The cover title of the Time Magazine issue coming out Monday, February 3 is “Mindful Nation.” The ultimate benefit of mindfulness is that it improves our ability to focus our attention, which is sorely needed in our 21st century lives. Improvements in focusing attention in turn increase our ability to both perceive and regulate our emotions, as well as those of others.
Distraction is one of the most powerful forces reducing our ability to focus and therefore our effectiveness in emotional management. Cathy Davidson, the John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at Duke University and author of Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn, notes the research on distraction: “Gloria Mark, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, has shown that modern workers switch tasks an average of once every three minutes. Once their focus on a given task has been interrupted, it takes an average of 25 minutes to return to it. Mark’s research also shows that 44% of the switches are caused by “internal” rather than “external” sources of distraction—meaning that our minds simply wander.”
In a study by two Harvard professors, participants carried iPhones with an app that called them at random times and asked them “What are you doing, and where’s your mind?” The study showed that, on average, people’s minds are wandering close to 50% of the time, no matter what they’re doing. Or, as the authors summarized it, “people are thinking about what is not happening almost as often as they are thinking about what is and… doing so typically makes them unhappy.”
Daniel Goleman’s most recent book published in October 2013 is entitled Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence. According to Goleman, “In Focus, I’ve rethought Emotional Intelligence in terms of attention.” In an interview about the book he explained: ‘I’ve always been interested in attention; my earliest research at Harvard was on the retraining of attention to help people recover from stress. But it was only while writing FOCUS that I updated my understanding with the most recent scientific findings that I saw my model of emotional intelligence could be recast in terms of where we put our attention and how.” According to Goleman’s interviewer, “Those who excel rely on what Goleman calls smart practices—such as mindfulness meditation, focused preparation and recovery from setbacks, continued attention to the learning curve, and positive emotions and connections—that help them improve habits, add new skills, and sustain excellence.”
“Flow” is the psychological term for intensely engaging our attention, free of distracting and unmanaged emotions, which produces great productivity, calm and a sense of well-being. As Goleman explains it, “There’s an upside down U that describes the relationship between performance and cortisol levels (which is the stress hormone). When people are very bored, they’re at the lower end on the left side of that upside-down U… And when they’re overstressed, they’re on the right side, where performance is poor and cortisol is very high… When people are fully absorbed, when they’re in flow, they’re at the optimal point at the top of the U.” That U is also known as the Yerkes-Dodson arc.
“Where we want to be on the Yerkes-Dodson arc is the zone of optimal performance, known as “flow” in the research of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi at the University of Chicago. Flow represents a peak of self-regulation, the maximal harnessing of emotions in the service of performance or learning. In flow we channel positive emotions in an energized pursuit of the task at hand. Our focus is undistracted, and we feel a spontaneous joy, even rapture…This optimal performance zone has been called a state of neural harmony where the disparate areas of the brain are in synch, working together. This is also seen as a state of maximum cognitive efficiency. Getting into flow lets you use whatever talent you may have at peak levels.”
Flow has been found by researchers to support and drive superior performance by promoting curiosity, interest, adaptability, humility, maturity, pride, empathy, realism, competitiveness, discipline, resiliency and the sheer enjoyment of overcoming challenges and excelling, a number of which are also aspects of emotional intelligence. Meditation is the surest route to mindfulness, according to mounting evidence.
Mindfulness is not, of course, just for the demonstrated benefits of stress reduction, better decision-making, better mental and physical health, and greater emotional balance. As the leader of Google’s mindfulness program contends: “The one thing [that all companies should be doing] is promoting the awareness that compassion [achieved through mindfulness] can and will be good for success and profits.” That conclusion is evidenced by the increasing numbers of companies like Google that incorporate mindfulness meditation into their professional development programs.
How can we test our mindfulness? A well-loved on-line exercise can give us some insight into whether we pay attention to what matters. Count the passes and then ask yourself what you saw.