By Kira M. Newman
For many of us, mindfulness is a relaxation tool--a way to cultivate calm and slow down in a frantic world.
But that's not all it can do. "Sometimes when I meditate, I can't stop smiling," a longtime practitioner told me recently. "I just want to jump up and go after my dreams!" And she could be onto something: According to a new study, one of the ways mindfulness improves our well-being may be by encouraging us to act authentically, according to our values.
A group of Australian researchers surveyed more than 800 people, mostly undergraduate students, about their levels of mindfulness, well-being, and "values-based action."
Values-based action reflects how much progress you're making toward the things that matter to you--your goals, self-improvement, and purpose in life--and how much you get distracted or discouraged along the way. For example, if you value compassion, you would rate yourself higher if you took time out of a busy week to check on friends who are struggling. The mindfulness measured here was participants' ability to stay focused, minimize distraction, and avoid judging their thoughts and feelings.
In their analysis, the researchers found that more mindful people had higher well-being--with much of this link accounted for by their acting more in line with their values. This was the case for the various types of well-being measured in the survey, including the participants' overall satisfaction with life, how much positive and negative emotion they experienced recently, and how positive they felt about their relationships, themselves, and the future.
In other words, one of the reasons mindfulness may be so beneficial is because it helps us translate our values into action, to live authentically.
Although this study can't prove that mindfulness causes more authentic behavior, which in turn causes greater well-being, there's reason to believe this might be the case. Lead author Alison Christie's follow-up work (as yet unpublished) is showing evidence of a causal link, where mindfulness training seems to increase values-based action, which in turn is linked to higher well-being in the future.
When we pursue things that matter to us--whether it's a new career or a budding romance--we sometimes feel overwhelmed by fear or self-doubt. Mindfulness could help us recognize these feelings and work through them, rather than getting stuck and paralyzed by inaction. Mindfulness could also help us notice opportunities and carefully consider them--she mentioned that her company's hiring; maybe I'd be a good fit?--rather than moving forward on auto-pilot, rarely straying from our current path in life.
And mindfulness might give us the extra thoughtfulness we need to remember our values in everyday situations--to say no to commitments that will exhaust us, to remember to be patient with our kids, or to take care of our bodies.
Life is full of decisions, big and small, and they can be guided by what truly matters to us--or by fear, stress, and inertia. Mindfulness may help us stay true to our inner compass, and follow it toward a better life.