positive emotions.
The study, published in Aging and Mental Health, was conducted with 623 participants between 18 and 86 years. The researchers found that the presence of the above characteristics among the older participants was associated with greater overall well-being. In fact, according to lead author Leeann Mahlo, "We found that positive relationships between aspects of mindfulness and well-being became stronger from middle age onwards."
Added researcher Tim Windsor, “Mindfulness may naturally develop with time and life experience. The significance of mindfulness for well-being may also increase as we get older, in particular the ability to focus on the present moment and to approach experiences in a non-judgmental way.” And, “These characteristics are helpful in adapting to age-related challenges and in generating positive emotions.”
Overall, these findings indicate that, at least for some older people, the significance of mindfulness for well-being may become more important as we get older. That is, the ability to focus on the present moment and to approach life experiences in a non-judgmental way may be a key component of positive emotions and overall well-being as you move through aging and life transitions. For example, “The ability to appreciate the temporary nature of personal experiences may be particularly important for the way people manage their day-to-day goals across the second half of life,” suggests Mahlo.
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