Mindfulness

Mindfulness

Author: Ellen J. Langer

Synopisis

This book explores the diverse concepts that constitute mindfulness, revealing a very complex subject far beyond paying attention to one’s environment. It shows how mindfulness, or the lack of it, significantly impacts on people’s social and professional outcomes. The author applied her extensive research experience and insight to demonstrate that mindfulness is more than just breathing exercises and meditation.

Mindfulness. Darragh O Connor on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/daztall/12903699615
Mindfulness. Darragh O Connor on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/daztall/12903699615

The book revealed many, and often surprising, benefits of mindfulness. Take for example that mindful people have richer options and greater control of their circumstances, factors which enable them to transcend limitations (page 1). The author also asserts that mindful people pre-empt problems because they are alert to new information; they prevent failures by detecting subtle deviations from normal (page 134). The book listed several other attributes of mindfulness such as enhanced work productivity, leadership ability, and satisfaction (page 133). The author’s research into ageing shows how mindfulness improves physical activity and sociability, and reduces depression and mortality (pages 83-84).

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An insightful observation is the relationship between mindfulness and creativity. The author pointed out that creative people have many qualities of mindfulness such as intuition, openness to new experience, the ability to transcend context, and conditional learning (pages 116-131). Creative people also embrace uncertainty, a quality of mindfulness which is associated with innovation (page 143). This is in contrast to certainty which promotes ‘…a mindless adherence to how things have always been done’ (page 152).

By epSos.de, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27942411
By epSos.de, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27942411

A surprisingly large number of factors influence mindfulness. Take for example mindsets, or premature cognitive commitments, which determine the extent to which people reflect on new experiences and information (page 22). A focus on outcomes, rather than on process, also limits mindfulness because ‘if we think we know how to handle a situation, we don’t feel a need to pay attention’ (pages 33-34). Similarly, people who attribute outcomes to a single cause are less likely to be mindful because they are often blind to contrary information (page 51). The author also discusses other important influences on mindfulness such as automatic behaviour (page 21), strongly held ideas and beliefs, (page 31), context confusion (pages 35-40), restricted perspectives, and inappropriate categorisation (page 154).

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The author reinforced her arguments by listing many consequences of mindlessness. Mindless people, for example, are prone to an inhibiting self-image, a stunted potential, and learned helplessness. Mindlessness also predisposes to failure as the author graphically illustrated with the example of Napoleon’s defeat in Russia. She attributed this to his mindless adherence to a single strategy (page 61). This is in contrast to his adversary, Kutuzov, who demonstrated many traits of mindfulness such as flexibility, creation of new categories, and awareness of multiple perspectives (page 62).

The Agony of Defeat. B Legg on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/blegg/2463194981
The Agony of Defeat. B Legg on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/blegg/2463194981

Opinion

The book explores several important concepts which underlie mindfulness. The author draws a direct link between mindfulness and many key healthcare subjects such as creativity, safety, and performance. It is a well-written book, and the author’s expertise shines through on every page. There are many illustrative stories, mostly from the author’s own research. She used very few historical and real-life examples which would have helped to emphasise her arguments. She has however clearly demonstrated the consequences of mindlessness, even if she did not sufficiently show how people may inculcate mindfulness in real life.

Overall Assessment

The subject matter of mindfulness is relevant to high reliability industries including healthcare. Doctors would benefit from understanding the wide ramifications of mindlessness which the book discussed. The topic is important and I recommend it to all doctors.

Book Details

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