HEALTHY LIVING

5 Surprising Ways Mindfulness Can Change You

03/05/2015 08:05 am ET | Updated Mar 05, 2015
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In the past few decades, research on meditation and other mindfulness practices has flourished, shedding light on both the way that mindfulness affects the brain and its physical and mental health benefits.

Personality scientists are forging new insights about how mindfulness affects human motivation and behavior, alongside health and wellbeing. Last week, some of the world's leading mindfulness researchers presented new studies highlighting outcomes of meditation at a symposium on mindfulness at the Society for Personality and Social Psychology's annual conference in Long Beach.

Based on these new findings in social and personality psychology, here are five things you never knew mindfulness could do for you.

Make you a kinder person

One series of studies from Paul Condon and colleagues at Northeastern University provides some compelling evidence that practicing mindfulness can indeed increase empathy and lead people to act more altruistically.

In a clever experiment, a group of study participants were asked to wait in a waiting room while the researchers were preparing their session, and were confronted by a person on crutches who was grimacing clearly in pain (an actor hired for the purpose of the study). The participant was seated in one of three chairs, all of which were occupied. The occupants of the other two chairs (also actors) did not volunteer their seats for the person in pain, creating a "bystander effect" that could encourage the participant not to help because the other people present weren't helping.

The researchers found that participants who were part of a group that had been practicing meditation for eight weeks (they were under the impression that the study was about the cognitive effects of mindfulness) was significantly more likely to volunteer the seat for the person in pain than the non-meditating control group.

"These findings are the first to show the power of meditation to increase one's compassionate response to others who are in pain," one of the study's lead authors, Dr. Paul Condon, said during the panel.

This study showed that meditation learned through live courses with a mindfulness teacher had a strong effect on altruistic behavior. Then, the researchers decided to find out if learning meditation online might have a similar effect. In a subsequent study, they showed that people who underwent a two-week, 10 minute-a-day meditation course using the smartphone app Headspace were also more likely to behave altruistically, helping the actor who was pretending to be in pain, although the effect was not quite as pronounced.

"These findings... point to the ability to disseminate these practices through mobile technology, thereby lowering the barrier of entry for meditation," Condon said.

Learn to forgive

We know that mindfulness brings many personal benefits to those who practice it, but these benefits may also extend to interpersonal relationships. The great Vietnamese Buddhist leader Thich Naht Hahn has said that mindfulness can greatly improve relationships, and some research suggests that this may be true -- particularly when it comes to forgiveness, a known contributor to relationship satisfaction and closeness.

Psychologist Dr. Johan Karremans of Radboud University in the Netherlands presented three studies which suggested that people with more mindful personalities, as well as those who practice meditation, are more likely to forgive others for perceived wrongdoings. One of the studies showed that mindful people tend to more readily forgive their partners for past offenses, and also tend to be more accepting of their partners overall.

Calm your neuroses

Do you have neurotic tendencies? You might give mindfulness a try. The practice has been shown to help quell the voice of the "obnoxious roommate" in your head.

One of the "Big Five" personality traits, neuroticism is characterized by negative affect, rumination on the past and worry about the future, moodiness and loneliness. Practicing mindfulness may be a powerful way for people to detach from common characteristics of neuroticism, including obsessive negative thoughts and worries, and challenges regulating one's emotions and behavior.

"[Neurotic people] may be doing the wrong things for the wrong reasons," said North Dakota State University psychologist Dr. Michael Robinson, who has conducted several studies on mindfulness, neuroticism, and self-regulation. "There's a term for that, and it's called dysregulation."

Robinson's research has shown that mindfulness can reduce feelings of anger and depression among people disposed to neuroticism. Other studies by Robinson and colleagues found that while negative feelings tend to lower self-control because they reduce mindfulness, practicing mindfulness can actually increase self-control.

Unravel unconscious racial biases

While most people are not overtly racist, research suggests that nearly all of us may display some level of unconscious racial biases operating below the surface that influence the way we think about behave. Some studies have suggested that meditation acts as an antidote to the mental automaticity -- our tendency to think about, judge and react to things swiftly and largely unconsciously -- that gives rise to these biases.

Recent research presented at the symposium suggested that mindfulness may combat implicit racial biases by dislodging the brain's automatic reactions. The small study asked participants to complete the Implicit Association Test (IAT), which required them to quickly pair images of black and white faces with negatively or positively associated words. The researchers found that the group of participants who listened to a 10-minute mindfulness recording before completing the task showed decreased implicit race biases (i.e. associating the white face more frequently with positive words), as compared to a control group listened to a recording about history.

"Mindfulness may reduce automatic responses, or even to the extreme, prevent these responses," psychologist and mindfulness researcher Dr. Brian Ostafin said during the symposium.

Restore your sense of wonder.

Powerful experiences of nature, art and spirituality can fill us with feelings of awe and wonder, a sense of amazement and joy in the face of that which is far larger than ourselves.

A mindfulness practice may actually prime the mind for these types of experiences. A recent University of Groningen study found that subjects who participated in a brief mindfulness exercise reported greater reactions to awe-inspiring images than those who did not complete the mindfulness exercise.

"Awe involves... giving up your cognitive structures in order to accommodate [the experience]," the study's lead author, Dr. Brian Ostafin, recently told the Huffington Post. "Mindfulness is a little bit about that too, because you're paying attention and exercising non-conceptual awareness, so you should be more open to the immensity that's there."

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