The article below by Polina Beloborodova was recognized with an honorable mention by the Mind & Life Institute for its 2022 Award for Public Communication of Contemplative Research.
Early last summer, I was in a Zoom room with a dozen people, who had enrolled in my workshop, “Here, now, and together: How mindfulness helps us to build bridges instead of walls.” The event was organized by Without Prejudice, a project led by immigrant Russian psychologists helping Russian-speaking people in distress after the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
I felt anxious. I had not given a presentation in Russian for months. But I was also hopeful. Keeping social ties is especially important in times of destruction and tearing down of connections. I knew from research that I studied in my Social Psychology PhD program at Virginia Commonwealth University, as well as my own experience, that present moment awareness can help us be more compassionate and preserve and nurture our relationships. I hoped that after the workshop the people in the little rectangles on my screen would feel less lonely and more connected to others, just like the research on presence of mind and social connection predicts.
Why Connection is so Important
We all got a taste of social isolation when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and we had to stay at home, cut off from our friends and family, unable to go to social events and visit public places. I knew from research that social connection is one of our fundamental psychological needs long before the pandemic 1, 2. However, staying alone for half a year taught me through my own experience just how painful loneliness can be. Studies confirm my observations. When chronic, loneliness and social isolation are associated with compromised cognition and motivation, depression and weakened immune functioning 3 and can be as bad for our physical health as obesity and smoking 4.
“When chronic, loneliness and social isolation are associated with compromised
cognition and motivation, depression and weakened immune functioning and
can be as bad for our physical health as obesity and smoking.”
In a study that we completed together with Dr. Janine Dutcher and colleagues at Carnegie Mellon University and University of Washington in 2017-18, we sent short surveys to a large group of students four times a day for three weeks across a semester 5. In those surveys, they told us about how they felt at the moment: how lonely, connected to others, depressed, and happy they were. When we put the data on a graph, we saw that loneliness and depression go hand in hand, they almost follow the same line on a graph. By contrast, when students felt more connected, they also felt happier.
What Difference Does Mindfulness Make?
Next time you are at a social event, talking to people, try a little trick. I often do this at research conferences. Instead of thinking about what to say next or what others think about you, pay full attention to the people around you. Listen carefully. Try to feel the state they are in. Imagine opening your heart to them. Notice your own emotions and bodily sensations. See how your conversation feels deeper, and you feel more connected to those around you. This is mindful communication.
Defined by my advisor Kirk Warren Brown and his colleague Richard Ryan as sustained, receptive attention to and awareness of moment-to-moment experience, mindfulness helps us understand what others say and how they say it, while taking note of their non-verbal behavior 6, 7. It facilitates interest in other people’s thoughts, emotions, and welfare 8. Being present also allows us to attune to others’ emotions and motivations 9 and be more responsive to their needs 10. Basically, we become less preoccupied with ourselves and more attuned to others.
“…mindfulness helps us understand what others say and how they say it…
we become less preoccupied with ourselves and more attuned to others.”
In the same study at Carnegie Mellon University, in each survey we asked students a few questions to find out to what extent they paid attention to the present moment or were absent-minded. We plugged this data into a statistical model, together with the data on loneliness and connection to others, and found out that students who were more ‘here and now’ felt less lonely and more connected. We can see this in the graph as well.
This result, however, does not show causal relationships between presence of mind and social well-being. Paying attention to the present moment might lead us to feel less lonely and more connected. Feeling more connected and less lonely may, in turn, free our internal resources to be more present. To find out what causes what, we are starting another study, funded by a Mind & Life Francisco J. Varela Research Grant. In this study, we will randomly split students into two groups: a group that receives mindfulness-based training and a control group that receives standard stress coping training. While students go through their training, we will gather data on their social well-being, as in our previous study. If students in the mindfulness group feel less lonely and more connected than those in the control group, we can conclude that their enhanced present moment awareness leads to improved social well-being. The results of previous studies that also examined the effects of mindfulness training on social well-being are quite promising, so we are optimistic about our hypotheses.
From Research to Practice
To me, academic psychological research should always lead to practical applications, such as the workshop that I started with. At the end of the lecture on the role of mindfulness in maintaining social collection and community, we meditated together. I read a loving-kindness or metta bhavana meditation script. This ancient practice cultivates compassion, friendliness, and understanding that are so badly needed in those trying times. After participants assume a comfortable posture and make a few deep breaths, they are guided through a series of phrases where they wish themselves and others happiness:
May you be happy
Free from suffering
Protected from danger and illness
May you be peaceful and calm
May your hearts fill with love
And your mind find peace
I modified the practice a bit for the current circumstances. After wishing happiness to friends and close ones, I asked the participants to think about people in Ukraine and wish them happiness and peace. Finally, we extended our kind wishes to the whole planet with all living beings. After the meditation, the participants who had their screens on were visibly more relaxed. I concluded the meeting with warmth in my heart.
Polina Beloborodova is a PhD Candidate in Social Psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University, researching how mindfulness practices help us to have more meaningful connections in our lives. Polina stands against the war in Ukraine and supports Ukrainian people fighting for their freedom against the dictatorial Russian regime.
- Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1995). The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117(3), 497–529. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.117.3.497
- Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2017). Self-determination theory: Basic psychological needs in motivation, development, and wellness. Guilford. https://doi.org/10.1521/978.14625/28806
- Cacioppo, J. T., & Patrick, W. (2008). Loneliness: Human nature and the need for social connection. WW Norton & Co.
- Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T. B., & Layton, J. B. (2010). Social relationships and mortality risk: a meta-analytic review. PLoS medicine, 7(7), e1000316. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1000316
- Beloborodova, P., Dutcher, J. M., Villalba, D. K., Tumminia, M. J. Doryab, A., Creswell, K., Cohen, S., Riskin, E., Sefdigar, Y., Seo, W., Mankoff, J., Dey, A., Creswell, J. D., & Brown, K. W. (2022). Momentary states of mind are related to social well-being: The case of mind wandering and presence. [Unpublished manuscript]. Psychology Department, Virginia Commonwealth University.
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- Barnes, S., Brown, K. W., Krusemark, E., Campbell, W. K., & Rogge, R. D. (2007). The role of mindfulness in romantic relationship satisfaction and responses to relationship stress. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 33(4), 482–500. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1752-0606.2007.00033.x
- Adair, K. C., Fredrickson, B. L., Castro-Schilo, L., Kim, S., & Sidberry, S. (2018). Present with you: Does cultivated mindfulness predict greater social connection through gains in decentering and reductions in negative emotions? Mindfulness, 9(3), 737–749. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12671-017-0811-1
- Donald, J. N., Sahdra, B. K., Van Zanden, B., Duineveld, J. J., Atkins, P. W., Marshall, S. L., & Ciarrochi, J. (2019). Does your mindfulness benefit others? A systematic review and meta-analysis of the link between mindfulness and prosocial behaviour. British Journal of Psychology, 110(1), 101-125. https://doi.org/10.1111/bjop.12338