Mindfulness Is the Best Way to Improve Your Well-Being, Research Concludes

A Black woman meditating at home

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Key Takeaways

  • A systematic review found that based on people's health status, they may respond better to different well-being practices.
  • Mindfulness is shown to help everyone across the board: people in generally good health, people with mental illness, and people with physical illness.
  • Researchers also found that in order to improve one's mental well-being, a person needs to make a consistent effort.

Most of us want to work on our well-being, but are often unsure about the best place to start. One team of researchers suggests mindfulness can help just about anyone.

Researchers in the largest ever meta-analysis of well-being studies, published in the Nature Human Behaviour journal in April, examined the results of over 400 clinical trials to understand which psychological approaches people best responded to in their attempts to address their well-being.

For this review, they factored in the physical and mental health conditions of the 53,288 people who participated in the 419 controlled trials. Participants were placed into three categories:

  • People in generally good health
  • People who live with mental illness
  • People who live with physical illness

The researchers found that across these three groups, all benefited from mindfulness. Positive psychological interventions, like performing small acts of kindness, were also beneficial to all groups when it was done in addition to another approach.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy was more helpful for people who live with mental illness, and acceptance and commitment therapy was more helpful for people in generally good mental health.

Researchers also found, across all groups, if people wanted to improve their well-being, they needed to make it a regular practice.

"Sporadic or inconsistent participation in a practice did not result in considerable improvement regardless of the group," Lori Ryland, PhD, LP, CAADC, licensed clinical psychologist and chief clinical officer at Pinnacle Treatment Centers, tells Verywell. "This study is very important because it concludes that a specific focus on establishing wellness can improve functioning rather than what is typically seen as a symptom alleviation or problem-solving approach."

While Kendal Cassidy, PhD, a licensed psychologist in Washington state, also recognizes the importance of this review, she also questions the limitations of examining well-being, when its meaning differs greatly from person to person. "Well-being research is sometimes limited in cultural considerations, and it is important for us to recognize that what it means to well differ across many cultures, and when I reference culture I mean everything from someone's nationality to their gender, sexual orientation, religion, and other forms of identity crucial to what makes someone who they are," she tells Verywell.

What This Means For You

If you want to work on improving your well-being, try incorporating mindfulness into your daily life. This can be as simple as sitting still and taking note of the space around you, letting your thoughts come and go. Mindfulness isn't exclusive to structured moments like meditation, you can practice it on a walk, during a car drive, or many other moments throughout your day.

Mindfulness is Universally Helpful

Unlike other aspects of therapy, which focus on addressing maladaptive behavior, mindfulness is considered a form of positive psychology.

"Mindfulness seems to be more helpful on that positive side of psychology in terms of getting you better self-awareness of what's going on internally and then giving you the space to make different choices," David A. Merrill, MD, PhD, psychiatrist and director of the Pacific Neuroscience Institute’s Pacific Brain Health Center at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, tells Verywell.

There are also physical benefits to practicing mindfulness, which may be important for people who live with a chronic health condition or disability. A 2018 clinical trial published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found that practicing relaxation could help lower the blood pressure of people who have hypertension over an eight-week period.

However, mindfulness, just like well-being, is not one size fits all. "The study highlights the consistency of mindfulness and breathing techniques, but for some people, this can actually increase their rumination and anxiety, and they need other ways to improve their well-being," Cassidy says.

Practicing mindfulness does not need to interrupt your daily life, but you may find that making small changes to your routine can help you feel a bit better. Like with any mental health-related exercise, people may respond better to different mindfulness techniques. The National Institute of Health's Office of Management recommends implementing the following:

  • Take some deep breaths. Breathe in through your nose for four seconds, hold for one second, and then exhale through the mouth to a count of five. Do this repeatedly.
  • Enjoy a stroll. As you walk, notice your breath and the sights and sounds around you. As thoughts and worries enter your mind, note them but then return to the present. 
  • Practice mindful eating. Be aware of taste, textures, and flavors in each bite you take of food and listen to your body when you are hungry and full.  
  • Find mindfulness resources in your local community. Look for yoga and meditation classes, mindfulness-based stress reduction programs, and books near you.

Comparing Different Therapies

The review showed that people with mental illness and people in generally good health may benefit from different therapies to improve their mental well-being.

Researchers found that cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) benefited people with mental illness more than others. CBT may help people manage their mental illness symptoms, identify ways to manage emotions, and resolve relationship conflicts to learn better ways to communicate.

"Cognitive-behavioral therapy is really developed and geared and tested towards targeting symptoms that are kind of driven by thoughts and behaviors and feelings that are negative or maladaptive," Merrill says. CBT may be helpful in managing mental health conditions like depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and substance use disorders.

In acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), Merrill says patients work through "what are the things you can work on to make better, and what are the things that you can kind of grieve or let go of you know you can't change."

According to an article published in the Neurotherapeutics journal in 2017, ACT rests on the fundamental principle that emotions like grief and anxiety are part of the human experience. The researchers wrote that ACT helps patients "adapt to these types of challenges by developing greater psychological flexibility rather than engaging in counterproductive attempts to eliminate or suppress undesirable experiences."

The April review authors also found that overall, practicing well-being while in good health can prepare people for challenging times in the future, whether it is through mindfulness, ACT, or another form of therapy. "It was identified that those who maintained consistent practices during times of lower stress were better equipped to manage stressful situations resulting in better mental as well as physical health," Ryland says.

How Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Works

If you're interested in trying out CBT to help with your mental well-being, your first step should be finding a mental health professional who engages in this practice. According to the American Psychological Association, CBT often involves the following steps:

  • Learning to recognize one's distortions in thinking that are creating problems, and then to reevaluate them in light of reality
  • Gaining a better understanding of the behavior and motivation of others
  • Using problem-solving skills to cope with difficult situations
  • Learning to develop a greater sense of confidence is one's own abilities

Even if you live with mental illness, CBT might not be the right fit for you. But in order to get the most out of a CBT session, you should stick to a treatment plan, not expect instant results, and do any homework that a mental health professional assigned to you for you to do between sessions, like keeping a journal.

Practicing mindfulness along with CBT may also be helpful. A 2018 study published in the Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment journal found that mindfulness-based CBT is an effective treatment for reducing depressive relapses in individuals who live with major depressive disorder.

How Acceptance and Commitment Therapy Works 

ACT is also often led by a mental health professional. Sometimes it is framed in group therapy sessions as a "workshop."

ACT focuses on reframing people's thoughts, rather than reshaping negative or inaccurate thinking like in CBT. The authors of the 2017 article wrote that an ACT therapist "would teach the patient new ways of being with anxiety, such as simply noticing it for what it is." It does not focus on directly addressing maladaptive symptoms, but instead reframes how people can learn to live with and view them.

While the April systematic review found that people with mental illness may benefit more from CBT than from ACT while improving their well-being, ACT can still help people with mental illness. A 2018 study published in the Open Access Macedonian Journal of Medical Sciences found that ACT helped people address anxiety and depression more than people who did not receive any therapy.

8 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  3. National Institutes of Health Office of Management. Mindfulness.

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  5. Dindo L, Van Liew J, Arch J. Acceptance and commitment therapy: a transdiagnostic behavioral intervention for mental health and medical conditions. Neurotherapeutics. 2017;14(3):546-553. doi:10.1007/s13311-017-0521-3

  6. American Psychological Association. What is cognitive behavioral therapy? July 2017.

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By Julia Métraux
Julia Métraux is a health and culture writer specializing in disability.