Many people only think of mindfulness as an elusive zen state, like being in a meditative trance of some sort, or holding a yoga pose for 100 hours. However, that’s not exactly
what it is. Mindfulness is multidimensional, and it involves 1) being attentive to, and aware of, momentary experiences AND 2) taking a nonjudgmental and accepting stance when things don’t go your way.
Mindfulness is important for many aspects of well-being. First, being mindful, or attentive, leads to an appreciation of experiences as they are, and thus to positive emotions. Second, accepting unpleasant experiences in a nonjudgmental way reduces negative emotions in the long run. Interestingly, being aware of the moment may increase both positive and negative emotions, whereas the second part of mindfulness, nonjudgmental acceptance, actually changes how people relate to their experiences.
A recent study by Blanke and colleagues (2017) investigated “state,” or in-the-moment, mindfulness and its relationship to positive and negative emotions in daily life. Seventy people in their 20’s and 30’s participated in this study using their smartphones at various time points during the day. This study showed that participants experienced more positive emotions when they were attentive to the present moment and less negative emotions when they nonjudgmentally accepted momentary experiences. Furthermore, only nonjudgmental acceptance buffered the impact of daily hassles on emotional well-being.
So basically, this study shows that being aware of the present moment is great, but it’s not enough; rather, nonjudgmental acceptance of the moment has a greater impact on decreasing negative emotions.
Ok, so what does this nonjudgmental acceptance look like in real life? For a simple example, imagine that you’re late for an important meeting. Traffic is congested and there are delays all over the city. Huffing, puffing, and raging will not get you to that meeting on time; it will probably make you more upset. Accepting that you’re just late and doing the best you can will be decrease anxiety and anger, and likely be more effective. With acceptance, you’ll arrive to your office less distressed and perhaps better able to manage the situation.
The goal of nonjudgemental acceptance, also known as radical acceptance, is to reduce suffering and increase a sense of freedom and well-being by accepting the facts of your life – good and bad. Acceptance doesn’t necessarily mean you are agreeing and going along with painful things that happen. Instead, acceptance lets you understand how you are feeling in response to a painful event so you can better deal with or resolve the situation with a clear head. Acceptance requires complete and total openness to the facts of your reality as they are, without fighting them. Ultimately, acceptance is acknowledging that life can be worth living even with painful events in it.
Both aspects of mindfulness can be practiced and perfected as you navigate daily life. Start small! Next time you’re disappointed and things don’t go your way, try practicing radical acceptance. You will still feel disappointed, sad, anxious, etc., but you wont make the situation worse by judging yourself, others, or the situation. You might even feel better if you stop fighting and focus on tangible solutions.
Blanke, E. S., Riediger, M., & Brose, A. (2017). Pathways to Happiness Are Multidirectional: Associations Between State Mindfulness and Everyday Affective Experience. Emotion. doi:10.1037/emo0000323
Linehan, M. M. (2015). DBT Skills Training Handouts and Worksheets, Second Edition / Edition 2. New York: The Guilford Press.