Imagine sucking in the smoke of a burning stick. Breathe in and hold your breath, imagining the smoke in your nostrils. Hold that breath … Hold the smell in your mind …
That probably wasn't a pleasant imaginary experience, but it's not too far off what roughly one in 10 adults in this country do every day, except with a cigarette. And usually without the level of focus on the sensory experience of smoking. If you are a smoker, next time you light up, try doing the exercise above as you take a puff. Really concentrate on the in-the-moment sensations, and bring your thoughts back to those sensations if your mind starts to wander.
Yes, this sounds a lot like mindfulness. Mindfulness, as it's currently used, owes a lot to Buddhist meditation, but lots of cultural and spiritual traditions include things that look very similar. Although these traditions have been around for millennia, mindfulness as a contemporary psychological practice dates back to the 1950s; it started to hit its stride in the early 1980s and became a full-blown fad at the turn of the century.
Jud Brewer, a psychiatrist who also happens to be director at the Mindfulness Centre at Brown University in the US, writes that mindfully smoking is, ironically, one of the things he gets clients to do as part of their efforts to quit the habit. Carrot sticks and chewing gum are, he says, surface-level distractions that occupy your mouth, but they don't target the underlying issue.
Smoking mindfully, however, means focusing on the unpleasant aspects of the experience – bad breath, smelly clothes – not just the nicotine hit.
Indeed, studies suggest that mindfulness-based interventions are more effective for smoking cessation than doing nothing. After all, who wants to concentrate on something that's a bit unpleasant? But if you stop to think about it, "better than nothing" isn't a particularly high bar. Things are a little blurrier if we compare mindfulness and treatment-as-usual (TAU), however.
There are a variety of TAU counselling services for smokers, such as Quitline here and Freedom From Smoking in the US, and recent research reviews suggest both are better than nothing; they're about equally good for short-term quitting, but mindfulness seems to have a longer-lasting effect – say, after four months.
Mindfulness practices have steadily graduated out of well-being blogs and into workplaces as a way to optimise performance.
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But there can be a downside. Mindfulness doesn't work for everybody – men seem more immune to its benefits – and it doesn't work for everything. For example, it may not help general well-being for people going through chemotherapy because, unlike smoking, there's nothing you can do to get rid of the unpleasantness.
A new study by US researcher Dr Christopher Lyddy and colleagues has shown an interesting context in which mindfulness can backfire – jobs where you have to grit your teeth and smile your way through the day.
Lyddy doesn't quite describe it this way. He calls it "surface acting", when "employees hide their true feelings or pretend to have emotions they do not really have".
On the one hand, research shows that working mindfully results in less surface acting at work. But Lyddy also found that, unfortunately, working mindfully when you're gritting your teeth means a consistent reminder that you're acting, and this is exhausting. Or, in psychological language, it depletes your self-control.
Briefly, self-control isn't a trait that you have or you don't. It's more of a reserve that you start the day with and that runs out and needs to be topped up. You know, the kind of day where you spend most of it trying not to think of the cake in the cafeteria, and then, on the way home, end up buying a $200 pair of shoes you couldn't resist. Or a whole cake.