We need a new ministry in the UK government: A ministry for mindfulness.
Let me explain. Simply put, mindfulness helps open up minds that would otherwise jump to conclusions and act impulsively. And impulsivity and pre(mature)-judgment are at the heart of many societal problems. Take criminality: experts have reliably demonstrated that an inability to exert impulse-control means that many criminals offend time and again. Yet you don't have to be a serial offender to act impulsively; for many of us, the urge to respond to a text while driving is strong. So is our tendency to pre-judge or dismiss someone somewhat different from us. When we act impulsively, we miss, or misunderstand, a vital piece of information about the situation we're in, especially about its future consequences. Consequentially, we are cut off from using all available information before making decisions with potentially far-reaching consequences.
The problem is, we are becoming more impulsive as a nation. This is a function of a growing instant gratification culture: Food, communication, information - all of this is increasingly at our fingertips. Deliberating, the hallmark of impulse-control, is under extinction threat.
So how exactly could a ministry for mindfulness benefit UK society?
Mindfulness is about paying attention to the present situation with the intention to keep an open mind. World-leading scientists and opinion-leaders argue that we should actively, and consciously, be "experiencing" the present, to make better decisions. We should exert impulse-control, because it consistently predicts success in all major domains of human functioning: physical and emotional health, resilience, school achievement, happiness, relationship quality, and higher income. However, simply describing what we need to do, to develop human capacity through better impulse-control, is not really good enough: many of us simply cannot "just stop" or "relax" when we most need to.
The strategic innovation that mindfulness brings to the policy table is that it is emerging as a catalyst, or the how to framework, for developing higher human functioning. Mindfulness practice promotes better impulse-control, validly and reliably - which simply means that it can work for everyone and has the potential to benefit all.
What policies would the new ministry for mindfulness develop?
In the first instance, the ministry would be tasked with laying out a comprehensive path for a highly stressed out nation to move towards higher wellbeing. Why this is of such strategic importance for society: stress and impulsiveness are strongly linked. It is virtually impossible to suppress the impulse to flight, flee, or simply freeze when we're stressed. This is why impulsiveness hampers people's ability to act in line with their strategic goals and behave in a prosocial manner. The Oscar Pistorius case may be one of the most tragic recent examples where trigger-prone impulsivity caused devastating harm.
Mindfulness, on the other hand, provides a systematic and powerful antidote against stress. The popular Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) protocol, the Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) framework taught to MPs and Peers in the Houses of Parliament, or the workplace-focused Acceptance and Commitment Training (ACT) programmes, reliably help dampen down people's stress levels whilst raising wellbeing.
But mindfulness can and should do much more for our people and for our society, because it literally can help save lives. Since the 1980s, researchers have documented the benefits of mindfulness when it is applied collectively, in other words, when a team of people all act according to mindfulness-based principles: collective mindfulness generates highly reliable performance. And this is the kind of performance that can prevent catastrophic accidents, as well as generate creative, pro-social minds.
Here's an example of what this means concretely. If you or I were admitted to an intensive care unit where staff consistently organised along collective mindfulness-based principles, for example by proactively discussing mistakes and by deferring decisions routinely to the most experienced person (rather than the one with the highest rank), our patient safety level would be significantly higher than had we been admitted to a hospital organised along traditional management principles.
Therefore, the new ministry should design policies to help organisations embed mindfulness collectively, and at all levels of their operations, from hospitals to schools to public and private sector workplaces.
Finally, an important mandate for the new ministry would be to develop a structured roadmap towards professionalization and accreditation for mindfulness teaching. To date, anyone can set up shop as a mindfulness teacher; no authoritative body exists for regulating the mindfulness profession. Mindfulness is therapeutic in nature; hence we need an enforceable ethical code of conduct and a set of quality standards, to prevent malpractice and to safeguard the integrity - and effectiveness - of mindfulness practice.
Talk about mindfulness is cheap. Action is what matters, when it comes to mindfulness, and to opening up minds in our society.