Awareness, not aloofness or distraction. Acceptance, not avoidance or reaction.
The Buddhism-derived, play-it-as-it-lies approach known as mindfulness has earned plenty of advocates and practitioners, who sometimes adopt it as a means of curbing anxiety, depression or even physical pain.
By testing how people interpret ambiguity, University of Nebraska–Lincoln researchers have now published some of the clearest, most objective evidence to date that the benefits of mindfulness are not just in the mind of the beholder.
“Mindfulness is not about teaching you to feel positive and feel good,” said Maital Neta, the Happold Associate Professor of psychology at Nebraska. “It’s not about, ‘Focus on the things that make you happy,’ like a lot of interventions are. Mindfulness is just simply accepting what is.
“It focuses on this passive acceptance of how you’re feeling without trying to change it, without judging it or evaluating it — just being thoughtful about what you’re experiencing and letting yourself experience it.”
Those who practice mindfulness often report that it works. Still, legions of studies suggest that, when it comes to matters of the mind, people struggle to objectively gauge their own progress and well-being. So, in a recent study, Neta and doctoral advisee Nick Harp set out to judge the effectiveness of the judgment-free approach by asking research participants to instead evaluate a longtime go-to of Neta’s research: ambiguous facial expressions.
“Then you get something closer to just their behavior — How are they seeing the world? — instead of this metacognitive reflection of how they think they’re seeing or experiencing the world,” Harp said.
Over time, the participants who engaged in regular mindfulness training came to evaluate ambiguous facial expressions more positively than when they started. Promisingly, that trend persisted even after the formal mindfulness training had ended.
Neta’s prior work has established links between social-emotional outcomes and interpretations of ambiguous stimuli. She said those interpretations are a useful proxy for how people perceive and negotiate the stressful uncertainties of everyday life — the very stressors that mindfulness often aims to address.
“It really is a lens through which we navigate our social worlds,” said Neta, the associate director of Nebraska’s Center for Brain, Biology and Behavior. “So looking at how that can be changed or shaped by these types of interventions, I think, is a really important contribution.”
The team’s study had 58 people participate in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, a popular eight-week program developed in the 1970s. On five occasions, the team also presented the participants with photographs of 24 faces: six angry, six happy and 12 with surprised expressions that were considered emotionally ambiguous. Participants rated each face as either positive or negative.
Their ratings for happy faces barely budged over time, and their evaluations of angry faces remained fairly consistent, too. But the surprised, emotionally ambiguous faces yielded a different result. Before the first mindfulness class, participants rated the surprised expressions as negative 51.34% of the time. By the end of the eight-week mindfulness program, that number had declined to 41.27%. And when the researchers checked in eight weeks later — eight weeks after the program’s end — the number had dropped again, to 30.73%. Participants who received no mindfulness training, meanwhile, continued rating those surprised expressions the same even a year after they were first tested.
Given the intensity of the mindfulness program — participants were trained in mindfulness six days a week for at least 45 minutes a day over the eight weeks — Harp said he wasn’t necessarily surprised to see its effects endure. He was surprised to find no real change in the ambiguity ratings after the first mindfulness session.
“I think this speaks to having to make it a practice and integrate it into your daily life before it really will take hold, and before you’ll reap the benefits from it,” he said.
At multiple points throughout the study, the participants also completed a questionnaire designed to assess and track five facets of their mindfulness. Just one of those facets — non-reactivity, or the ability to let feelings come and go — increased alongside the positivity of the ratings, marking it as what the team called the “active ingredient” of the mindfulness training.
Tellingly, Neta said, the apparent importance of non-reactivity jibes with a hypothesis that she’s spent the better part of a decade establishing. The aptly named initial negativity hypothesis proposes that people’s knee-jerk reactions to emotional ambiguity are generally negative, but that taking time for deliberation tends to reduce that negativity.
“We’ve come at this from lot of different angles and really just found more and more evidence suggesting that, at least in early life, the negative response is the default,” Neta said, “and that the individual differences we see are really dependent on somebody’s ability to override that or regulate it.”
To the extent that it dissuades people from engaging that default negativity, non-reactivity would seem to naturally promote a more positive interpretation of uncertainty, Neta said. And given that a bias toward negativity is associated with anxiety, depression and other internalizing disorders, Harp said, keying in on non-reactivity might eventually yield benefits in terms of clinical treatment.
“I think what we’ve maybe shown is (that) this could be one of the mechanisms” in overcoming negativity, Harp said. “You’re changing the way someone sees the world, and that could potentially lead to alleviating those symptoms of anxiety, depression and even other issues.”
Harp, Neta and Columbia University’s Jonathan Freeman detailed their findings in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. They received support from the National Institutes of Health (NIMH111640), the Nebraska Tobacco Settlement and Nebraska’s College of Arts and Sciences.