Mindfulness Training Promotes Upward Spirals of Positive Emotion and Cognition

MBCT_upward spiral figEarlier this year, along with colleagues Marieke Wichers, Nicole Geschwind, and Frenk Peeters (Maastrict University and University of Groningen), I published a paper on the effects of mindfulness training on the dynamic change trajectories of positive emotions and thoughts over time. This study analyzed data from a randomized controlled study of 110 individuals with histories of depression who were randomly assigned to receive an 8-week Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy intervention or a control condition. Study participants rated their experiences of positive emotions and thoughts on a daily basis using a method called “experience sampling” (also known as ecological momentary assessment, or EMA), in which they were prompted at random times throughout the day to describe their mental state in the midst of everyday life activities. To analyze this data, we employed a sophisticated statistical technique called multivariate autoregressive latent trajectory modeling (see the Figure above). We found that mindfulness training significantly enhanced positive emotions and positive thoughts from moment-to-moment. Importantly, we also found evidence that mindfulness training may stimulate an upward spiral of positivity, such that increasing experiences of positive emotions on one day stimulated positive emotions and thoughts on the following day, and so forth. In other words, it appears as mindfulness training can enhance positive emotion-cognition interactions that may be important to psychological flourishing (and physical health). These data provideUpward Spiral - horizontal over time support for my new Mindfulness-to-Meaning Theory (see the Figure above), which will be featured on this website in a month or two when my paper about this theory will be published as the target article of the December issue of the esteemed international journal Psychological Inquiry and receive commentary by some of the leading contemplative scientists in the world. Stay tuned!

My Research on Mindfulness in Everyday Life Covered by the Media

dishwashA research paper I published along with Adam Hanley (first author) in the journal Mindfulness has received an astounding amount of press, including coverage by the Wall Street Journal, Time Magazine, and television outlets like the Today Show! This deceptively simple study involved randomly assigning college students to read a passage by Thich Nhat Hanh on mindful dishwashing or a textual description of dishwashing procedures like what might be found in a home economics textbook, Then students washed a sink full of dirty dishes, and then completed state measures of mindfulness and positive and negative emotions. After controlling for differences in baseline tendencies towards mindfulness and well-being, we found that individuals who received the mindful dishwashing induction reported significantly deeper states of mindfulness, as well as some improvements in positive and negative emotions following dishwashing. Perhaps most interestingly, people who engaged in mindful dishwashing reported a slowing of perceived time (that is, they overestimated the length of time they spent washing dishes) – a finding that is consistent with research on “flow states” and other studies of mindfulness (e.g., Berkovitch-Ohana et al., 2012). As we note in the published paper, it is fascinating to observe “that a task potentially construed as unpleasant or a “chore” can be experienced as reducing nervousness and being inspirational by simply shifting one’s approach to the task and the quality of attention” (Hanley et al., 2015, p. 1101). This simple study has implications for research on mindfulness, suggesting that the informal practice of mindfulness during everyday life activities may be an important means of cultivating attention and awareness in much the same way as formal mindfulness meditation. More research is needed to outline the differences and similarities between formal and informal mindfulness practices.