Interest in mindfulness has grown rapidly in recent years. For the period 1986–1996, the number of hits for “mindfulness” in Google Scholar was 3,960. From 1996 to 2006, that number nearly quintupled to 18,900, and from 2005 to 2015, it increased more than twenty-fold to 86,700. In 2010 a peer-reviewed academic journal Mindfulness emerged, devoted exclusively to the advancement of mindfulness theory, research, and clinical practice. Between 2014–2016 numerous handbooks on various aspects of mindfulness were published, and in October 2015 American Psychologist published a special issue on the topic. This increase in scholarly attention has been mirrored by a growing interest in mindfulness in society at large. Since the 1980s, the Western world has seen meditation and yoga rise from almost obscurity to a regular part of everyday life for many people, with the number of Americans who engage in such practices in 2012 estimated to be 9.5 percent. Mindfulness training has spread to the business world and is being offered by an increasingly wide array of Fortune 500 companies including Apple, Google, and General Motors, to name a few. In 2014 Time Magazine featured as its cover story the “Mindful Revolution.” Mindfulness has hit the mainstream. The purpose of this article, “Mindfulness at Work,” is to review the key issues and findings in mindfulness research to date, with an emphasis on how it relates to management, organizational behavior, and industrial-organizational psychology. To place the discussion in context, we begin by reviewing definitions of mindfulness, as well as canvassing the historical context from which it has emerged. We then summarize some of the key findings of mindfulness research to date, organized by topic category. In the second half of the chapter, we review the rapidly expanding literature on mindfulness in the workplace, offer theoretical reasons in support of the findings, and highlight potential avenues of further research. We close with what we see as important research issues facing mindfulness scholars. Support for this article was received from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada grant to the second author.
“Mindfulness” has become an ambiguous and widely misunderstood concept. Translated from the original Palì word “sati,” it can be taken to mean attention, awareness, retention, and/or discernment. It has also been used in reference to a theoretical construct, a mode of awareness, a range of meditation practices, and various psychological processes. Mindfulness has ancient roots in Eastern religion and philosophy, dating back at least 2,500 years to the times of the historical Buddha. A prime goal of Buddhism is to eliminate suffering, which is deemed to be universal and to stem from an impure, undisciplined, reactive mind. Buddhism prescribes mental training via meditation as a way to address this condition (Gethin 2015). While many types of meditation exist, each with its own particularities, as discussed in Dahl, et al. 2015, from a Buddhist perspective mindfulness is a cultivated state of conscious awareness in which practitioners intentionally maintain their attention on the ongoing flow of physical, emotional, and mental experience, without automatically reacting to the sensations and impulses these can elicit, as explained in Grabovac, et al. 2011. Mindfulness has been imported from its religious and philosophical roots in the East to the secular and scientific perspectives of the West. Langer 1989 defines mindfulness as a cognitive style that facilitates creativity through the formation of new conceptual categories and meanings, openness to new information, and an orientation toward process rather than outcome. Brown and Ryan 2003 also refers to mindfulness in primarily cognitive terms, defining it as a receptive attention to and awareness of present events and experiences. While these definitions share commonalities with the historical conception, they also have distinct differences (Olendzki 2014). Langer’s conception, for instance, involves an elaborative process that focuses on external objects of attention, whereas the historical conception centers around a nondiscursive process and emphasizes attention to internal stimuli. Other researchers define mindfulness in ways that move beyond cognition to include other elements such as intention and attitude. For example, Kabatt-Zinn 1994 defines mindfulness as the awareness that arises through “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally” (p. 4). Bishop, et al. 2004 proffers a two-component model that involves (a) the self-regulation of attention on present-moment experience with (b) a curious, open, and accepting attitude. Broadly speaking, the first element entails full attention toward experience in the here and now, undistracted by thoughts of the past or future. The second element involves an open curiosity to experience as it unfolds, accepting it for what it is. This accepting attitude is not to be conflated with passive resignation; rather, it involves an ability to experience events as impersonal fleeting phenomena devoid of any inherent “goodness” or “badness.”
Bishop, Scott R., Mark Lau, Shauna Shapiro, et al. “Mindfulness: A Proposed Operational Definition.” Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice (2004): 230–241.
Proposes a Western conceptualization of mindfulness that includes two facets: (a) cognition; and (b) attitude.
Brown, Kirk W., and Richard M. Ryan. “The Benefits of Being Present: Mindfulness and Its Role in Psychological Well Being.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2003): 822–848.
Operationalizes mindfulness from a purely cognitive perspective and provides evidence for its role in psychological well-being.
Dahl, Cortland J., Antoine Lutz, and Richard J. Davidson. “Reconstructing and Deconstructing the Self: Cognitive Mechanisms in Meditation Practice.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences (2015): 515–523.
Provides a detailed description and typology of different types of meditation practice.
Gethin, R. “Buddhist Conceptualizations of Mindfulness.” In Handbook of Mindfulness: Theory, Research, and Practice. Edited by K. W. Brown, J. D. Creswell, and R. M. Ryan, 9–39. New York: Guilford, 2015.
Provides an in depth historical account of Buddhist conceptualizations of mindfulness, and how these relate to conceptualizations found in the West.
Grabovac, Andrea D., Mark A. Lau, and Brandilyn R. Willett. “Mechanisms of Mindfulness: A Buddhist Psychological Model.” Mindfulness (2011): 154–166.
Offers a detailed description from a Buddhist perspective of psychological processes involved in mindfulness practice.
Kabatt-Zinn, Jon. Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life. New York: Hyperion, 1994.
Seminal book on the role of mindfulness meditation in day-to-day life. Although not a scientific work, it offers one of the most widely cited definitions of mindfulness. It is widely regarded as having launched mindfulness meditation into mainstream public consciousness.
Langer, Ellen. Mindfulness. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo, 1989.
First book by a leading Western psychologist on the topic of mindfulness. Translates Langer’s research for the lay reader. Langer discusses the negative impact of “mindlessness” on business and social relations, and advocates a greater role for mindfulness in healthcare and other contexts.
Olendzki, A. “From Early Buddhist Traditions to Western Psychological Science.” In The Wiley Blackwell Handbook of Mindfulness. Edited by Ie, A., Ngnoumen, C. T., and Langer, E. J., 58–73. West Sussex, UK: John Wiley, 2014.
Provides a detailed yet concise account of some of the key differences between mindfulness as understood in Buddhist traditions versus mindfulness as understood by Western psychological science.
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