Mindfulness and meditation are two of the most prolific terms in Positive Psychology and often the most misunderstood. I have not written a blog specifically on this topic since my very first one in 2017, so I thought it was time to revisit the mindfulness movement. I hope to clarify what we mean by mindfulness and meditation, the broad different types of these approaches, their varying benefits and what to think about if you are planning to engage with these practices.
Mindfulness Vs Meditation
First of all, mindfulness and meditation are not the same thing. Helpfully, there is also a lack of agreement on the precise definitions. These are mine, based on the literature consensus and my own experience. I have been personally engaged in these approaches for seven years. This makes me a novice by many standards. I’m always happy to be challenged and educated by those with greater expertise.
Mindfulness is intentionally noticing what is going on right here, right now from an observational and non-judgemental perspective. This can refer to paying attention to our external world, but more commonly means our internal world of thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations. This means being aware, as an observer, of what is occurring in our mind, body or environment without getting caught up with or carried away by what we perceive. It does not mean having an empty mind but awareness of what is happening there. A quietened mind can be a side effect of practising mindfulness, as you develop the ability to step back from your thoughts and feelings and let them come and go as they please. However, it is not synonymous with it and if your mind is busy it doesn’t mean you are “doing it wrong”, just that your mind has a lot to tell you right now. Research shows that being mindfully present is associated with greater wellbeing and happiness, and conditions such as anxiety and depression tend to be related to future or past based unhelpful ruminations (the opposite of mindfulness).
It is possible to be mindful without ever having done any formal meditation. Mindfulness is a clarity of present moment attention and the intention to relate to your experiences with curiosity, openness, non-judgement and acceptance. However, it can be seen that the processes involved in being mindful include a range of skills from concentration, attentional focus, ability to identify and differentiate thoughts, feelings and sensations, tolerance or acceptance of these internal experiences, the ability to decenter and perspective take, response flexibility, empathy, insight and probably many more that I’ve not covered. It’s not a one-step process and we don’t fully understand the complexities involved
Meditation is any deliberate, formal exercise that is aimed at cultivating an aspect of mindfulness. The typical picture of this is like the one above of quiet, seated practice, but there are many ways to meditate and different elements of the mindfulness process that could be targeted by any meditation. Focus on the breath is the most well-known type of meditation but there are various approaches from yoga, mindful eating, walking meditations, loving-kindness meditation, insight meditation, Qigong and many more.
Meditation is a tool and what type of tool you use depends on what you want to do with it. In cultivating mindfulness through meditation you need to consider choices about how you focus your attention and intention.
Types of meditation
Thus, different types of meditation target the development of varying aspects of the mindfulness process and aim to cultivate different outcomes. Researchers have categorised this in different ways. Some key distinctions in orientation, which have been studied as part of the longitudinal ReSource project (Singer et al. 2016) are :
● Presence or self-awareness meditations that focus on training attention and internal bodily awareness.
● Perspective based meditation that develops meta-cognitive skills such as awareness of your thinking and the perspective of self /other.
● Affect based approaches which foster positive social emotions such as gratitude and love and promote connectedness and pro-social behaviour.
There are other ways of categorising this and different “types” of meditation can overlap in their effects. Also, one practice can combine several of these different types of processes and meditation courses normally include several varieties of practice. How confusing!
Why does it matter?
The type of meditation you engage in determines the sort of outcomes you can expect. Studies comparing the impact of styles of meditation show that attention is enhanced by all the types of meditation listed above but increased compassion was only found in those who worked on affect style meditation. While people who had practised all types of meditation reported feeling less stressed during a challenge, only those who had learnt affect or perspective based meditation actually showed a corresponding reduction in cortisol production. Cortisol levels are considered to be physiological markers of stress. Likewise, merely engaging in attention focused meditation does not influence levels of social connection. In addition, studies using MRI scans suggest different parts of the brain are changed in predictable ways by the varying types of meditation.
Not surprisingly, I suppose, research backs up that, while some skills such as positivity and concentration are generic, beyond that, you have to target the skills you actually want to develop (Favre et al. 2021, Kok & Singer 2017). Further, some skills, such as body awareness, take much longer to develop than others and require more practice. Whether this practice is formal meditation or the development of “in the moment” skills may also influence outcomes. This leads to some confusing disparities in the research around the impact of the amount of practice. There is a lot we don’t know, but ongoing research is working to tease out the different elements so we can understand, what type of meditations, target which specific aspects of the mindfulness process, associated with what brain changes, leading to which particular effects on well-being, and who these are most useful for under what conditions.
So what can we say for now?
Cultivating mindfulness as part of daily life and through meditation practises can have positive impacts on well-being through mechanisms that may include improved cognitive, emotional, behavioural and physiological regulation and flexibility. The process is complex and if you are thinking of adopting such a practice you need to understand what you are trying to get out of it. This will help you inform the part of the mindfulness process you might be best to target and therefore what sort of meditation you need to try. One size does not fit all.
So if you are a person who wishes to relate better to other people, a perspective oriented meditation might suit you.
If you want to improve your attention and concentration a classic presence meditation could work well, although most approaches improve this.
If you want to relax and improve your connection with your body, a body scan “presence” meditation may work best.
If you aim to reduce loneliness and experience more connection, an affect-based loving-kindness meditation might be most effective.
If you hope to combat anxious ruminating thoughts or address thinking biases, a combination of presence and perspective based meditation could work for you.
If you are looking to increase insight and personal or spiritual transcendence, perspective, affect-based meditation (including those related to a range of religious contemplation approaches), could be for you.
Remember that many guided meditations will target the development of a variety of mindfulness skills and this might be your best option if you’re not sure what you’re looking for.
Mindfulness is not a unitary process and you don’t have to do formal meditation to work on it. Meditation comes in lots of different varieties which cultivate varying aspects of the mindfulness process with different effects. Understand what you’re trying to achieve by meditating and matching your choice of meditation to your goals. If it doesn’t seem to be having the desired effect you may need to practice for longer to become proficient, work on integrating the skills into your moment to moment experiences or try a different type of meditation.
Favre, P., Kanske, P., Engen, H. & Singer, T. (2021). Decreased emotional reactivity after 3 month socio-affective but not attention- or meta-cognitive-based mental training: A randomised controlled longitudinal fMRI study. Neuroimage, doi 10.1016/j.neuroimage2021.118132
Kok, B.E & Singer, T. (2017). Phenomenological fingerprints of four meditations: Differential state changes in affect, mind-wandering, meta-cognition and interoception before and after nine months of training. Mindfulness, 8, 218-231.
Singer, T., Kok, B.E., Bornemann, B., Zuborg, S., Bolz, M., Bochow, C.A. (2016). The ReSource project: Background, design, samples, and measurements (2nd ed.). Leipzig, Germany: Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences.
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