Mindfulness Under The Spotlight

Pilita Clark’s article in today’s financial times (click) highlighted some troubling issues in the “mindfulness” industry. This wasn’t just because some contradicting research had been published suggesting that mindfulness might actually demotivate employees, but because of the highly defensive and even hostile reaction this research had generated amongst its leading proponents. Their reaction appeared to be, to say the least, unmindful.

The research in question was produced by Professor Hafenbrack and Kathleen Vohs, (click). The paper compared two groups and their performance in completing a series of tasks. The first group practiced mindfulness prior to task completion; while the second group were encouraged to simply think freely and relax. The results were intriguing:

“The current research experimentally investigated how state mindfulness influences task motivation and performance, using multiple meditation inductions, comparison conditions, tasks, and participant samples. Mindfulness inductions, relative to comparison conditions, reduced motivation to tackle mundane tasks (Experiments 1–4) and pleasant tasks (Experiment 2). Decreased future focus and decreased arousal serially mediated the demotivating effect of mindfulness (Experiments 3 and 4)”. 

However, the study did point out that mindfulness did not reduce effectiveness in the task completion itself. Indeed, it concludes: “Experiment 5’s serial mediation showed that mindfulness enabled people to detach from stressors, which improved task focus”. These gains are however balanced by the losses in areas such initiation, endurance, and the motivation to think about the future.

Nevertheless the reaction from mindfulness exponents such as Arianna Huffington and Deepak Chopra was severe. One thing they focused on was that Hafenbrack’s research had involved novice practitioners to mindfulness. They pointed out that mindfulness requires some training and sustained practice to realise significant benefits. They question therefore how much validity can be gained from research where the “technique” is used as a one off.

In my view, while this criticism can be justified, it somewhat misses the point and I think unfairly misrepresents the intentions behind the research. If anything, Hafenbrack’s research should help counter the glibness that prevails across so much of the $billion self improvement industry. Mindfulness is indeed not a quick fix.

The research does confirm benefits in areas such as de-stressing, and task focus. If these were gains realised even over a short exposure to mindfulness, then this suggests more support than detraction for the concept of mindfulness.

The other point is that the research lights up the way for further study. The categorisation of the impact at different stages of the activity cycle is itself interesting. More work-based research needs to be done. It would be really interesting for example, to find out the tipping point of how much preparation and training is needed for mindfulness to produced noticeable gains in productivity. This would have implications for how mindfulness is introduced into work based environments and the resources needed to support it.

Research, like PR, is never bad provided we view it in the right way.

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