Being Mindful About Mindfulness

April 8, 2018
Jacqueline Jung

What is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness soared into popularity in the 2000s and has since become a topic of interest in nearly every domain of psychology, and an influential practice for a considerable subset of the public (Brown & Ryan, 2003). Mindfulness is generally defined as a state of heightened, intentional, non-judgmental awareness (Kabat-Zinn, 2003). Three components of mindfulness—intention, attention, and attitude—have been identified, capturing the motivation, cognitive processes, and affective responses associated with mindful states (Shapiro et al., 2006). Although some studies examine mindfulness as a more trait-like construct (e.g., Siegling, 2014) this conceptualization has less value for researchers and practitioners interested in improving mindfulness skills.  As such, mindfulness is often measured as a mental state characterized by full attention to present-moment experience.

Correlates of Trait Mindfulness

Trait mindfulness, the relatively stable disposition to be more or less mindful, has been shown to help bolster the effects of mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs; Shapiro et al., 2011). In the occupational domain, employer trait mindfulness has been linked to follower job satisfaction, job performance, and well-being (Reb et al., 2014). Trait mindfulness has also been associated with greater work-family balance (Allen & Kiburz, 2012), healthier eating, including fewer impulsive choices, healthier snack decisions, and reduced caloric consumption (Jordan et al, 2014). Trait mindfulness has also been shown as a weak, negative predictor of substance abuse behaviors, primarily alcohol and tobacco use (Karyadi et al., 2014).

Mindfulness-Based Interventions

Relatively large-scale attempts to manipulate mindfulness have been gaining traction in the applied domain. For example, mindfulness is employed in Google’s business practices, is a standard psychotherapy of the National Health Service in the U.K. and is being tested as part of the standard education for about 6,000 children aged 11 to 14 across seventy-six different schools in London (Kuyken, 2017). Mindfulness-based training is also being tested for U.S. military resilience; it has recently been used among U.S. Marines prior to deploying to Iraq in order to buffer against the stressors of military deployment (Stanley et al., 2011). A review of mindfulness-based interventions in occupational settings examined 153 published papers with 12,571 participants and found that mindfulness was generally associated with positive outcomes in measures of mental health, well-being, and job performance (Lomas et al., 2017). Sixty-four of these studies presented data from MBIs, of which the authors identified only 21 that provided high quality descriptions of their studies. In general, these studies supported the positive effects of MBIs on reported mindfulness and a range of outcomes such as anxiety, stress, anger, sleep, job satisfaction, resilience, and job performance. A qualitative review of workplace MBIs (Eby et al., in press) suggested the main outcome of interest in these studies tends to be effects on  stress/strain.

Areas for Improvement in Mindfulness Research

Despite the promise mindfulness holds, Van Dam and colleagues (2018) have recently suggested that methodological issues common to studies of mindfulness may lead the public to be disappointed or misled. First, the authors argued that because mindfulness is currently being used as an umbrella term to describe a large number of practices, processes, and characteristics focusing on attention, awareness, memory, and acceptance, there is no single agreed upon definition of the construct.  Similarly, Lomas and colleagues (2017), as well as Eby and colleagues (in press), also highlighted the variability in the content, delivery, evaluation, and reporting of mindfulness-based interventions. This may contribute to inconsistent results since some researchers may focus upon state or trait mindfulness while others examine mindfulness skills and practices. Van Dam and colleagues (2018) also point toward challenges to clinical interventions, such as haphazard variability across mindfulness-based interventions and misperceptions of therapeutic efficacy. They also draw attention to potential adverse effects from practicing mindfulness, including over twenty published cases of meditation-related psychosis, mania, depersonalization, anxiety, panic, and traumatic memory re-experiencing. Another thing to keep in mind is that exaggerated benefits of mindfulness may potentially divert patients from pursuing activities such as aerobic exercise or standard treatments (e.g. psychotherapy). Lastly, Van Dam and colleagues call into question interpretations of mindfulness data due to limitations in neuroimaging and problematic analyses of brain activity depictions.

It is not all bad news for mindfulness, though. In response to Van Dam and colleagues’ (2018) review, Davidson and Dahl (2018) suggested that Van Dam and colleagues’ primary focus on clinical outcomes (such as depression and addiction) may be missing critical, meaningful, and potentially more potent effects on non-clinical outcomes (e.g., life satisfaction, job satisfaction, motivation). Davidson and Dahl also suggest that much of the variability in mindfulness results may be due to variability in the duration and intensity of mindfulness practice, giving rise to many theoretical and practical questions. For example, is it more useful to practice meditation in brief but multiple sessions in a given day, or is it more beneficial to have one long session? Is daily practice more or less impactful than periods of intensive practice such as retreats? Davidson and Dahl also argue that mobile technology may enable the standardization and collection of large datasets on mindfulness interventions.

Five Mindfulness Takeaways
  1. Mindfulness has been viewed as a multidimensional trait, state, or skill set, depending on context.
  2. Generally, studies of mindfulness-based interventions in occupational settings show a range of positive impacts, especially on stress/strain.
  3. Because there is no standard definition, operationalizing mindfulness becomes difficult, which then leads to methodological issues and inconsistent results.
  4. Considering mindfulness-based interventions, there is no standard format, content, delivery, or reporting system. This may explain inconsistent results.
  5. Overall, more consistency in defining, manipulating, and evaluating mindfulness may help researchers and practitioners alike in understanding the relationship between mindfulness and outcomes of interest.
Further Reading: 

Allen, T. D., & Kiburz, K. M. (2012). Trait mindfulness and work-family balance among working parents: the mediating effects of vitality and sleep quality. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 80, 372–379.

Brown, K. W., & Ryan, R. M. (2003). The benefits of being present: Mindfulness and its role in psychological well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 822–848.

Davidson, R. J., & Dahl, C. (2018). Outstanding challenges in scientific research on mindfulness and meditation. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 13, 62–65. 

Fresco, D. M., Moore, M. T., van Dulmen, M. H. M., Segal, Z. V., Ma, S. H., Teasdale, J. D., & Williams, J. M. G. (2007). Initial psychometric properties of the experiences questionnaire: Validation of a self-report measure of decenter-ing. Behavior Therapy, 38, 234–246.

Hugh-Jones, S., Rose, S., Koutsopoulou, G.Z. et al. Mindfulness (2017).

Kabat-Zinn, J. (2003). Mindfulness-based interventions in context: past, present, and future. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 10, 144–156.

Karyadi, K. A., VanderVeen, J. D., Cyders, M. A. (2014). A meta-analysis of the relationship between trait mindfulness and substance use behaviors. Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 143, 1–10.

Kuyken, W., Nuthall, E., Byford, S., Crane, C., Dalgleish, T., Ford, T., ... & Williams, J. M. G. (2017). The effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of a mindfulness training programme in schools compared with normal school provision (MYRIAD): study protocol for a randomised controlled trial. Trials, 18, 194.

Lomas, T., Medina, J. C., Ivtzan, I., Rupprecht, S., Hart, R. Eiroa-Orosa, F. J. (2017). The impact of mindfulness on well-being and performance in the workplace: an inclusive systematic review of the empirical literature. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 26, 492–513.

Jordan, C. H., Wang, W., Donatoni, L., Meier, B. P. (2014). Mindful eating: trait and state mindfulness predict healthier eating behavior. Personality and Individual Differences, 68, 107–111.

Reb, J., Narayanan, J. Chaturvedi, S. Mindfulness (2014). 5: 36.

Shapiro, S. L., Carlson, L. E., Astin, J. A., Freedman, B. (2006). Mechanisms of Mindfulness. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 62, 373–386.

Stanley, E. A., Schaldach, J. M., Kiyonaga, A., Jha, A. P. (2011). Mindfulness-based mind fitness training: a case study of a high-stress predeployment military cohort. Cognitive and Behavioral Practice, 18, 566–576.

Van Dam, N. T., van Vugt, M. K., Vago, D. R., Schmalzl, L., Saron, C. D., Olendzki, A., Meyer, D. E. (2018). Mind the hype: A critical evaluation and prescriptive agenda for research on mindfulness and meditation. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 13, 36–61.

Van Dam, N. T., van Vugt, M. K., Vago, D. R., Schmalzl, L., Saron, C. D., Olendzki, A., Meyer, D. E. (2018). Reiterated concerns and further challenges for mindfulness and meditation research: A reply to Davidson and Dahl. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 13, 66–69.