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What Is Mindfulness? And Why It Might Make You Happier

Focusing on the present moment can help you quiet anxiety and find perspective

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When psychiatrist Judson Brewer, M.D., wants to help a patient stop smoking, one of the first things he does is ask the smoker to give his or her full attention to smoking a cigarette, focusing on how it tastes, smells and feels right then.

"Not one of them has come back and said that they enjoyed smoking,” says Brewer, who is director of research and innovation at Brown University's Mindfulness Center in Providence, R.I., and author of a new book, Unwinding Anxiety. Noticing that smoking is actually unpleasant can be the first step to quitting — and it's a prime example of how mindful living can change your life, Brewer says.

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That ability to focus fully on the present is what experts like Brewer mean when they discuss mindfulness. While the concept can be confusing to many people, Brewer says that his favorite definition, coined by mindfulness guru Jon Kabat-Zinn, is that mindfulness is “paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally."

Mindfulness is “the awareness of the unfolding moment-to-moment experience,” says psychotherapist, author and meditation teacher Tara Brach, founder of the Insight Meditation Community of Washington, D.C.

It's “being in the here and now, without having a story about it,” says neuroscientist Amishi Jha, an associate professor at the University of Miami and author of the upcoming book Peak Mind.

To be more mindful, these experts say, means lifting our minds out of their default mode, in which we are constantly ruminating about the past, worrying about the future, or otherwise out of touch with what is happening right now. We spend about half our time in that mind-wandering mode, research suggests.

When we pay attention, in the present, we can do more of what we want, Jha says. Attention is the “cognitive fuel” we need to make better decisions, regulate our emotions and connect with others, she says.

When we are mindful, we are kinder to ourselves and to others, Brach says: “I have to care to pay attention to you. And the more I really pay attention to you, with mindfulness, the more appreciation comes up."

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The best-known path to greater mindfulness is formal meditation — an exercise in which you train your brain by focusing on your breath, the sounds around you or some other anchor, while you let your thoughts and other distractions come and go, without judging or reacting to them.

Mindfulness is “paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.

Meditating “will set you up to be mindful throughout the day,” even if you struggle to maintain focus as you meditate, says Ralph De La Rosa, a meditation teacher and psychotherapist who is the author of Don't Tell Me to Relax: Emotional Resilience in the Age of Rage, Feels, and Freak-Outs. “There are a lot of people who have the experience over and over again that they sit down to meditate and for 20 minutes it's a mess. And then later that day they find themselves in an argument and they don't react. Or they find themselves … being kinder to people [or] feeling better about themselves in some way."

Meditation should be “the core workout” for anyone who wants to be more mindful, Jha says.

But Brewer says that in his research, he has found that less formal mindfulness practices, such as repeatedly noting how you feel when you smoke, overeat or worry too much, can help some people even more than meditating does.

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And spending time in nature in a mindful way — even just a quiet walk in the woods — has been shown to quickly lower blood pressure and ease anxiety (see our story on the healing power of nature). Others experience a kind of mindful state when they're immersed in creative hobbies such as gardening or knitting — an absorption known in positive psychology as “flow.”

If you are new to mindfulness, or want to try some different approaches, here are a few exercises that offer a taste of what it means to focus on the here and now:

Practice the simple art of pausing

At any moment in the day, “just pause and experience whatever activity is going on,” Brach suggests: “Open the senses. Pay attention to the sounds, the sensations, the feelings, even if it's just for 20 seconds.” When you are caught up in thinking, you miss a lot, she says.

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Breathe in and out

There are many mindfulness breathing exercises. One you can do any time is to pause and “mindfully breathe in to the count of four or five, then out for the count of four or five,” Brach says. With every out breath, feel that you “are letting go of what is not needed,” she suggests. After three rounds, “notice what has shifted,” she says.

Brewer suggests another version: When you feel stressed, identify where in your body you feel it — whether it's a tight chest, clenched jaw or fluttering stomach — and direct a deep breath to that spot (not worrying about whether that's anatomically possible). Hold it there for a few seconds and then breathe out. See if you notice a decrease in tension.

Try five-finger breathing

Brewer suggests combining breathing with a multisensory task meant to “crowd out worries and thoughts and give our brains a chance to reboot."

Here's how to do it: Hold up one hand with your fingers open, palm facing you. Now use the index finger from your other hand to trace your pinkie up from the base to the tip, as you breathe in. Then breathe out as you trace down the other side. Do the same with each finger. When you reach the base of the thumb, repeat in the opposite direction.

Just say, ‘hmmm.'

That expression of curiosity “is my favorite mantra,” Brewer says. At any time, just stop and say “hmmm,” and take a moment to be curious about what you are experiencing. It's “a way to really awaken our natural ability to be curious without turning it into something intellectual,” he says.

Widen your eyes

Another way to jump-start curiosity about your present reality is to literally widen your eyes, just as we do automatically when something interests us, Brewer says. The next time you are anxious or frustrated, you may notice that your eyes have narrowed, he says. Try widening them and see if your perspective changes.

Just say, ‘yes.'

Try what Brach calls “yes meditation": Pause and notice whatever you are aware of in the moment. Mentally name it and say “yes” to it, even if it's something uncomfortable, such as feeling chilly or angry. “ 'Yes’ doesn't mean ‘I like it.’ ‘Yes’ doesn't mean ‘I want it to go on,' ” Brach says. “It's acknowledging reality."

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