You’re busy. In the race to finish the seemingly never-ending list of tasks, you speed up and multitask while thinking about what’s coming next or dwelling on what just happened. Through it all, you miss out on the present moment.
Although you continue to do it, you know it’s not good for you or the people in your life. And so you look for help—on the internet, on social media, or through professional therapy. And regardless of which self-help medium you turn to, one theme comes up over and over again as a possible solution: mindfulness.
First, it’s important to have an awareness that although mindfulness and meditation are intertwined, and can even be combined, they aren’t exactly the same thing. Both come with no known risks and a host of health benefits. However, whereas you have to practice mindfulness in order to meditate, you don’t have to meditate in order to practice mindfulness. Why?
Meditation is typically a formal, seated practice that encourages focusing inward to increase calmness, concentration, and emotional regulation. Breathwork, visualization, and mantras are often used during meditation. Meditation is usually done for a specific length of time.
Mindfulness, on the other hand, is the practice of focusing your attention on the present moment, no matter where you are or what you’re doing. There’s no formality or set time; you’re simply focused on the here and now. It’s a lifestyle. And it’s a health-promoting one. If you’ve been looking for a list of mindfulness benefits, you’ve come to the right place.
1. Be Happier
A Harvard research study done by two psychologists found that about 47 percent of your waking hours are spent thinking about things other than what you’re doing. The psychologists determined that allowing your mind to wander—whether it’s rumination about the past or worry about the future—comes at an emotional cost: unhappiness. Practicing mindfulness can help you respond more calmly to stress, reduce depression, ease anxiety, and generally make you feel happier. And research suggests that positive feelings and emotions can help you live a longer, healthier life.
A study involving 19 hospital workers showed that a mindfulness-based intervention—a mindfulness-based program designed to train individuals to cultivate mindfulness and incorporate its practice into daily life—boosted happiness, work engagement, and performance among the health care professionals.
2. Improve Cognition
Today we take in more information each day than people have at any time throughout history. Unfortunately, the brain hasn’t evolved to process the increased volume of data, which can leave you feeling overwhelmed, unable to focus, and oftentimes forgetful. Studies have shown that mindfulness can help. In fact, in one study, 24 participants with no prior experience with mindfulness meditation were assessed using measures of mood, verbal fluency, visual coding, and working memory. After just four training sessions in mindfulness meditation, the participants showed an enhanced ability to sustain attention and process information.
In a clinical trial of people with Alzheimer’s disease, researchers divided the participants into four groups. One group learned mindfulness meditation, another received cognitive stimulation therapy, and a third group learned a progressive muscle relaxation technique. The fourth group was a control group that received no training. Over the course of two years, the participants were given cognitive tests on a regular basis. Researchers found that the group that participated in mindfulness training showed the most robust improvements in cognitive scores.
3. Ward Off Diseases/Improve Quality of Life for Those with Diseases
Heart disease is still the leading cause of death in the U.S., accounting for about one in four deaths each year. In one randomized study, people with pre-hypertension were asked to replace their drug treatment with either mindfulness techniques or progressive muscle relaxation. The participants who practiced mindfulness showed a greater decrease in blood pressure than those who learned progressive muscle relaxation.
Mindfulness has also been linked to a strengthened immune system, which is the body’s primary defense against invading pathogens, infections, and diseases such as cancer. One study of patients with HIV showed that mindfulness increased levels of T-cells or T-cell activity (T-cells are a type of lymphocyte that actively participate in immune response).
Another study found that mindfulness meditation improved the quality of life and minimized the negative impact of flare-ups in people with colitis, which is a digestive disease characterized by inflammation of the inner lining of the colon.
4. Improve Your Relationships
Practicing mindfulness can help you foster and improve relationships. For example, researchers have found that mindfulness can improve our ability to communicate, feel empathy, and listen actively. Studies have also found that practicing mindfulness can help us be less reactive in the face of conflict and set compassionate boundaries.
This is good news because healthy relationships not only provide us with positive emotional regulation but are directly linked to better health. The inverse is also true. In fact, psychologists have found that a lack of quality relationships and overall social disconnection is as harmful as obesity, physical inactivity, and smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day.
5. Eat Less and More Healthfully
Distracted eating in front of a TV, computer, or smartphone screen—or eating in a hurry—can cause you to eat more and gain weight. Slowing down, savoring, and focusing on your food through mindfulness can help you control your intake, according to a report published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Mindful eating calls for eating while taking small bites, and focusing on the food in your mouth and what it took to produce the meal (e.g., farming, purchasing, preparation).
Mindful eating also calls for eating slowly. After you start to eat, it takes approximately 20 minutes before your brain sends out the “I’m full” message. If you eat lunch at your desk while you finish a project, you are far less likely to recognize the bodily cues that you need to put down your fork.
When you’re in a rush, you’re also more likely to grab foods out of convenience than to choose with health in mind. Healthful meal planning and prepping during times when you’re less busy—and scheduling times to eat, especially during the busy work week—will help you avoid mindless grab-and-go consumption.
6. Improve Your Sleep Quality
A good night of zzz’s plays a critical role in your physical, emotional, and mental health. When you’re asleep, your blood pressure drops. Studies have found that good sleep promotes mental and emotional resilience. Sleep deprivation, on the other hand, contributes to irritation and irritability. A study of animals has found that during sleep, some of the synapses—or connections—in the brain decrease, allowing new growth and new connections to be made the next day.
That’s all well and good, so long as you can actually fall and stay asleep. Research shows that about 25 percent of Americans experience acute insomnia each year. The good news? That same research shows that about 75 percent of people recover without developing chronic insomnia. Mindfulness and mindfulness meditation can help. A study of older adults diagnosed with sleep disturbances found that a six-week training in mindfulness techniques improved their overall sleep quality.
Next time you have trouble falling asleep or you wake up in the middle of the night feeling unable to fall back asleep, try focusing on the way your head feels on your pillow, the warmth of the blankets on your body, and anything else that’s sleep-related and happening at that moment. Try taking some long, deep breaths, and focus on silently repeating a positive word or phrase such as, “I’m breathing in calm and breathing out tension.” If your mind starts to activate and takes your attention elsewhere, it’s OK. Gently bring yourself back and repeat your phrase.
7. Enjoy Better Sex
Stress, anxiety, and a distracted mind can get in the way of enjoying sex. If your mind is somewhere else, you feel pressure to perform, or you’re being critical of yourself or your partner, chances are that you will not enjoy each moment of the sexual experience, let alone an orgasm.
On the other hand, practicing mindfulness and present moment awareness can reduce stress and enhance your enjoyment of sex. Being present with your partner in a space of nonjudgment, where both of you feel free to be exactly as you are, can deepen your intimacy and lead to better sex. Research by psychologist Lori A. Brotto shows how the practice of mindfulness can cultivate more fulfilling sexual experiences.
How to Incorporate Mindfulness 101
If you’re new to practicing mindfulness, start with a few areas of your life. For example, this week you could start when you wake up. Applying mindfulness to the first minutes of your day can set the tone for your entire day. Think about what it feels like to first wake up. Lie there for a moment. Don’t think about what you have to do today. Just think about the current moment as you first open your eyes. Maybe you’re stretching out your arms and legs, yawning, and taking a deep breath. Be with this moment before you move on to what you have to do next. Next week, try adding mindfulness to your meals or in between actions—the transitional moments when you’re doing dishes after a meal or when you’re walking from your car to the store.
The health benefits of mindfulness likely include a few that you could use. As you continue to add more mindfulness to your life, you will start to experience how it can help your peace of mind and overall health and well-being.
*Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only; it does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Chopra Center's Mind-Body Medical Group; and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health programs.