When you hear health messages—such as quit smoking or get more exercise—do you feel motivated or ashamed? A new study suggests how we react may depend on how mindful we are.
According to Yoona Kang, a postdoctoral fellow at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, “mindfulness is usually defined as having awareness of the present moment” and there’s evidence it can reduce negative reactions to emotionally charged situations.
“Some people, when confronted with health messages, felt really bad about themselves.”
“Health messaging often causes people to react emotionally in negative ways, so we investigated factors—including mindfulness—that could potentially influence people to be more receptive to health messages and more motivated to change their behavior,” says Emily Falk, an associate professor of communication and senior author of the paper published in the journal Mindfulness.
The study assembled a group of people who achieve only low levels of weekly exercise and exposed them to a variety of health messages. The researchers observed the reactions of the participants to the health messages, recorded their motivation (or lack thereof) to change their behavior, and later inquired as to whether the participants had actually made any changes in their behavior.
In order to gauge how mindful each person was in their day-to-day lives, the researchers asked each participant to complete the Mindful Attention Awareness Scale (MAAS). The MAAS is composed of 15 scenarios—including “I forget a person’s name almost as soon as I’ve been told it for the first time” and “I tend to walk quickly to get where I’m going without paying attention to what I experience along the way”—that are answered on a scale of 1-6, ranging from “almost always” to “almost never.” The higher a person’s total score, the more mindful that person is considered to be.
Motivation or shame
The study showed that less mindful people were also less likely to make a positive change in their behavior as a response to health messaging.
“Some people, when confronted with health messages, felt really bad about themselves,” says Falk, “and that didn’t help them change their behavior. And in the long run, it doesn’t help us have a healthier, happier population.”
People who are more mindful, however, reacted less negatively to health messages and were less likely to feel ashamed by them. These people, in turn, were also more likely to change their behavior to be healthier.
The researchers’ findings add to the growing literature on the health benefits of mindfulness, and they believe this has important implications.
“Individuals may benefit from cultivating mindful attention when processing potentially threatening yet beneficial health information,” says Kang. “It’s possible that incorporating mindfulness cultivation into existing intervention strategies can promote more widespread positive health behavior.”
Additional researchers from the Annenberg School and the University of Michigan contributed. The National Institutes of Health provided funding.
Source: University of Pennsylvania and Futurity.