There’s lots of talk these days about being “cautiously optimistic” as we return to normal, whatever that is. Many Americans have begun a deep reconsideration of how they have lived and how they should live in the future. Can we use this time in history to become better people?
This big “rethink” will become clearer in the months and years ahead, but for the first time in decades, perhaps, Americans are hesitant to get back on the same merry-go-round that has kept them running hard only to end up where they started.
We wonder how we will fit into a changed landscape pockmarked by COVID-19, racial inequity and the Looney Tunes antics of immature politicians. Americans have always been a hungry bunch — ambitious and always pressing onward, only now we’re asking whether “back to normal” and “better” share the same values. To understand this important question, we need to slow down, get off the merry-go-round and stay off until we become more mindful of the direction our life is headed.
Accidental lives happen all the time. They’re not what we planned but who can say that the path not taken would have been better? Often we don’t put as much thought into who we are becoming as human beings as we do in the purchase of a new car. At least car dealerships have spreadsheets and value tables that allow us to make informed decisions on our purchase.
Life doesn’t come with a list of analytical comparisons.
We need the tools to inform ourselves about ourselves. One of these tools is the practice of mindfulness because mindfulness is the ability to pay attention. That’s it. It’s simply being aware of what’s happening as it’s happening. It’s not one more thing to add to an already busy day, because mindfulness is a specific way of living.
Unlike meditation, you can practice mindfulness anytime, anywhere and with anyone because it’s being actively involved in an activity with all your senses. Whereas meditation is usually practiced for a specific amount of time in a particular place, mindfulness can be applied to any situation throughout the day.
What is one of the reasons that mindfulness works? It can actually change your brain and the way you think! It can show you how to become a better person, not just a recycled version of your old self.
Here is how mindfulness can help you become more efficient and effective:
1. Improves your ability to pay attention
In a recently published study, researchers took a look at how mindfulness can improve our ability to pay attention. The researchers found changes in brain physiology that correlated with improvement in the attention span. The brain has limited capacity to process all the information that comes its way, so it focuses our attention (in the prefrontal cortex) to help sort out how to move forward.
Attention can be categorized into two distinct functions, and each of these functions are enhanced by mindfulness.
- Mindfulness increases the efficiency of brain pathways that process information coming in from the senses. The increase in attention allowed the people in the study to see incoming information more accurately and with less judgment. Scientists refer to our enhanced ability to accurately assess the information coming from our senses as a bottom-up process.
- Mindfulness can boost the ability of the brain to direct attention to the task or situation of interest. When this happens, we’re better able to focus on the task and ignore distractions. Scientists call our ability to allocate attention as a top-down process.
How to make it work for you: The way we apply our attention depends on the importance of the task. Since mindfulness has been found effective in improving our attention span, consider the following:
- Let your mind explore which tasks cause you the most worry and stress
- Identify which tasks are truly important to your well-being
- Break down the important tasks into smaller ones that are easier to accomplish and will move you toward the larger overall objective
- Eliminate obvious distractions and find a way to mitigate interruptions
- Work on one task or objective at a time. Multitasking is the enemy of focus
2. Changes the brain
In the not-so-distant past, scientists thought the brain stopped developing around the age of 25. However, recent research has discovered something called neuroplasticity, which describes the brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming neural connections throughout its lifetime.
Brain smarts are no longer limited by our age! That might not be news to those of a certain age, but further studies demonstrate that mindfulness greatly assists with the development of our brain.
People who practice mindfulness and meditation develop thicker layers of neurons in the insula, a region that is activated when you become aware of your body and your emotions. In addition, parts of the prefrontal cortex (the area that controls attention) are also strengthened.
You can read the details of a 2018 study here, but (in brief) researchers hooked people up to a functional MRI machine and compared the brain’s response during a variety of socially distressful situations.
The fMRI showed how mindfulness affects different parts of the brain. Awareness does not require emotion, because awareness and emotion are mediated by different brain regions.
Noticing a mistake might grab our attention and automatically trigger an emotional response in the amygdala. But becoming aware of our own reaction activates the prefrontal cortex and calms the amygdala.
Mindfulness can help you regulate your emotions by changing your neurobiological responses when a negative emotion is triggered. Use your mind to change your brain!
How to make it work for you: Focus on what you love, because the prefrontal cortex controls our concentration attention span. When you focus on what you love about yourself and about others, you have a powerful way to keep your prefrontal cortex happy!
3. Improves your ability to set goals
Most of us are good at setting goals for ourselves. However, we aren’t as good at setting the right ones.
New research has found that mindful people who excel at living in the present moment are better at setting the right goals. Given that mindfulness helps us develop a deeper level of self-awareness, it’s logical that mindful people have goals that are aligned with their values, talents and interests. They can be more authentic because they know who they are — and who they are not.
Mindful people don’t waste their time and energy on goals that don’t benefit their overall well-being. According to the research, when people pursue goals that aligned with their values, they are more likely to attain goals that are consistent with their long-term interests.
Students in the study were asked to fill out a questionnaire where they rated statements, such as: “It seems I am running on automatic without much awareness of what I’m doing” and “I find myself doing things without paying attention.” High ratings on these statements indicated lower level of mindfulness.
How to make it work for you: Pause and ask yourself questions like:
- What makes me feel alive?
- What are my core values?
- What choice(s) feel the most authentic to me right now?
- When I’m old, what will I hope to have achieved?
- What is most difficult for me to accept about myself?
- What matters most to me?
4. Increases gratitude
In this “I’m right and you’re wrong” mentality that we seem to be stuck in, it’s important to remember that mindfulness is nonjudgmental observation and awareness. Whew! If only journalists and politicians would become more mindful, think of what a difference it would make in our country. We would have access to real news and not childish opinion pieces.
At its core, mindfulness allows us to observe our interior thoughts and external circumstances with compassion and a lack of judgment, no matter how harsh the reality. Researchers have argued that it is not pain or sadness that determines our outlook in life; rather, it is the frustration that continues to generate more frustration and irritation. Those negative emotions devolve into a downward spiral that takes us closer to Hell every day.
If we choose to grow up, we come to the understanding that a happy life is not free of problems or crap that’s neither wanted nor appreciated. It’s our choice to confront life in a mature manner, but if we do, we’ll accept that fleeting moments of pleasure don’t last forever, and neither do moments of sadness and weariness. The key is to not feed negativity when it rears its ugly head.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that many successful people keep a gratitude journal. I can anticipate your response to this suggestion — “I already busy and don’t need to add a journal to my schedule.” Suck it up.
Here’s why: There’s a basic principle in psychology called reciprocal inhibition. What this means is that you can’t feel contradicting states of emotion at the same time. So, you can either feel grateful, or you can feel sorry for yourself. The choice is yours.
How to make it work for you:
- Face the conflict. The next time you feel inner tension, don’t get frustrated or angry. Don’t let yourself go down the pity path and ask, “Why me?” Instead, acknowledge the experience and dispassionately observe it.
- Gaze upon something in nature and remind yourself of the precious and unique contribution to the world that it brings.
- Remind yourself of something or someone you love. Recall moments when they were happy and unworried. Stay with those thoughts for a few moments.
- Check your attitude. Do you know how many billions of people would love to live your life? As unfair and difficult your life may be, there are many who live in poverty or slavery around the world. Instead of focusing on what is wrong in your life, be grateful for what you have and think about offering a helping hand to those less fortunate than yourself.
LaRae Quy was an FBI undercover and counterintelligence agent for 24 years. She exposed foreign spies and recruited them to work for the U.S. government. As an FBI agent, she developed the mental toughness to survive in environments of risk, uncertainty, and deception. Get Quy’s new book, “Secrets of a Strong Mind (second edition): How To Build Inner Strength To Overcome Life’s Obstacles” as well as “Mental Toughness for Women Leaders: 52 Tips To Recognize and Utilize Your Greatest Strengths.” Follow her on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn.