Comment & Analysis

How helpful is mindfulness?
"Overpraising young people does not necessarily combat depression and anxiety", writes Mary Kenny

Approached with moderation and admixed with common sense, “mindfulness” seems a harmless enough practice. Deriving from Buddhist thinking, the modern application may help people to “improve their mind by focusing on a positive object”.  

If you have to give a public speech, for example, and you worry you’ll have a panic attack, it can be useful just to focus on something positive and get on with the task. 

And it seems that our Minister for Education, Richard Bruton, is such a fan of this ancient practice that he plans to introduce a large-scale programme of mindfulness for teachers. Some 900 schools are set to have their “emotional wellbeing” enhanced through mindfulness training. Disadvantaged schools, in particular, may thus reduce pupils’ anxiety, boost their resilience, and expand their coping skills, according to Mr Bruton. 

Who would be against such a positive measure? Unfortunately, some studies looking at the outcomes of mindfulness have found that in some cases it has no benefit at all. It can even make certain subjects worse. 

One of the major studies carried out on mindfulness by researchers at George Mason University in Virginia found that, where the practice was applied to offenders in prison, the impact was negative and even deleterious. 

According to the research psychologists – who published their findings in the current Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin – the practice of mindfulness led certain offenders to commit more crimes. 

The prisoners in the Virginia study were taught how to meditate, to focus on positive thoughts and to accept negative feelings. The psychologists said that the “non-judgemental” element led the 259 subjects tested “to avoid responsibility for their actions”, and even to justify their actions. 

Outcome

The negative outcome of mindfulness for prisoners might not apply to everyone. But shouldn’t such studies give the Minister some pause for thought? Or even pause for more research?

There is already research indicating that programmes setting out to boost low self-esteem do not always achieve their goal. Overpraising young people does not necessarily combat depression and anxiety. What boosts low self-esteem is a genuine sense of achievement, and that is linked with effort and hard work. 

Mindfulness can surely encourage some individuals to be reflective, calm and focused. But is introducing it into the school schedule just another fad? Only asking. 

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The late Duke of Norfolk, Britain’s leading Catholic peer, used to crack old-fashioned jokes about the disadvantages of being a Muslim with four wives. “Four mothers-in-law!” 

But multi-married modern men of non-Muslim persuasion may run into other disadvantages associated with several spouses: ex-wives clashing with current wives.

One of Donald Trump’s burdens is that the first Mrs Trump – the Czech-born Ivana – now seems to be claiming higher wifely status than the current, third Mrs Trump, the Slovenian Melania. “I’m the First Lady, okay!” says Ivana. No, says Melania, you’re just “attention-seeking”.

Pity the poor guy with battling wives, let alone mothers-in-law! 

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Not so much to fear after all

Oxford university students this past week banned the Christian Union from participating in a ‘freshers’ fair’ to welcome new undergradutes, fearing that a Christian stall would stir up “homophobia and neo-colonialism”.

They don’t seem to have noticed that the societies which deal most harshly with homosexuality are not necessarily marked by Christian traditions: in Saudi Arabia, flogging and even execution may be meted out for homosexual acts. African culture, too, can be extremely hostile to same-sex relationships, and homosexuals face ongoing discrimination in China.

Subsequently, the Oxford students’ union was prevailed upon to relent, in the name of freedom of expression. But it was, as Wellington supposedly said of the Battle of Waterloo, “a damn close-run thing…”