I’ve been saying that mindfulness will be (or should I now say “is”) the biggest wellness trend of this decade, an opinion I base, in no small part, on the slew of research studies I see linking mindfulness to a variety of beneficial health outcomes. But a new study that came out recently from Georgetown University, suggests that mindfulness has a downside. It might prevent the formation of good habits, just as much as it does the formation of bad ones.
Some people have been surprised by this study, but I actually don’t find this that controversial. A state of mindfulness is often described as having a “beginner’s mind,” literally approaching things as if for the first time. Habits are basically the opposite of this, doing something as if you have done it a million times before.
While habits can be good or bad, it is important to acknowledge that many habits are very helpful. When we develop a certain level of automaticity or expertise, it allows us to operate more quickly and efficiently, and to free up our mind for other purposes. The ability, for example, to mindlessly brush our teeth, get dressed and tie our shoes every morning means we can reserve that cognitive energy for other more meaningful work during our day.
The problem with habits, from a mindfulness perspective, is not whether they are good or bad, but that they are sub-conscious. Since habitual behavior patterns happen without conscious thought, it may be helpful to question them from time to time.
This is where mindfulness comes in. We do not need to accept whatever programs are being loaded up by default. We can apply mindfulness to observe our own habits, appreciating them in the case of good ones and building awareness of bad ones that should perhaps be changed or eliminated.
To me, wellbeing is not about attempting to spend every waking moment in a mindful state, being completely present in everything we do. But I think most people recognize that there are times when being more mindful is beneficial. The human tendency to automate through our habits sometimes causes us to take shortcuts we don’t want to take, to make mistakes that we don’t want to make, or to take experiences for granted that we’ll later wish we had savored more.
The solution is to have a mindfulness practice; to develop the ability to enter into a mindful state on a regular basis. To check in with yourself from time to time and see how you are responding to the objective world around you.
These mindful moments allow us to observe the things that normally happen unconsciously: our emotional responses, our conditioned beliefs and our habitual behaviors. But these moments of mindfulness are not efficient. They can slow us down, getting in the way of the fluidity of our habitual automaticity. Getting in the way of our habits isn’t always beneficial, but sometimes, it’s exactly what we need.
By Jeremy McCarthy (@jeremymcc)