Big mindfulness news today, here in the UK. A group of MPs who have been holding a year-long inquiry into mindfulness have concluded that it should be rolled out across many areas of the public sector, including healthcare, education and the prison system.
I’m currently a week into a free six-week online mindfulness course, so I took quite an interest in the story.
I have to say, I was a pretty reluctant meditator. I’m naturally a fairly sceptical person, and I’m not into a whole heap of things I categorise as ‘bollocks’ – homeopathy, crystals, horoscopes, religion – but I’d like to explain why I decided to give this a go.
The course was an add-on to a happiness course I took via Coursera. The professor leading the happiness course, Raj Raghunathan, spent a few lectures systematically going through all the mental and physical benefits of mindfulness, and he was pretty persuasive. Unsurprisingly, many studies have found it reduces stress and lowers blood pressure, but one finding that really struck me was that it can permanently raise your natural happiness levels.
It turns out, say if you win the lottery, your happiness levels spike, but sooner or later return to around the same level they were before. If you suffer a major set-back like becoming paralysed, your happiness levels sink, but sooner or later creep back to where they were before. We adjust.
Changing this happiness ‘set level’ can be incredibly hard – something that must be a major blow to anyone who finds they often experience bouts of depression.
But a study has found that mindfulness can permanently raise this happiness set point. Here’s a YouTube video where this is explained in more detail, for those who want to find out more.
That’s why I think it’s great that MPs are considering offering mindfulness training to people with depression on the NHS. It’s not just a nice bit of alternative therapy. The evidence is there that it works.
So far, I’ve been enjoying my mindfulness course. There have been no miraculous results yet, but I’ve found it calming and it’s become an important part of my day. It’s made me think that perhaps, as a confirmed atheist, I’ve been missing out on the period of quiet reflection that many people get through prayer.
It’s also made me realise how my brain is always trying desperately to flit from one thing to another. When you try to clear your mind for an extended period of time, you discover how difficult this is. Thoughts rushing in from all sides; it’s like a head-on collision with your own consciousness. When I watch the mindfulness videos on my course, I’m increasingly aware of the urge to open another couple of browser tabs and check Facebook or Twitter while I go. My brain’s addicted to multi-tasking and my concentration span is shot.
I hope this is the off-switch I need.