What Is Mindfulness and Why Does It Work?


There’s a lot of talk about mindfulness these days. Leading businesses and top performing CEOs are lining up to tout the benefits of implementing mindfulness practices within their organizations and within their own lives. Studies report that mindfulness improves productivity, reduces stress, and enhances happiness and overall wellbeing. Sounds pretty good. So, what exactly is mindfulness and does it actually work?

Jon Kabat-Zinn, creator of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, describes mindfulness as, “The awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.” While the definition is easy enough to understand, the benefits are less clear. Why should we care?

In a 2010 study, psychologist Matt Killingsworth found that the average adult mind is not focused on the task at hand—that our minds wander—an average of 47 percent of the time. In other words, almost half of our waking attention is devoted to fleeting thoughts. The idea that we can recapture some of that time and refocus it to our priorities, our relationships, ourselves—that is reason enough to give mindfulness a try.

The act of being mindful is strengthened through a series of practices, with meditation as a key component. Other practices include self-reflection, journaling, mindful listening and conversation, finding similarities in others, mindful eating, and even mindful walking.

Despite the benefit of regaining more of our focus, it still seems like a stretch to get from meditating to paying better attention, and eventually, all the way up to happiness. But when you take a deeper dive into mindfulness and understand that the underlying goal is to train and develop emotional intelligence by paying careful attention to the thoughts and feelings that arise within us, then connecting the dots becomes a little easier.

Imagine a leadership team within a company that has the shared strengths of self-awareness, self-management, motivation, and empathy—a team made up of individuals who are capable of engaging in tough conversations both within and outside of their own ranks, and ultimately arriving at solutions with calm resolve.

No need to imagine the results because two studies published by the journal Mindfulness show us exactly what the positive benefits are. More mindful leaders are associated with employees that report a better work-life balance and higher rates of overall job satisfaction.

Now imagine a better you. A more self-aware, focused, empathetic, and productive person. Whether you’re a business leader or not, that sounds like a pretty great thing. So how does mindfulness work?

Neuroscience research shows that mindfulness is a learned skill and that practice strengthens connections between certain parts of your brain—specifically the parts of your brain that regulate emotion and information processing.

As it happens, meditation is a great way to develop that skill. In mindfulness meditation, the goal is to direct your focus to a single thing. Interestingly, the expectation is that the mind will wander. When it does—and it will—you recognize the distraction and refocus your attention.

Neuroscientists have found that the act of refocusing attention actually helps strengthen neural connections, in turn strengthening our ability to remain focused longer. The act of noticing the distractions is what helps strengthen self-awareness in the moment. When practiced over time, mindful meditation provides the dual benefits of more sustained focus and higher levels of self-awareness.

Regardless of the mindfulness path you chose, remember to be open-minded and curious, to start with a reasonable commitment, and to be kind to yourself as you explore the practice.