Top of Mind

Things that spark our minds, touch our hearts, make us smile—or roll our eyes. Keep up with the latest in mindfulness.

Photograph by Hugo Sousa/Unsplash

UK leads with meditation day in Parliament

In October, 40 politicians from 14 nations spent the day exploring how mindfulness can influence government discourse and decision-making. Mindfulness in Politics was held in the British House of Commons and included representatives from Iceland, Denmark, Israel, Sri Lanka, and the United States.

Jon Kabat-Zinn led a meditation session at the event that aimed “to help political leaders stay resilient, clear-minded and creative in the face of constant change,” according to The Mindfulness Initiative. This policy institute established in 2013 helped create the nonpartisan Mindfulness All-Party Parliamentary Group, and has offered MBCT training to more than 145 British MPs and their staff.

Kabat-Zinn’s attendance came on the heels of another notable event, the International Day of Peace, where he led almost 1,000 people in a 30-minute meditation on the lawn of the Canadian parliament in Ottawa.

How do we feel? Let us count the 27 ways…

A study from the University of California, Berkeley, challenges a long-held idea that we mostly experience just six basic emotions: happiness, sadness, fear, anger, disgust, and surprise. Alan Cowen and Dacher Keltner instead identified 27 different emotions—ranging from admiration and boredom to sexual desire. (They analyzed how 853 volunteers responded to videos depicting everything from marriage proposals to creepy spiders.) The findings, the researchers hope, will allow investigators to develop a more nuanced understanding of how our emotions actually work.

Legal minds unite

In late 2016, lawyers and would-be lawyers interested in how mindfulness can help them reduce stress, perform better at their work, and promote caring and compassion banded together to form the Mindfulness in Law Society—with divisions for lawyers, law faculty, law students, and judges. In 2017 the MLS held its first conference, Mindfulness in Law, August 3–4, in conjunction with the Association of American Law Schools. It focused on mindfulness in legal education, scholarship, and the legal profession, and on how mindfulness could help with the highly stressful experience of completing law school.

A good-for-you vending machine

“Wellness to Go” vending machines are becoming common at US universities. The machines dispense common over-the-counter products, from allergy and pain relief to condoms. Students campaigned for the machines to be introduced because they offer slightly lower costs, more privacy, and longer hours than most campus pharmacies. Thanks to these improvements in accessibility, students express a sense of greater agency to make responsible decisions about their own well-being.

“All the changes throughout the history of our country come from just mindfulness, from awareness. You hear ‘awareness’ a lot. But that’s a real thing. The more you’re aware of something, the less scary it is and the less it feels like something that you have to protect yourself from. By protecting yourself, a lot of times what that is is people keeping other people from having rights.” — Sarah Silverman

Therapy…coming to an app near you?

In September, the US Food and Drug Administration approved Pear Therapeutics’ app Reset for treating substance abuse using Cognitive Behavioral Therapy—the first app to be approved for that condition. The FDA began regulating some categories of health-related apps in 2013 to promote innovation while protecting consumers from potential harm. Representative Tim Ryan (D-OH) said of the recent approval, “Millions of Americans are suffering with drug dependency and addiction. Mobile technology may offer a means for immediate therapeutic intervention that could make a tremendous difference in people’s lives at low cost. It may also pave the way for approval of apps employing mindfulness-based interventions.”

Monkeying around at Microsoft

Microsoft is exploring the calming, even immune-boosting effects of trees by building three meeting-space tree houses for employees. They’re open-concept, Wi-Fi-enabled (of course), and designed to flex and expand as the trees grow. Business manager Shanon Bernstine says working in a tree has had positive implications for the company’s culture: “We [get] a lot done in a very different way.”

Mommy mentors

It’s not uncommon for new mothers to experience anxiety and depression in the months after childbirth, yet many don’t seek help out of fear of judgment. One small study found that up to half of new mothers experience depressive symptoms, and 30% said they lacked a close confidant to talk with about their experience. An organization in Florida hopes to relieve the stigma of postpartum depression by pairing new moms with other women who have struggled with and overcome the same issues. The Self-Image Support Team and Emotional Resource (SISTER) program creates a safe, nonjudgmental community through mother-to-mother mentoring via phone, text, and monthly in-person meetings. The mentor moms are also able to steer the new moms to professional support services, like psychological care, if needed. For women outside of Florida, Postpartum Support International offers mentoring through a private Facebook group and a toll-free hotline for new moms and their families in need of local support services.

“Creativity emerges when you are open to detours, not when you approach life, or a job, or a single experience with a set goal in mind.” – AZIZ ANSARI

EXTRA­-ORDINARY ACTS OF KINDNESS

  • After snapping at a Starbucks barista, a woman came back to leave a $50 tip and apologize for her “trail of unkindness.”
  • Schoolchildren in Victoria, British Columbia, made colorful “friendship cards” and visited a local seniors’ home to give them to the residents.
  • A customer at IHOP would always feed his wife, who has Huntington’s disease, before eating his own meal. A server noticed and offered to feed her instead, so the couple could enjoy their meals together.

For the love of clouds

The Cloud Appreciation Society began more than a decade ago with the delightful mission of “fighting the banality of blue-sky thinking,” according to its website. Through an online forum and photo gallery, members revel in a natural phenomenon they believe is underappreciated. “We believe that clouds are for dreamers and their contemplation benefits the soul,” the site says. “Indeed, all who consider the shapes they see in them will save money on psychoanalysis bills.”

Healthy hearts, healthy minds

Rhode Island’s Brown University opened its Mindfulness and Cardiovascular Health Lab in fall 2017. The lab has both public service and research goals: to share evidence-based information about mindfulness and health, to work with other researchers, and to promote rigorous scientific standards in the study of mindfulness.

Research Roundup

Minimizing missed workdays

If anxiety sometimes makes it tough to get to work, mindfulness may help. In a small clinical trial, 27 people with generalized anxiety disorder took a weekly course in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. After two months, the number of partial days missed at work slightly dropped in this group—but edged upward in 30 others who only received stress-management education.

Mindful paths to a happy mood

Traffic jams and phone glitches ruining your day? Two facets of mindfulness may prevent daily aggravations from harshing your mellow, says a study by psychologist Elisabeth Blanke of Humboldt University of Berlin and her colleagues. Over nine days, they asked 70 college students to answer questions on their smart-phones several times daily about their feelings and levels of mindfulness. The students reported happier emotions when they were attentive to the present moment—which may have helped them see the positives in a situation—and fewer negative emotions when they were nonjudg-mentally accepting. Acceptance even seemed to prevent buoyant moods from being dragged down by ordinary hassles. Perhaps, say the researchers, short practices can be designed to boost the mindfulness components that enhance aspects of emotional well-being.

A mindful approach brings brain changes in ADHD

Thirty-four teenagers with ADHD in Ontario, Canada, joined a martial arts treatment program that blends mindfulness meditation, yoga, and cognitive behavioral therapy. After five months, measurements of their brain wave activity indicated neural changes reflecting improved attention skills.

Exploring meditation’s anti-aging potential

Can regular meditation slow down biological aging? The idea sounds wild, but a small new pilot study takes a stab at that question—by looking at a marker of aging in our cells known as the “epigenetic clock.” Recent emerging research says we can gauge how fast this clock is ticking by measuring a process called DNA methylation, which influences whether genes are switched on or off. People with quicker-running clocks, studies have suggested, tend to get chronic illnesses and live shorter lives; cumulative chronic stress seems to speed up the clock.

But meditation, with its stress-taming benefits, may slow the ticking, says the new study by a French–US team. They analyzed immune-system cells from 18 long-term practitioners of mindfulness or compassion-related meditation, and from 20 others with no meditation experience. Among non-meditators, the aging clock was accelerated in older adults (52 years and above) compared to younger ones. In contrast, the meditators showed no such acceleration with age. What’s more, older participants with more years of meditation practice had slower clocks. The findings, the researchers say, need confirming in larger studies tracking people over time.

Can meditation help protect the ticker?

Could be. While the evidence is still preliminary, the American Heart Association has acknowledged for the first time, in a scientific statement, that meditation may help prevent heart disease—perhaps by easing risk factors such as blood pressure.

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