Last month I offered suggestions on how to bring mindfulness to your organization. In this post, I focus on the “why” – what do we gain from practicing mindfulness? From my scientist background, I want to see the evidence and data that supports claims. So this post includes a summary of research that supports concrete, specific benefits that come from practicing mindfulness. This in turn can help you gain credibility and support for your own mindfulness program.
In my last blog post, I described what it means to “practice mindfulness.” This is important to understand since all demonstrated benefits of mindfulness tie back to this definition. The idea of needing to practice in order to gain benefits is becoming more accepted. This is in contrast to a few years ago when the prevailing wisdom said that you really didn’t have to spend a lot of time or effort on mindfulness – just pause for a breath or two here and there, and benefits realized. But based on his own study, Judson Brewer, a psychiatrist at the University of Massachusetts, says, “I think it’s safe to say [mindfulness practice] is brain-training at work. Anything you train to do, you do better.” And Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin, said at the Mindful Leadership Summit last November, “In 20-30 years, ‘mental exercise’ will be talked about in the same way as physical exercise is today.”
So what do you gain from practicing and developing mindfulness? Research shows that people who practice mindfulness show these differences compared to those who do not practice mindfulness:
Improved cognitive ability. In a simulated stressful, multi-tasking work environment, those trained in mindfulness were more focused, had a better memory for details of the task, and reported less fatigue and a better mood after task completion. Separate research showed that experienced mindfulness practitioners were better able to disengage from upsetting images and focus on a cognitive task. In a stressful work environment, this translates to an ability to remain calm and problem-solve. And a 2-week mindfulness-training course improved participant GRE scores by 16%.
Increased self-awareness. Practicing mindfulness allows us to develop self-observation, and this is at the heart of many models of leadership and organizational development. In The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge talks about identifying our “mental models,” building on Harvard Business School professor Chris Argyris’s work that tells us that we have to reflect on the way that we think. Self-awareness is also one of the central attributes of emotional intelligence, which in turn has been correlated with improved leadership effectiveness and business results.
More tolerance for discomfort. When we practice mindfulness, we stay with our present experience as-is. This can be challenging when our situation is unpleasant. However, the power of remaining open to our experience was demonstrated by a study in which experienced mindfulness practitioners were able to handle higher degrees of pain than non-practitioners. So when we are willing to stay open to the present situation, even if it is uncomfortable, we actually increase our ability to handle discomfort – a highly-relevant attribute in stressful work environments.
Better mental & physical health. A meta-analysis at Johns Hopkins concluded that mindfulness decreases anxiety and depression, and mindfulness reduces cortisol levels, a hormone related to stress. And a summary from the University of Massachusetts shows that diabetics who practice mindfulness have significantly lower blood glucose levels, and mindfulness training in standard cardiac rehabilitation has been shown to reduce mortality, weight, and blood pressure. If we want to perform at a high level at work, it begins with tending to our mental and physical well-being.
There are many valuable benefits that result from practicing mindfulness. Determine which resonate most with your organization, and cite backing research to shore up support for a mindfulness program at your organization.