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What is Mindfulness, Scientifically Speaking?

By Dr. Ryan Niemiec

Quite simply, mindfulness is an emphasis on being “purposeful” in your attention. You can purposefully bring your attention to your child’s smile, to the feeling of the steering wheel, or to the exhale of your breathing. This is mindfulness.

Why is Mindfulness Important?

Benjamin Franklin cleverly observed, “Some people die at 25 and aren’t buried until 75.” Mindfulness is a crucial counterbalance to the trap of auto pilot mode, offering us the opportunity to “wake up” from sleepwalking through life.

Scientific Definitions that Fall Short

Now that we know, generally, what it is, let’s define mindfulness scientifically. There are several common definitions but most fall short of describing mindfulness in its entirety.

One is definition is, “letting go of taking things for granted.” In this definition, mindfulness is described as challenging us to awaken from these mind habits and appreciating the little things. While true, this definition speaks to mostly the benefit and not the practice of mindfulness. Another common definition is that mindfulness means “to return to the present moment.” This definition is simplistic and clear but not specific enough. A common misconception about mindfulness is that it means to stay in the present moment. People practicing meditation sometimes get frustrated that their minds just can’t seem to stay in the present moment. The reality is this: no one’s mind stays in the present moment. Considering everything our minds need to process and compute each moment, we simply can’t control our mind to stay put. But, we do have control over the return. We can always return our minds to the present moment, our breath or our senses which can be found in the present moment.

The Official Scientific Definition of Mindfulness

“Mindfulness is the self-regulation of attention with an attitude of curiosity, openness and acceptance.”

This last definition is less catchy than some of the others, but it offers a specific, distinct and clear way of seeing the broad nature of mindfulness and its benefits. Let’s break it down.

The word “self-regulation” refers to how you can take control of your attention and regulate your focus. You might deliberately shift your attention to an image on your computer screen, to the body language of your friend as she speaks, to a memory, a future goal or to your inbreath. The second part of the definition, “attitude of curiosity, openness and acceptance,” refers to our approach of being open to whatever we place our attention on (pleasant or unpleasant) and being interested and curious of what we might discover as we observe and experience it. This is the operational, scientific definition of mindfulness made official over a decade ago by a group of distinguished mindfulness researchers. They developed this definition to offer a clear way for future researchers, practitioners and individuals to understand this ever-growing and popular practice. With one universal understanding, researchers are studying the same thing, teachers are teaching the same thing and we can all minimize misconceptions. It’s the best definition for advancing the research and practice of mindfulness.


Bishop, S. R., Lau, M., Shapiro, S. L., Carlson, L., Anderson, N. D., Carmody, J., … Devins, G. (2004). Mindfulness: A proposed operational definition. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 11, 230–241. Niemiec, R. M. (2014). Mindfulness and character strengths: A practical guide to flourishing. Boston, MA: Hogrefe.