Happiness Practice #5: Mindfulness


This information originally appeared on Greater Good In Action, a website from the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley.

Mindfulness: The Why and the How

Unlike other weeks in this course, there are three different varieties of mindfulness that we suggest you try. The typical details of why and how to do these practices are all described in sequence in this section numbered III and III, so be sure to scroll down to see details about Body Scan and Loving-Kindness Meditation.

I. Mindful Breathing

Why You Should Try It

Stress, anger, and anxiety can impair not only our health but our judgement and skills of attention. Fortunately, research suggests an effective way to deal with these difficult feelings: the practice of "mindfulness,” the ability to pay careful attention to what you're thinking, feeling, and sensing in the present moment without judging those thoughts and feelings as good or bad. Countless studies link mindfulness to better health, lower anxiety, and greater resilience to stress.

But how do you cultivate mindfulness? A basic method is to focus your attention on your own breathing—a practice called, quite simply, "mindful breathing." After setting aside time to practice mindful breathing, you should find it easier to focus attention on your breath in your daily life—an important skill to help you deal with stress, anxiety, and negative emotions; cool yourself down when your temper flares; and sharpen your skills of concentration.

Time Required

15 minutes daily for at least a week (though evidence suggests that mindfulness increases the more you practice it).

How to Do It

The most basic way to do mindful breathing is simply to focus your attention on your breath, the inhale and exhale. You can do this while standing, but ideally you’ll be sitting or even lying in a comfortable position. Your eyes may be open or closed, but you may find it easier to maintain your focus if you close your eyes. It can help to set aside a designated time for this exercise, but it can also help to practice it when you’re feeling particularly stressed or anxious. Experts believe a regular practice of mindful breathing can make it easier to do it in difficult situations.

Sometimes, especially when trying to calm yourself in a stressful moment, it might help to start by taking an exaggerated breath: a deep inhale through your nostrils (3 seconds), hold your breath (2 seconds), and a long exhale through your mouth (4 seconds). Otherwise, simply observe each breath without trying to adjust it; it may help to focus on the rise and fall of your chest or the sensation through your nostrils. As you do so, you may find that your mind wanders, distracted by thoughts or bodily sensations. That’s OK. Just notice that this is happening and gently bring your attention back to your breath.

Evidence that it Works

Arch, J. J., & Craske, M. G. (2006). Mechanisms of mindfulness: Emotion regulation following a focused breathing induction. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 44(12), 1849-1858.

Participants who completed a 15-minute focused breathing exercise (similar to the mindful breathing exercise described above) reported less negative emotion in response to a series of slides that displayed negative images, compared with people who didn’t complete the exercise. These results suggest that the focused breathing exercise helps to improve participants’ ability to regulate their emotions.

Why it Works

Mindfulness gives people distance from their thoughts and feelings, which can help them tolerate and work through unpleasant feelings rather than becoming overwhelmed by them. Mindful breathing in particular is helpful because it gives people an anchor--their breath--on which they can focus when they find themselves carried away by a stressful thought. Mindful breathing also helps people stay “present” in the moment, rather than being distracted by regrets in the past or worries about the future.


Diana Winston, Ph.D., UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center

II. Body Scan Meditation


This exercise asks you to systematically focus your attention on different parts of your body, from your feet to the muscles in your face. It is designed to help you develop a mindful awareness of your bodily sensations, and to relieve tension wherever it is found. Research suggests that this mindfulness practice can help reduce stress, improve well-being, and decrease aches and pains.

Time Required

20-45 minutes, three to six days per week for four weeks. Research suggests that people who practice the body scan for longer reap more benefits from this practice.

Evidence That It Works

Carmody, J. & Baer, R. A. (2008). Relationships between mindfulness practice and levels of mindfulness, medical and psychological symptoms, and well-being in a mindfulness-based stress reduction program. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 31, 23-33.

Participants who attended eight weekly sessions of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MSBR) program showed increases in mindfulness and well-being at the end of the eight weeks, and decreases in stress and mental illness symptoms. Time spent engaging in home practice of the body scan in particular was associated with greater levels of two components of mindfulness (observing and non-reacting) and with increased psychological well-being.

Why It Works

The body scan provides a rare opportunity for us to experience our body as it is, without judging or trying to change it. It may allow us to notice and release a source of tension we weren’t aware of before, such as a hunched back or clenched jaw muscles. Or it may draw our attention to a source of pain and discomfort; by simply noticing the pain we’re experiencing, without trying to change it, we may actually feel some relief, research suggests.

Our feelings of resistance and anger toward pain often only serve to increase that pain, and to increase the distress associated with it. The body scan is designed to counteract these negative feelings toward our bodies. This practice may also increase our general attunement to our physical needs and sensations, which can in turn help us take better care of our bodies and make healthier decisions about eating, sleep, and exercise.


Diana Winston, Ph.D., UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC)

Steven D. Hickman, Psy.D., UC San Diego Center for Mindfulness

III. Loving-Kindness Meditation


Practicing kindness is one of the most direct routes to happiness—research suggests that kind people tend to be more satisfied in their relationships and with their lives in general. We all have a natural capacity for kindness, but sometimes we don’t express this capacity as much as we’d like to simply because we don’t give ourselves the opportunity.

Loving-Kindness Meditation is a great way to cultivate and express kindness. It involves mentally sending goodwill, kindness, and warmth towards others by silently repeating a series of mantras.

Time Required

15-45 minutes, one to five times per week for eight weeks. Research suggests that people who practice loving-kindness meditation for longer reap more benefits from this practice.

Evidence That It Works

Fredrickson, B. L., Cohn, M. A., Coffey, K. A., Pek, J., & Finkel, S. M. (2008). Open hearts build lives: Positive emotions, induced through loving-kindness meditation, build consequential personal resources. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95, 1045-1062.

People who practiced loving-kindness meditation daily for seven weeks, compared to those in a waitlist control group, reported an increase in daily positive emotions (e.g., joy, gratitude, contentment, hope, love) during the study, and an increase in life satisfaction at the end of the study. They also experienced a reduction in depressive symptoms.

Why It Works

Loving-kindness meditation increases happiness in part by making people feel more connected to others—to loved ones, acquaintances, and even strangers. Research suggests that when people practice loving-kindness meditation regularly, they start automatically reacting more positively to others, making their social interactions and close relationships more satisfying. Loving-kindness meditation can also reduce self-focus, which can in turn lower symptoms of anxiety and depression.


Emma Seppala, Ph.D.

Tara Brach, Ph.D.

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