Mindfulness is a term that gets tossed around a lot these days. So much, in fact, that you might not pay it much, well, mind.

Turns out, though, being more mindful can significantly impact your life, improving everything from your career and relationships to your health. “Mindfulness is the key to happiness,” says Judson Brewer, MD, PhD, associate professor of medicine and psychiatry at University of Massachusetts Medical School (UMMS) and director of research at the UMMS Center for Mindfulness in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts.

Sound too good to be true? Not when you understand the science behind mindfulness. Here’s the best part about mindfulness, though: Although Buddhist monks have been practicing it for centuries, it doesn’t take a retreat to a monastery to learn how to do it. Practice helps, of course, but being more mindful is something you can start doing right now.

What does it mean to be mindful?

Mindfulness might be a mouthful to pronounce, but by definition, it’s a basic concept. “It’s about being present in the moment in a nonjudgmental way,” says Susan Albers, PsyD, clinical psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio and author of Eating Mindfully (New Harbinger, 2012). You’re basically taking yourself off autopilot—do you even remember going to work or what you ate for lunch?—and getting in tune with your feelings and thoughts, which will help you make better decisions. You’re not getting pushed or pulled in one direction or another, instead just resting in awareness and being with whatever is, Brewer adds.

Easy, right? In theory, yes, but, unless you’re a child, it can be challenging at first. Kids are born with a natural curiosity about the world, which breeds mindfulness. “When you’re curious, you have a single-minded focus on whatever you’re curious about,” Brewer says.

Unfortunately, though, you lose that curiosity as you age. “Your adult mind thinks it knows how everything works, so instead of being curious, your mind sits around and looks for something to do,” Brewer says. As a result, you might start regretting things you’ve done in the past or worrying about things you need to do in the future, all of which equates with mind-wandering. Because your brain is designed to learn, the more it’s rewarded for mind-wandering (such as when you dream of being on vacation) the more it starts to do it.

How much your mind wanders may surprise you. Most people spend almost 50 percent of their waking hours mind- wandering, or thinking about something other than what they’re supposed to be focused on, according to a Harvard University study of more than 2,000 people ages 18 to 88. The unexpected consequence? Mind-wandering made most people unhappy, which is why researchers concluded that a wandering mind is an unhappy one.

When you become more mindful, however, changes take place in your brain, as Brewer has proven in imaging studies on the brains of people who meditate and those who don’t. “Being in the moment deactivates a part of the brain called the default mode network (DMN), a region that’s involved with daydreaming,” he says. When the DMN gets switched off, the brain is better able to focus.

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