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The Effect of Mindfulness

By Jill Anderson on November 12, 2008 7:33 AM
"mindfulness" - awareness of what's happening in a present moment, is often dismissed as having no real bearing on a person's abilities. Metta McGarvey's research into the practice of mindfulness, however, aims to change that common perception

Metta McGarveyFor many, the word "mindfulness" - awareness of what's happening in a present moment - connotes a new age ideology often dismissed as having no real bearing on a person's abilities. Doctoral candidate Metta McGarvey's research into the practice of mindfulness, however, aims to change that common perception and lays a foundation for exploring the question of whether people are able to develop their emotional capacities in adulthood.

Although a great deal of research into the social and emotional development of children has been conducted to date, very little has been undertaken with adults, says McGarvey, who recently earned a prestigious fellowship from the American Association of University Women. The research that has been done on adult emotional development has resulted in conflicting opinions. On one side, theories of personality indicate that our emotional reactions are based in temperamental differences that are shaped by life experiences to form stable enduring traits by age 30. On the other, emotional intelligence theorists believe that emotional traits can be changed for the better throughout adult life. For her dissertation, "The Potential Effects of Mindfulness on the Emotional Development of Leaders," McGarvey looks at 138 current and former leaders, leadership development coaches, and consultants to study adult development and how mindfulness may affect personality and emotional intelligence.

A former student of Buddhist Studies with a master's from Harvard Divinity School, McGarvey came to the Ed School interested in how spiritual practices can influence people's lives for the better, and how they work consciously and rationally with deep emotional reactions that often overwhelm. "Leaders are under significant social and emotional stresses," McGarvey says. "People are working on emotional intelligence, hiring coaches, and realizing they need to understand their effectiveness in creating teams to solve problems across all differences. This depends, in some part, on their ability to bring people together, hold conflicting points of view, and not break down. Leaders are interested in those issues and being more effective."

Many leaders are turning to the practice of mindfulness to help with the stresses of their work. In particular, mindfulness can be used as a technique for working constructively with intense emotions such as fear and anger that often lead to misunderstandings and conflicts. "Mindfulness is about single-tasking in whatever you are doing in the moment," she says, noting that the brain is actually designed to do the opposite - multitask.

The practice of mindfulness can be deployed through meditation or simply by stepping away from a crisis and reflecting on what's happening. The underlying goal of McGarvey's research is to explore the potential of mindfulness practice to enhance interpersonal understanding and effectiveness by catalyzing social and emotional development. "It helps you see more clearly in the present...because emotions are strong primitive forces in our brain system, it's very hard to keep your thought processes interacting with your emotional processes in a conscious way," McGarvey says.

In order to gain a better understanding into the role of mindfulness for leaders, McGarvey's study assessed three areas: emotional intelligence, personality, and mindfulness. She devised the study purposely to lay a foundation for future longitudinal study examining the overarching question of whether humans are capable of developing new emotional skills after 30. "I don't doubt that people differ in social and emotional ability, but the big question is whether adults can develop those emotional skills," she says. "There's a big debate on whether emotional ability is innate."

So far, McGarvey's findings indicate that people who are more mindful score higher on emotional intelligence and score lower on neuroticism. "This documents that there is an association between being more mindful and more emotionally intelligent as assessed in the study," she says, noting that these findings encourage further research into mindfulness and meditation. "Now, the question is do these abilities change more over time."

McGarvey intends to find out. Following her graduation from HGSE in the spring, she plans to parlay her dissertation work into a longitudinal study. McGarvey credits her methodological training - both quantitative and qualitative -- and the help of Professors Bob Kegan, Jerry Murphy, and Kurt Fischer, as well as former Ed School faculty members Mike Nakkula and Annie Rogers, in her work. "They've been tremendous sources of support and confidence for me to work in a field that's not yet established."