By now, you have probably read or heard about the benefits of mindfulness. So why haven’t you tried it? You may believe those advantages are too ephemeral (what does “inner peace” even mean?), or assume the process requires way too much work.
Newly published research belies both of those objections. It finds a minimal amount of mindfulness training—12 minutes worth—can lead to immediate, tangible benefits, including reducing the likelihood you will opt to eat unhealthy food.
“Mindful attention keeps strong temptations from developing in the first place,” writes a research team led by Utrecht University psychologistEsther Papies. Specifically, it makes otherwise tempting stimuli seem less attractive, “thereby preventing self-control dilemmas before they become difficult to handle.”
In the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Papies and her colleagues describe three experiments showing that mindfulness can curb the motivation to make choices we will later regret. For one of them, 114 university undergraduates in the Netherlands were approached as they were walking into the campus cafeteria.
One-third of them took a 12-minute long training course in mindful attention. Using a laptop computer, they viewed a series of photographs, which included images of both healthy and unhealthy food items. They were instructed “to simply observe all their responses” to the imagery, and specifically to notice “how they arise, and possibly dissipate, as passing mental states.”
Another third viewed the same set of images, but were asked to simply look at them “closely, and in a relaxed manner.” The final third did not see the photos. All rated their level of hunger as they entered the cafeteria.
While those who performed the mindfulness exercise consumed roughly the same number of calories as those who did not see the images, they “chose more salads and fewer snacks,” the researchers report. That was also true for those who viewed the images in a relaxed way, but only if they were on a diet.
“Mindful attention led to healthier choice patterns among all participants, regardless of their chronic dieting goal,” the researchers note.
Papies and her colleagues found the same dynamic in two laboratory experiments, one of which also focused on food, while the other dealt with sexual attraction. The latter featured 78 heterosexual university students, half of whom were instructed to notice their thoughts and reactions as they looked at photos of members of the opposite sex. The others were asked “to immerse themselves completely” in the images.
All then viewed a new series of photos of members of the opposite sex, and quickly rated each for attractiveness and desirability as a romantic partner. They also answered questions about their sexual histories and attitudes toward casual sex.
The key results: “Mindful attention decoupled participants’ sexual motivation from their behavior toward potential partners by reducing the impact of sexual motivation on perceived attractiveness.”
To put it more simply: Under normal circumstances, if you’re itching to have sex, that available person across the room starts looking pretty good. But if you’ve gotten in a detached state of mind, and are able to consciously notice that impulse arise, the magic deflates. That woman (or man) at the bar no longer looks so special, and the odds of you approaching him or her, and possibly making a bad decision regarding who to become intimate with, are dramatically decreased.
In all these cases, “when participants were instructed and trained to see that their experiences were mere thoughts, constructed by their own minds, the stimuli themselves became less attractive, and resisting them became easier,” the researchers conclude. They also reiterate that “this skill can be activated in a simple, 12-minute training.”
Sure, you’ll probably want to repeat that training more than a few times, until stepping back and observing your thoughts becomes habitual. But this research suggests the advantages can be quite significant. Why berate yourself for making bad choices after the fact when you can tame unwanted impulses ahead of time?