Mindfulness: Hippie Nonsense or the Key to Happiness?

What mindfulness means, and how to try it for yourself.



Much has been written about the concept of mindfulness in the past decade. Corporations have adopted mindfulness-training programs for employees. Elementary schools now teach mindfulness to students. It’s become a word that rolls off the tongue, but few of us really understand its utility.

To oversimplify, the goal of mindfulness is to slow down and to be present in your life as it happens. Critics of the mindfulness movement decry mindfulness as bohemian psychobabble. These critics point out that the simple concept of slowing down and savoring the present moment shouldn’t need to be taught. After all, children don’t need to be instructed to be present, because children are nothing if not exclusively attuned to their present environment.

And the critics are right. We were all born with the capacity for mindfulness. But there has been one recent invention that has ultimately derailed our abilities to stay mindful: That invention is the smartphone.

Prior to the ubiquity of the smartphone, we went on vacation without checking email frequently. We had our newspapers delivered to our doors in plastic bags. Or we got our news from watching television news programs.

Now, in the day and age of the smartphone, it is incredibly difficult to unplug. We have our phones at the beach, in the car, in the bedroom, on our laps at the movies. We are inundated with texts, emails, phone calls, news stories and Facebook posts. While smartphones have created freedom, they have also become golden handcuffs. Being bombarded by a constant influx of information has caused many of us to feel anxious and overwhelmed.

Mindfulness reminds us of the importance of unplugging, slowing down and savoring the moment, all with the goal of reducing our stress. In fact, a recent study, which looked how mindfulness actually impacts brain function, found that practicing mindfulness helps us de-stress by activating portions of the brain that regulate stress response. So when your brain goes into stress overdrive, being mindful seems to counteract the body’s physical stress response. Pretty neat, right?

Ready to try it yourself? Here are five quick and easy ways to become more mindful right now.

1. When in doubt, simplify.
This is my favorite tip from Leo Babauta’s Zen Habits blog. This mantra reminds us not to sweat the small stuff. Having friends over for dinner? Don’t try to impress them with your elaborate cooking skills; buy pre-made food so that you’re a happier and more relaxed host. Tempted to take on more responsibility in your community when you have very limited time? Remind yourself: When in doubt, simplify.

2. Sit quietly in the morning.
The foundation of mindfulness is based on meditation, but that doesn’t mean you need to hole up in a dim room, sit cross-legged on a pillow and repeat mantras in your head. If you’re not ready to dive into a full-blown meditation practice, start by having your morning coffee in peace and quiet. Rather than slurping down your cup of Joe while scanning email or listening to the weather report, enjoy your coffee in silence. Allow your mind to slowly wake up. Take a few moments to collect yourself in the stillness of the moment.

3. Practice yoga.  
Yoga is great for helping us to focus on our breath and bring our attention to the present moment. There are no cell phones allowed in most yoga studios. This rule alone ensures that we will leave the static of our digital lives outside of our mats. Even if you can attend only one yoga class per week, it can make a huge difference in your ability to calm your thoughts.

4. Eliminate one unfulfilling commitment from your life.  
Have you been roped into being on a meaningless committee? Have you over-extended yourself at work or at home? Find an activity or commitment that provides you the least bang for your buck and eliminate it. You need to focus your time on your priorities and your passions. If you don’t love it or need to do it, drop it.

5. Put your smartphone to good use.  
Yes, yes, I spent the last five minutes railing on your smartphone. But guess what? It’s not all bad. When you’re frazzled at the office or stuck waiting for hours at jury duty, ignore Instagram and fire up a guided-meditation app instead, like Simply Being or The Mindfulness App. These apps allow you to design a meditation experience for yourself. If you’re short on time, you can do a three-minute meditation. Or if you have more time to unwind, opt for a 30-minute experience. By always having access to meditation tools on your phone, you’re more likely to practice mindfulness.


Lauren Napolitano, Psy.D., is a licensed psychologist on staff at Bryn Mawr Hospital and in private practice in Bryn Mawr, PA.  To learn more about her practice, go here. And to read more of Lauren’s posts for Be Well Philly, head over here.

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