The following article is adapted from BPS Research Digest, author Emma Young
People who are happy — who enjoy “hedonistic wellbeing” — experience plenty of positive emotions and are generally fairly satisfied with life. If this sounds like something worth aiming for, then a word of caution: there’s plenty of evidence that striving to be happier can backfire. The authors of an influential review article published in Perspectives on Psychological Science (2011) concluded that while some of the strategies recommended for boosting happiness — such as taking time in the day to reflect on what you are grateful for — are far from bad in themselves, if you expect that they will make you feel noticeably happier, but find that they don’t, you can be left worse off than when you started. More recently, Aekyoung Kim and Sam Maglio from Rutgers concluded that people who pursue happiness can end up feeling that the time in the day to do what’s needed to achieve this is vanishing — which makes them more unhappy.
Two of the most important points from their review highlight the following: don’t start out with high expectations of how much happier you might become, and don’t feel that you should be devoting a lot of time to becoming happier. You might also want to look beyond happiness…
Happiness is only one dimension of wellbeing. But there’s also “eudaimonia” — the feeling that your life has meaning, and that you are reaching your potential. A vast number of studies have highlighted the importance of finding ‘meaning’. In 2019, for example, Andrew Steptoe and Daisy Fancourt at UCL found that people who felt more strongly that the things they did in their life were worthwhile — in other words, that their lives had meaning — were better off in all kinds of ways: socially, physically, and emotionally.
However, a recent study by David Lane and Eugene Mathes in Personality and Individual Differences revealed that there can be downsides to meaning, too. The team’s study of university students found that those who perceived education and relationships as being meaningful reported more positive emotion — but also a greater fear of failure. “These findings suggest that meaning in life may be associated with not only happiness but also stress because of the worry over losing the meaningful experience,” the researchers write.
This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t pursue meaningful experiences, of course. But it does suggest that it’s sensible to prepare for the possibility that doing so may cause you some anxiety, as well. Still, that might not be a bad thing…
Meaning Found in Practicing Mindfulness
Mindfulness is often promoted to achieve a greater sense of mental, psychological and emotional wellbeing. A definition of Mindfulness comes from Jon Kabat Zinn, who enjoys significant global renowned for his work on mindfulness-based stress reduction:
“The awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally”
As well as awareness, Kabat-Zinn tells us to focus conscious attention on the ‘right here, right now’. It’s a concept that most who practice meditation will already be familiar with, and it’s why the two often go hand in hand.
Reduced depression is one of the important benefits of mindfulness. It can help relieve symptoms of depression and may help prevent these symptoms from returning in the future.
Increased Emotional Regulation
Another potential benefit of mindfulness is that the practice may help you identify and manage your feelings. Emotional regulation refers to your ability to exert control over your own emotions. This means being able to both enhance or reign in emotions depending on the situation and need.
Reduced Anxiety and Stress
Chronic stress is a significant problem for many adults that can contribute to a variety of health problems, including an increased risk of depression and anxiety. According to the American Psychological Association, mindfulness can be helpful for soothing feelings of anxiety and stress.
Mindfulness may also have potential benefits to boosting your memory. If you’ve ever forgotten an important meeting or misplaced your car keys, then you know that even simple, everyday memory problems can be a major hassle. Many of these moments of forgetfulness are caused by something known as proactive interference, where older memories interfere with your ability to access newer ones.
Mindfulness doesn’t just help you focus on your thoughts or remember things more readily—evidence suggests it can play a role in your ability to think flexibly and clearly. It makes sense that the practice of mindfulness can change your thinking. After all, the practice itself is all about learning to be more aware of your thoughts without imposing judgments on them.
There is also emerging evidence that practicing mindfulness may have a positive impact on your interpersonal relationships. Practicing mindfulness can help us to become more accepting of our partners and thereby find more satisfaction in our relationships. Instead of focusing on their partner's flaws and trying to change them, mindfulness makes it easier to accept that their partner is not always perfect.
Better Physical Health
Research also suggests that mindfulness can help relieve symptoms of a range of different health conditions. Mindfulness practices have been linked to improvements in lower back pain, rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, Type 2 diabetes, and fibromyalgia. Because mindfulness can help improve mood and combat stress, it may also be helpful for people who are dealing with chronic illnesses
.A Tiny Word of Caution
There are few guidelines regarding the potential side effects or situations where caution should be used. Researchers have reported instances where participants have experienced distressing adverse effects when practicing mindfulness and meditation that were serious enough to require additional treatment.
Focusing deeply on your inner self can trigger uncomfortable or even distressing feelings, so you should be aware of this potential and have emotional tools you can utilize to help cope with such experiences.
This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try mindfulness. Instead, it simply means that you should use some caution and be aware that it is not a panacea for immediate well-being. Mindfulness and other inner work practices may make you feel worse before you begin to feel better.
Helpful Links On Gratitude, Meaning & Mindfulness
13 Most Popular Gratitude Exercises & Activities
The Fetzer Institute – Resources on Gratitude
The Center of Disease Control and Prevention – Gratitude Works
Free Mindfulness Resources to Find Calm and Nourish Resilience
Guided Mindfulness Exercises