Is It a Tragedy or an Inconvenience?

I was recently part of a panel on stress at HSPH speaking about mindfulness. I stated that if we take a close look at stress, we’ll find that mindlessness is the culprit, and thus mindfulness may be the solution.

For the past 40 years, I have researched mindfulness without meditation. No matter how mindfulness is achieved, the end result is basically the same. For the Eastern perspective, mindfulness results from meditation, an important practice. Mindfulness as we study it, however, is achieved without meditation. It is the simple process of noticing new things. When we notice new things about people or ideas that we think we know, we come to see that we didn’t know them as well as we thought we did, and they become interesting again in the present. Everything is always changing and looks different from different perspectives. Since uncertainty is the rule, when we think we know, our mindlessness is in charge. The simple act of noticing is engaging and reveals that events don’t cause stress. It is the mindless view of events that leads to stress. Stress relies on two thoughts: first, that an event will happen, and second, that when it does, it will be awful. If we consider reasons it may not happen and also how it might have hidden advantages if it does happen, stress diminishes. There are advantages to most of what we initially take to be negative. When we taught this to people who were about to undergo major surgery in the 1970s, they became less stressed, took fewer pain relievers, and tended to leave the hospital sooner than participants in control groups not taught to be mindful.

In study after study over all these years, we find that teaching people this form of mindfulness results in: increased happiness; personal, interpersonal, and professional effectiveness; we become less judgmental; memory and attention improved; burnout is reduced; self-esteem increases; and we find an increase in longevity.

Each of these is related to stress. When we’re stressed, each system in our body becomes compromised, and we become more vulnerable to illness. When we feel ineffective at work or home, we may become stressed. When we’re stressed, we often have difficulty concentrating and remembering things. When we feel burnt out, we don’t function well at work and become stressed, and so on. Mindfulness helps reverse each of these problems. (Mindfulness also makes us more attractive and charismatic, and thus more effective leaders, but that is to be discussed elsewhere.)

There are major events that lead to stress, like loss of a loved one, rape, or being in a war. But for many of us, stress results from life’s daily hassles. Not having any large issue to attribute our stress to may itself be stressful. It is over these daily hassles that we have the most control.

Events don’t cause stress. A negative view of an event causes stress. By opening our minds to alternative views, we may find that some of those “tragedies” are merely inconveniences.