Staying Mindful of the Research: The Positive Effects of Mindfulness on Psychological Health

Staying Mindful of the Research: The Positive Effects of Mindfulness on Psychological Health

A review of
Keng, S., Smoski, M., & Robins, C. (2011). Effects of mindfulness on psychological health: A review of empirical studies. Clinical Psychology Review, 31, 1041-1056.

By D. Brian Haver

     Mindfulness has been a major subject of interest in almost every realm of psychological research for the last several decades.  Literature reviews aggregate information from the wide variety of studies into more accessible chunks, providing an essential ‘state of the field’ and guiding future directions in research.  Regular reviews of empirical mindfulness research, such as the one by Keng, Smoski, & Robins (2011), help bridge the gap between research and current clinical practice.

     Keng, Smoski, & Robins (2011) begin their empirically focused review by addressing the fundamental questions regarding differences in the conceptualization and construct of mindfulness.  Summarizing a variety of other approaches and attempts, mindfulness is defined in this review by two essential elements: awareness of one’s moment-to-moment experience and nonjudgemental acceptance.  Further, in order to address the concerns of several researchers that the differences between Buddhist and Western conceptualizations of mindfulness are not appropriately defined, they are discussed in terms of context, process, and content.  Buddhist mindfulness is practiced within the context of a system of ethics and philosophy, focused on the teachings of the Buddha and introspective awareness.  Western mindfulness is practiced separately from ethico-philosophical systems and is focused on all forms of internal and external experience.

     After a brief review of the history of mindfulness meditation as a psychological intervention to establish the range of therapies considered ’empirical’, Keng, Smoski, & Robins (2011) begin their review of correlational and cross-sectional research on trait mindfulness and psychological health.  They report a wide variety of populations and questionnaires used in the study of trait mindfulness.  A laundry list of factors related to psychological health have also been found to be related to both trait and trained mindfulness, including life satisfaction, agreeableness, conscientiousness, vitality, self esteem, empathy, competence, optimism, and pleasant affect.  Mindfulness has also been negatively correlated with a number of unhealthy psychological characteristics.  The effects of mindfulness have been found beyond self-report measures in behavioral and neurobiological correlates, such as increased cognitive flexibility and greater gray matter concentration in the right anterior insula.

     Next, mindfulness-oriented interventions are discussed, including Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).  A body of research supports the efficacy of these forms of interventions, but several important questions are raised regarding the mechanisms by which these multi-component interventions function: the effects of the variety of mindfulness teaching and varieties in length of trainings.  Clinical use is supported, but more research is needed to answer these questions.

     Finally, the empirical laboratory research on the immediate effects of mindfulness interventions is addressed.  Mindfulness training has an immediate effect on mood and emotional responses to both psychological and physical stimuli and shows promise for reduction of substance use behavior.  Noted limitations of the studies in this section include the lack of checking for adherence to instruction before and/or during the studies and limited validation of training approaches or instructions.

      Now that the review has established that mindfulness is related to psychological health and that mindfulness-oriented interventions have been shown to have a positive impact on psychological health, the question of how is addressed.  Unsurprisingly, mindfulness training increases scores on measures of mindfulness; however, it also increases metacognitive awareness, perhaps acting as a mediating variable.  Other discussed mechanisms are increased attention and memory functioning, values, and improved self-regulation.  Several limitations in the study of mindfulness, mentioned previously, are repeated: the difference between Buddhist and Western interpretations of mindfulness, valid and reliable assessment of mindfulness, variations in orientation and development of mindfulness training.

     Keng, Smoski, & Robins’ review of empirical evidence regarding the effects of mindfulness on psychological health (2011) effectively presents a thorough discussion of the concept and construct of mindfulness, the current evidence, and directions of future research.  Several areas of research are covered: the relationship between trait mindfulness and positive health indicators, the efficacy of mindfulness interventions in producing positive health outcomes, and, finally, the  mechanisms by which mindfulness produces these outcomes.  Well-reasoned, and well-supported, this review adds significant value to the body of research on the clinical value of mindfulness.

To cite this review, please use this reference:
Haver, D. B. (2015). Staying mindful of the research: The positive effects of mindfulness on psychological health. Psychology Alert.