It can be easy to rush through life without stopping to notice much. Paying more attention to the present moment – to your own thoughts and feelings, and to the world around you – can improve your mental wellbeing.
Some people call this awareness ‘mindfulness’, and you can take steps to develop it in your own life.
Good mental wellbeing means feeling good about life and yourself, and being able to get on with life in the way you want.
You may think about wellbeing in terms of what you have: your income, home or car, or your job. But evidence shows that what we do and the way we think have the biggest impact on wellbeing.
Becoming more aware of the present moment means noticing the sights, smells, sounds and tastes that you experience, as well as the thoughts and feelings that occur from one moment to the next.
Mindfulness, sometimes also called “present-centredness”, can help us enjoy the world more and understand ourselves better.
Being aware is one of the five evidence-based steps we can all take to improve our mental wellbeing. Learn more about the five steps for mental wellbeing.
What is mindfulness?
Mark Williams, professor of clinical psychology at the Oxford Mindfulness Centre, says that mindfulness means knowing directly what is going on inside and outside ourselves, moment by moment.
Professor Williams says that mindfulness can be an antidote to the “tunnel vision” that can develop in our daily lives, especially when we are busy, stressed or tired.
“It’s easy to stop noticing the world around us. It’s also easy to lose touch with the way our bodies are feeling and to end up living ‘in our heads’ – caught up in our thoughts without stopping to notice how those thoughts are driving our emotions and behaviour,” he says.
“An important part of mindfulness is reconnecting with our bodies and the sensations they experience. This means waking up to the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of the present moment. That might be something as simple as the feel of a banister as we walk upstairs.
“Another important part of mindfulness is an awareness of our thoughts and feelings as they happen moment to moment.
“Awareness of this kind doesn’t start by trying to change or fix anything. It’s about allowing ourselves to see the present moment clearly. When we do that, it can positively change the way we see ourselves and our lives.”
How mindfulness can help
Becoming more aware of the present moment can help us enjoy the world around us more and understand ourselves better.
“When we become more aware of the present moment, we begin to experience afresh many things in the world around us that we have been taking for granted,” says Professor Williams.
“Mindfulness also allows us to become more aware of the stream of thoughts and feelings that we experience and to see how we can become entangled in that stream in ways that are not helpful.
“This lets us stand back from our thoughts and start to see their patterns. Gradually, we can train ourselves to notice when our thoughts are taking over and realise that thoughts are simply ‘mental events’ that do not have to control us.
“Most of us have issues that we find hard to let go and mindfulness can help us deal with them more productively. We can ask: ‘Is trying to solve this by brooding about it helpful, or am I just getting caught up in my thoughts?’
“Awareness of this kind also helps us notice signs of stress or anxiety earlier and helps us deal with them better.”
Studies have found that mindfulness programmes, where participants are taught mindfulness practices across a series of weeks, can bring about reductions in stress and improvements in mood.
How you can be mindful
Reminding yourself to take notice of your thoughts, feelings, body sensations and the world around you is the first step to mindfulness.
“Even as we go about our daily lives, we can find new ways of waking up to the world around us,” says Professor Williams. “We can notice the sensations of things, the food we eat, the air moving past the body as we walk. All this may sound very small, but it has huge power to interrupt the ‘autopilot’ mode we often engage day to day, and to give us new perspectives on life.”
It can be helpful to pick a time – the morning journey to work or a walk at lunchtime – during which you decide to be aware of the sensations created by the world around you. Trying new things, such as sitting in a different seat in meetings or going somewhere new for lunch, can also help you notice the world in a new way.
“Similarly, notice the busyness of your mind. Just observe your own thoughts,” says Williams. “Stand back and watch them floating past, like leaves on a stream. There is no need to try to change the thoughts, or argue with them, or judge them: just observe. This takes practice. It’s about putting the mind in a different mode, in which we see each thought as simply another mental event and not an objective reality that has control over us.”
You can practise this anywhere, but it can be especially helpful to take a mindful approach if you realise that, for several minutes, you have been “trapped” in reliving past problems or “pre-living” future worries. To develop an awareness of thoughts and feelings, some people find it helpful to silently name them: “Here is the thought that I might fail that exam”. Or, “Here is anxiety”.
Formal mindfulness practices
As well as practising mindfulness in daily life, it can be helpful to set aside time for a more formal mindfulness practice.
Several practices can help create a new awareness of body sensations, thoughts and feelings. They include:
meditation – participants sit silently and pay attention to the sensations of breathing or other regions of the body, bringing the attention back whenever the mind wanders
yoga – participants often move through a series of postures that stretch and flex the body, with emphasis on awareness of the breath
tai-chi – participants perform a series of slow movements, with emphasis on awareness of breathing
More steps for wellbeing
There are other steps we can all take to improve our mental wellbeing. Learn more about the five steps for mental wellbeing.
You can also learn more about the other four steps for wellbeing:
Connect for wellbeing
Get active for mental wellbeing
Give for mental wellbeing
Learn for mental wellbeing