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How do you know if mindfulness is working?

How do you tell if mindfulness has actually made an improvement, or whether something else is at work with your mind?

Mindfulness has become hugely popular in recent years. Studies suggest it could be better than any of our current treatments for many different mental health issues including anxiety and depression, as well as providing benefits for a wide range of other issues such as pain sensitivity and ageing.

However, it comes with the same problem that many of the treatments do: how do you know it is actually working?

Take my levels of anxiety for example. Do I feel better since I started practicing mindfulness five times a week? Maybe. But there are many other factors to consider as well. It is summer, which is always a more pleasant time of year. Things are changing in my personal life, that could be affecting it too.

I am currently practicing a series of meditations on focus. Am I more focused? There is some good evidence that I am. Last week I managed to do more writing than I have in years. Here too, though, there are other factors at work.

There are financial pressures to get my next book out, as well as a desire to complete it before I turn 30 in a few months. There is social pressure from having announced it publicly, and the ticking clock of impending parenthood. How can I control for all of these variables?

The answer is that I can’t. It could be the mindfulness. Or it could be something else. Or I have simply misremembered how productive I used to be, and estimated an improvement when there really isn’t one.

Personal experience seems like a poor guide then. Perhaps the only thing we can do is to try and trust the studies that show mindfulness does provide a benefit, even if we cannot always see one right before our eyes.


Published 1 January 2018. Written by Chris Worfolk.

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