What are the Limits of Mindfulness and Positive Reframing?

don’t eat the blue meth cupcake without thinking it through

Each of us is plagued by psychological conflicts of interest. One person is obsessed with collecting Godzilla memorabilia. Another person is obsessed with transforming tofu into shapes and flavors that resemble bacon. Right now, in psychological therapies and research, there is a bias toward cognitive-behavioral and mindfulness therapies. There is evidence to support allied health professionals’ preference for these interventions. A difficult question, however, has been forgotten in the excitement. For whom are the strategies central to these interventions beneficial? My colleagues explored this question in a study just published titled:

Emotion regulation strategies in daily life: Mindfulness, cognitive reappraisal, and emotion suppression

The study examined how emotion regulation strategies influence people’s emotional health over the course of 3 weeks. The first strategy, mindfulness, is “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally”(Kabat-Zinn, 1994, p. 4). It is believed that being mindful of moment-to-moment experiences will gradually lead to more accurate perceptions of the self and world, allowing for a greater sense of control to take effective action toward desired goals. The second strategy, positive reframing, is central to cognitive therapy. A person uses this strategy to view thoughts, emotions, memories, and bodily sensations to derive a more positive or healthy explanation of a past event. Sift through books and scientific articles and you will be hard-pressed to find anything negative written about mindfulness. Positive framing has taken a few hits recently but in general, professionals still lust over learned optimism. But are there truly any unmitigated positive or negative human qualities? We explored this question and a few others.

Is mindfulness linked to less negative and more positive emotions? yes, and no. For the average person, the answer is yes. Greater mindfulness today predicts less negative emotions tomorrow. But we also found support for the reverse direction such that greater negative emotions today predicts less mindfulness tomorrow. Today’s mindfulness did not predict tomorrow’s positive emotions whereas positive emotions felt today predicted greater mindfulness tomorrow. In general, what we found is that mindfulness is linked to greater emotional health, but the story is less than straightforward.

Of primary interest was whether the mindfulness-emotion link is similar across different people. Check out the Figure below to see a line that represents each of the 187 people in the study. Notice that only a few people who experienced greater mindfulness also experienced more negative emotions (the red lines in the top panel) and less positive emotions (the blue lines in the bottom panel). Generally, across different folks, mindfulness is pretty damn good or inert.

A different story emerged for positive reframing as the variability from one person to the next was striking. Check out the figure below. Notice the sheer number of people for whom greater use of positive reframing (or reappraisal) was linked to more negative emotions (the red lines in the top panel) and less positive emotions (the blue lines in the bottom panel). What becomes readily apparent from this study is that positive reframing is not helpful to everyone.

For whom is positive reframing unhelpful? One answer is younger adults. A significant effect that is visible in the graph below.

This is one study. No replication is available. But these findings are tantalizing. Instead of thinking of mindfulness and positive reframing as healthy and other coping strategies as unhealthy, we should explore for whom and under which conditions do benefits emerge. Using such a contextual lens, we can understand the emergence of suffering and profound joy and meaning in the real-world.

What are the best contributors to a particular person’s well-being on a given day? You might be surprised to know that at this level of detail, scientists are just getting started.

To download the study, contact the authors: http://stfi.re/xrpabev

Dr. Todd B. Kashdan is a public speaker, psychologist, professor of psychology and senior scientist at the Center for the Advancement of Well-Being at George Mason University. For more: toddkashdan.com