Mindfulness strengthens those neural pathways in our prefrontal cortex, making it stronger, more efficient and easier to use. Mindfulness doesn’t just decrease stress and increase pleasure for you, it leads to profound benefits to the people around you. In one study out at the UCLA, parents practiced mindfulness for one year and noticed significant improvements in their parenting skills and their interactions with their kids, even though no new parenting practices had been taught to them. Over the course of the year-long study, the behavior of their kids changed as well. They got along better with their siblings. They were less aggressive. Their social skills improved. All their parents did was practice mindfulness.
Our research shows that when we can teach children the skills of mindfulness, they demonstrate significant improvements in their ability to pay attention, their ability to regulate their emotions and their development of empathy. This creates a brain that’s more resilient to stress, more efficient as a worker and a learner, and most importantly, a happier brain.
Today, or tonight, I would like to share three simple practices that can bring profound improvements in your day-to-day life. The first is mindful breathing.
Mindful breathing is simply bringing your awareness to your breath. It looks something like this. Seems simple enough. It also could be the single most effective way to calm the stress response in the brain teaching us how to calm down. You can sit on a cushion, in a chair, or even lie on the floor and dedicate 5, 10 or ideally 20 minutes a day to bringing your awareness to your breath. If your mind wanders off, which it will, simply notice and return to the breath. That is all. If you feel like your day is too busy to practice mindful breathing, try this: each time you’re at a traffic light, put your hand on your belly and count how many breaths you take while you’re there. Every time your phone rings, take a long, slow, deep breath before you answer it. And when your child is struggling, offer them a three-breath hug. Simply embrace and take three deep breaths together. It feels as good for you as it does for them.
Mindful listening. The practice of mindful listening teaches us how to pay attention. When we practice mindful listening, we stimulate the reticular activating system in our brain, the RAS. The RAS is responsible for filtering through all incoming stimuli and determining which stimulus is the most important to focus on at that time. At work we have to filter through thoughts about what we forgot to do this morning and what we need to do later in order to focus on what we need to get done right now. In a classroom, kids have to filter through a ton of information: noise from other classrooms, distracting classmates, humming lights and the buzz of the air conditioner. When our RAS is working efficiently, we are able to focus on the tasks, the situations and the people that are the most important.
Now, you can practice mindful listening with a chime or tone bar. At work you can simply set a timer for one or two minutes and listen for the farthest sound you can hear. When you are on a walk with your children, take one minute. Be totally silent and just listen. Ask them what they heard. It’s fascinating. These simple practices bring our awareness to the present moment. They also teach us how to pay attention.
Finally, gratitude. Our brains are 3 to 5 times more sensitive to negative information than positive. This helped us as we evolved because it was more important to be aware the poisonous snakes than to stop and smell beautiful flowers. Today we don’t often have those same threats to our survival, yet our brain is still more sensitive to negative experiences. When we can intentionally pay attention to the positive things in our life, we strengthen the neural pathways associated with those positive memories. The more frequently we use those pathways, the more our brain likes to use those pathways, increasing positive thoughts and lessening our focus on negative experiences.
Gratitude is an excellent practice for anyone who wants to experience more positive emotions. People who formally practice gratitude are 25% happier. They are more kind and helpful to others. They are healthier, more interested, motivated and determined. And grateful children and teens tend to thrive. Kids who practice gratitude get higher grades, they are more satisfied with their lives. They are more integrated socially and show fewer signs of depression. There are many ways to do this, but here are few of the most simple.
This holiday season, give everyone in your family a gratitude journal. Each night before you go to bed write down 3 to 5 things you are grateful for. And when you see your kids for the first time after school each day, instead of asking “How was your day?”, ask, “Who was a good friend to you today?” It’s so easy for all of us to get caught up in people that bother us and bring us down. Intentionally focus on the people and the things that make you feel good.