Mindfulness-based Interventions (MBIs) have nearly 35 years of research and development behind them. They have moved progressively through three large institutional cultures: health care, mental health, and education.
Modern Mindfulness: a brief history
The development of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in the late 1970s was the pivotal first stage in the spread of secular mindfulness.
The mental relationship to the experience of pain can increase and feed the tension. With MBSR, the pain can be met in a way that creates more ease, and either the pain decreases or the overall sense of well-being increases.
MBSR began as a stress reduction program for chronic pain patients in a single hospital in Massachusetts in 1979. Every major hospital has MBSR interventions now.
In 1983 there were only 3 peer-reviewed scientific studies of mindfulness. By 2013, there were more than 1300
We now have solid scientific evidence that MBIs improve memory, immune response, self-control, attention, recovery from addiction, and emotional resilience.
The development of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) by Mark Williams, John Teasdale, and Zindel Seagal in the early 1990s set the stage for the widespread integration of mindfulness into the mental health field.
MBCT was developed to help treat clinical depression, specifically relapse, and is being integrated at a national level into the health care policy of the UK and other European Countries.
Mindfulness showed up in Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) as well.
The widespread adoption of MBCT and other MBIs into mental health contexts set the stage for mindfulness to move into prisons and other institutional settings.
In 2009 Kaiser conducted an 8 week study using adapted MBSR with adolescents who had at least 2 DSM diagnoses each—anorexia, bulimia, depression, anxiety, cutting, etc. They saw an 80% reversal of such conditions such that psychologists couldn’t recognize symptoms anymore.
Through data and therapy with adolescents, the mental health field laid the groundwork for mindfulness to move into education
Sporadic school-based programming by educators with a background in MBSR began as early as the late 1980s.
Mindful Schools K-5 and adolescent curricula were first developed in under-resourced public schools in Oakland; they have now impacted over 750,000 students to date.
Portland Public School District is working with a Portland-based organization called Peace in Schools to offer Mindful Studies as a for-credit course in Portland public high schools.
We are moving out of the era of exploratory pilot studies (late 90s and 2000s) and into an era of more sophisticated research designs with larger samples. Here is a good research review noting the recent transition between early pilot research and more developed studies measuring the effects of mindfulness in education. Well designed programs with competent people show the same top two outcomes every time:
Increased attentional capacity and stability
Increased self-awareness and self-regulation—an ability to regulate in real time what’s happening in the nervous system and make different choices
We have 30-35 years of research that says mindfulness works to cultivate well-being and decrease a number of psychological and physical symptoms in adult populations. We are in the process of validating these findings among child and adolescent populations. The growing body of research from student evaluations to formal studies suggests the same core list of benefits we see in adults:
Better Focus and Concentration
Increased sense of Calm
Decreased Stress and Anxiety
Improved Impulse Control
Increased Self Awareness
Skillful Responses to Difficult Emotions
Increased Empathy and conflict resolution skills
See also David Black, “Hot Topics: A 40 year publishing history of Mindfulness,” Mindfulness Research Monthly Vol. 1, No. 5 (2010)