Studies show mindfulness can fuel narcissism and lack of empathy. Healthspan psychologist Dr Meg Arroll explains how mindLESSness (more doing than being) is better for everyone
Mindfulness practice has seen a huge boom in the past decade, with countless books, apps and other products on the market.
Mindful interventions are used in schools, the workplace and of course by individuals.
But have we become a little obsesses with ‘being in the moment’? And is there another approach to wellbeing?
By doing, rather than being, we can also improve health and quality of life.
Where did mindfulness come from?
Mindfulness takes a great deal of its framework from Buddhism, in that it draws upon the techniques used by Buddhist but not the philosophy per se.
Mindfulness is a particular type of meditative process that encourages you to be in the moment, rather than thinking of the past or worrying about the future – i.e. it teaches you how to ‘be in the moment’.
Being present can prove quite difficult in our modern, frantic lives where we often operate on auto-pilot, with little awareness of our moment-by-moment experience.
When this technique was first developed to reduce stress (known as mindfulness mindfulness-based stress reduction or MBSR), it was as delivered as a structured program that usually consisting of eight to 10 weekly sessions. Each session generally lasted two-and-a-half hours, sometimes followed up with by a full-day course at the weekend in groups.
Often there with was ‘homework’ assigned, typically of meditation practice, mindfulness-based exercise such as yoga, and/or using the MBSR in everyday, perhaps stressful, situations.
Hence, mindfulness for health and well-being is a skill that really needs to be developed.
Why it is going out of favor?
Like any skill, perfecting mindfulness is a progressive endeavor and can take some dedication.
If you can allocate time to mindfulness on a daily basis, it can indeed become a part of your life and won’t seem like a task – but for people who struggle to find time to do anything for themselves, mindfulness can seem just like yet another thing to fit in.
There are now many courses, books and apps that are less time-consuming than the above, but all take time.
The darker side of mindfulness: Crushing empathy
A recent study by researchers at the University of Amsterdam looked at whether mindfulness improves empathy.
In the participants who were narcissistic, mindfulness actually made them less empathic
It has been assumed that because mindfulness places our focus on the present moment, without judgement, people who practice mindfulness techniques can become more in tune with others’ feelings.
However, in this study of 161 people, the researchers found that not only did mindfulness prove ineffective in boosting empathy, but in the participants who were narcissistic, mindfulness actually made them less empathic.
Mindfulness may bring up difficult memories and emotions
An interview study of 60 Buddhist meditation practitioners found that meditation (of which mindfulness is a type), 88 percent had difficult experiences during their meditative practice.
These challenging experiences impacted their life outside of their time in meditation, hence imitating that meditation could potentially be harmful.
Indeed, in some people there appear to be serious negative side effects to mindfulness including worsening of anxiety and depression, a sense of altered reality, grandiosity, unusual behaviour, euphoria, and even psychosis – though these cases are rare.
Mindfulness may not be the one-size-fits-all approach
These studies are initial and important evidence to caution against the use of mindfulness and medication as a one-size-fits-all approach to life’s difficulties.
Like all therapeutic techniques, mindfulness is a tool and if used in the right circumstances, it can be beneficial – but not without risk in some people.
Why mindLESSness? Moving the focus from being to doing
As detailed above, for some people trying to be in the moment by constantly, though non-judgemental, monitoring thoughts may turn our focus just a little too much on the internal when instead we can look outwards for a sense of well-being.
When children play, they are not actively trying to be in the moment – their activities take up all their attention so that they can enjoy doing life. Therefore, take a leaf out of their book and get mindless – do an activity you love that which frees your mind.
HOW TO BECOME MINDLESS
Being creative is a great way to move focus from the self to an enjoyable activity. In a series of studies by Frances Reynolds, a senior academic at Brunel University London, the benefits of art-making have been consistently found.
In women with depression, needle craft was found to provide physical, mental and emotional relaxation, build self-esteem and even increase energizing thoughts and activity.
The women in this study found the intense concentration involved in needlework providing distraction from worry and relief from depressive thoughts.
In another study looking at people with long-term mental health problems, a community-based art project led to increase in self-worth and a meaningful sense of time occupied.
Impressively, the developed creative skills were regarded as a reason for improvement in the participants’ self-management of mental health.
…with friends and loved ones
When we’re with friends we tend not to become preoccupied with worrying thoughts as we’re attending to what they’re saying and non-verbal cues such as smiles, body language and tone of voice.
Connecting with others is one of the most consistent findings in terms of positive health benefits.
Social support doesn’t just boost our mental health – it has an important impact on our immune and cardiovascular and neuroendocrine systems leading to better physical health.
…by helping others
When our focus is improving the lives of others, even in the smallest of ways such as opening doors or saying a warm and genuine ‘thank you’, we focus outwardly. This kind of pro-social behavior is linked to higher levels of empathy as we can put ourselves into someone else shoes (for a moment at least).
Doing things for other people and looking after them can also take us outside of ourselves, which often puts life into perspective.
Feeling thankful for what we have is a two-way street as gratitude increase pro-social behaviour and vice versa. So, if you feel you need a bit of a boost to start doing things for others, write down every day three things that you’re grateful for. This positive and grounded sense of life will help you to help others.
Dancing can lead to feelings of abandon and inhibition as we merge our minds with bodily movement. But research has also shown that dance can a have significant on our brains, more so than other types of exercise.
In a study of older adults, those who engaged in an 18 month of dance classes not only saw positive changes on their brain scans associated with anti-aging effects, specifically the hippocampus.
This area of the brain is particularly affected by aging and also plays a major role in vital cognitive process such as memory and learning.
Dance and other forms of exercise lead to more neural connections in this area of the brain. Therefore, if you enjoy dance this may be a good option for you to improve both physical and mental health, with the added benefits of the focus being on steps and moves which are absorbing.
Perfectionism is known to be linked to rumination, worry, negative view of the self, and in some case depression. This type of negative perfectionism is associated with the setting of impossibly high standards so that whatever the outcome is, it won’t be good enough.
Put simply, trying to be perfect can hold us back. Therefore, it might be worth following the Japanese in the art of Wabi Sabi, wherein the imperfect is embraced. Here, some cracks, blotches and other imperfections are seen as an integral part of an objects beauty.
But this approach can be extended to life in general, so instead of trying to perfect life, throw yourself full-throttle into the messy chaotic joy that is living.
The key to using mindlessness for health and well-being is to find an activity that you enjoy and that you become immersed in.
Although mindfulness in without doubt a useful tool, it doesn’t suit everyone – no one approach will – so you might want to turn your attention outward and try some of the above mindless suggestions.
This approach which focusing more on doing may be useful for people that have had negative experiences with mindful practice.
However, if you are experiencing symptoms of anxiety or depression do seek help either from your GP, or mental health charities such as The Mental Health Foundation and Mind.
There are also a number of lifestyle changes you can do from dietary changes to taking exercise, looking at your sleep and trying complementary and alternative medicine.
Dealing with any nutritional deficiencies such as low levels vitamin D which are prevalent in wintertime may also help.