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21 Aug 2015

How do we become more mindful?

This is another post by guest blogger Elinor Jansen at Happy. Her articles summarise current research on employee happiness, and this week she discusses the relationship between mindfulness and employee happiness and resilience. If you are interested in learning more about the benefits of having happy employees, see 9 benefits of having happy employees.

What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness is a word that creates mixed feelings. Some perceive it as yet another management fad; very trendy but at the end of the day a wishy-washy and useless concept. Others, however, realise its full potential to improve leadership and create happier employees. Companies such as Google, Facebook, Twitter, Apple, LinkedIn, Intel and Starbucks belong to the second category and have embraced mindfulness practices in order to become better employers. In fact, Time Magazine put The Mindful Revolution on their front cover to illustrate its importance. But what is mindfulness really about, and why are giant companies such as Google pursuing it?

Mindfulness can be described as “Paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally" (Tan, 2010). It means becoming actively aware of one’s own emotional and physical state and how these states affect how we see the world. Bill George, former CEO of Medtronic, defines it as “the awareness of one’s mental processes and the understanding of how one’s mind works". Another definition is “focusing our attention on what is, rather than being distracted by what isn’t” (McKenzie, in Fortune, 2013).

Why do we need it?
Chade-Meng Tan is particularily good at explaining why we need mindfulness. Mr Tan is software engineer who joined Google in 2000. Today, he runs incredibly popular mindfulness courses for Googlers across the world and has published the best-selling book Search Inside Yourself. One of the reasons behind Tang’s success is his ability to clearly explain why mindfulness is useful. He does this through the use of scientific evidence and neurological studies to explain how practicing mindfulness physically makes us happier. In particular, Tang uses the example of Matthieu Ricard.

Ricard was born in France, and in 1972 he completed his Ph.D. molecular genetics. Today, he is a Tibetan Monk. What is more interesting is the fact that Matthieu Ricard is the world’s happiest man. Now, the first thing that might come to your mind now is ‘how can you measure such an abstract thing as happiness’? Actually, neuroscience can. This is done by measuring particular activities in the left pre-frontal cortex of the brain compared to the right. The stronger the left activation, the more a person experiences happy feelings such as energy, joy and enthusiasm (2012). When they got to study Matthieu’s brain for the first time, they discovered that his brain was completely off the charts. He was, without a trace of doubt, the happiest man ever studied.

So why am I telling you this? I am definitely not encouraging you all to quit your jobs and become monks. But what I do want you all to bring with you from this article is that neuroscience has shown that happiness is trainable and mindfulness is the regular exercise that helps your brain become happy.

The simplest and easiest way towards becoming more mindful is attention training. So what’s in it for you? Let me go back to neuroscience. In another brain study, they played negative sounds (such as screams) to experts in mindfulness techniques. When comparing their results to people inexperienced in mindfulness, the results were clear. The experts in attention techniques showed lesser activation in the part of the brain called amygdala than the other group. The amygdala is activated when we perceive threats (such as a sabeltoothed tiger or a heavy work load). The amygdala then puts you in a flight-or-freeze mode that impairs your rational thinking. This can be very useful upon meeting a tiger, but when it comes to working, you probably want to keep your rational thinking. What the study proved was that with the help of attention training, you can actually regulate this part of the brain as primitive and important as the amygdala. So, with the help of attention training, you’ll be better at handling emotional stress in your every day life. By practicing mindfulness, are brains become more creative and also more rational in stressful situations.

How do we train our attention? At Google, Tan teaches employees to train their attention in two ways: the Easy way and the Easier way. The Easy way is to focus on your breath for two minutes. In whatever you do, whether its walking to work, struggling to write a report or simply trying to go to sleep, just focus on your breath for 2 minutes. If your attention wanders away, just bring it back gently. The act of bringing your attention back to your breathing is called meta-attention, as it gives attention to your attention. Meta attention is great is a very useful tool when under stress. The Easier way is do try and do nothing, just be for 2 minutes. What you also can do is two switch between the two, from focusing on your breathing to just being, and the again focusing on your breath.

The easy way and the easier way are mindfulness practices. If practiced, you can increase your calmness in stressful times, and react with more clarity in your mind when exposed to stress. Moreover, the more you train you brain, the happier you can become. If you are interested in learning more, have a look at Search Inside Yourself.

Elinor Jansen