This month is Mindful March, which invites people all around the world to explore and practice mindfulness. Not that mindfulness needs the publicity—it seems to be everywhere right now, from coloring books for adults to school-based meditation for children.
But there’s a reason mindfulness is so popular: It works. Although some of the benefits have no doubt been overblown, a British Medical Journal review article concluded that there’s already “reasonably convincing evidence” that it’s effective for anxiety and depression; while “evidence is also accumulating” for “psoriasis, cancer, HIV infection, irritable bowel syndrome, heart disease, hypertension, lung disease, diabetes mellitus, and chronic pain.”
While reduced depression and anxiety are exactly kinds of benefits you might expect from mindfulness, a number of studies have found more surprising benefits. Remember the time you dragged yourself along to a show that you really weren’t in the mood for, purely because you’d paid good money for the tickets? Or the book, movie, or Netflix series that you really didn’t want to finish, but felt you had to, given the time you’d already put in? Psychologists call this tendency the “sunk cost” effect—once we’ve committed time or money to something, we just can’t bear to cut our losses and walk away, even if we’d prefer to.
Unless, that is, you’ve practiced mindfulness. A study conducted at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School found that mindfulness meditation increased participants’ ability to resist the sunk-cost bias by focusing their attention away from the past (i.e., from the time or money they’d already put in) and onto the present moment (i.e., what they’d prefer to do right now).
Now, you’re surely not the sort of person who’d cheat on a test, right? But what if it was something relatively trivial, such as unscrambling anagrams? And what if you were being paid $1 for each one you got correct. And what if there was (apparently) no way for the person paying you to know your real score? Wouldn’t you be tempted to cheat, just a little bit?
We would! But a study published in the Journal of Business Ethics (yes, there is such a thing) found that participants who scored highly on measures of mindfulness were less likely to cheat. The explanation offered by the authors is that mindfulness makes you more aware of your own thoughts and decision processes, and so less likely to brush aside any nagging ethical concerns or to come up with self-serving rationalizations (“Come on, everyone is doing it!”). We need to be cautious here, as this was a correlational study in which participants naturally varied on mindfulness, but there’s certainly evidence from other studies that mindfulness is something that can be trained.
Mindfulness can make you a better thinker and a more ethical decision-maker, but do these benefits translate to the workplace? Can mindfulness actually make you better at your job? Perhaps. We need to be cautious here, as only a handful of studies have been conducted, but the early signs are encouraging. Perhaps most impressive is a study of healthcare workers which found that mindfulness-based stress-reduction training not only increased adherence to safety protocols, but also decreased thinking errors (which, in a healthcare context, have the potential to be matters of life and death)
So if you fancy doing a mindfulness course this March, why not look to see if your employer already offers one? Many do, and it might just yield some unexpected benefits, both for them and for you.