Uncovering the link between mindfulness and sustainability - an experiment

Lead Research Organisation: Imperial College London
Department Name: The Centre for Environmental Policy


Mindfulness is defined as "the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose in the present moment and non-judgmentally to the unfolding experience, moment by moment". Mindfulness enhances people's capacity to deal with stress and can be practiced through awareness-building techniques such as meditation. The positive effect of mindfulness on people's well-being, cognitive abilities and behaviour has been proven by medical, psychological and organisational research. Consequently, mindfulness has evolved to a business worth over one billion USD with an increasing number of companies investing in in-house mindfulness activities to boost productivity of their employees. Newer research is exploring how mindfulness affects "sustainable behaviour", which we understand as a more ethical, pro-social and pro-environmental, behaviour. Publications advocate the potential of mindfulness for supporting the transition to a sustainable society. The positive link between mindfulness and sustainable behaviour can be grouped in five main arguments: 1) Increased awareness about one's own actions and their impact are the basis for sustainable behaviour. This is because decreased automaticity, increased self-control and resilience to external persuasion prevent people from unchecked consumerism and harmful actions. 2) Increased well-being and happiness reinforce sustainable behaviour as happy people are more likely to direct their attention to the needs of others and the environment. Furthermore, increased well-being stimulates pro-social behaviour, which in turn enhances well-being. Happiness and pro-environmental behaviour are not trade-offs. 3) Higher awareness and stronger experience of the environment strengthens the connectedness to nature, which is the basis of pro-environmental behaviour. 4) Mindfulness creates social empathy and feelings of compassion towards other living beings, including future generations. 5) Mindfulness changes one's values and goals. Mindfulness practitioners have a better connection to intrinsic values like relationships and community instead of measuring their lives by external, materialistic values and ambition. Mindfulness also reduces the "hedonic treadmill", the need to acquire ever-increasing material welfare. The distinction between needs and wants becomes clearer. This does not consider the complex interrelations between the different arguments. Research summarised above shows a positive correlation between mindfulness and sustainable behaviour. However, there is a lack of research and experimental evidence to support causality. Both quantitative and qualitative research efforts are needed to inform decision-makers about the potential of mindfulness for a "double-dividend" strategy, which improves both people's well-being and their sustainable behaviour. Siqueira and Pitassi (2016) emphasize the potential of mindfulness for the corporate sustainability research. This study seeks to explore the causal relationship between mindfulness and sustainability in business settings, reflected in the following research question: to what extent does a regular mindfulness practice increase the sustainability awareness of employees? This mixed-methods research is constructed around an experiment with 50 to 100 employees from diverse companies, who have never practiced mindfulness before. The experiment aims to use a survey to detect if there is any change in the sustainability awareness of the participants at the beginning, at the end and 3 months after the course. The theoretical framework of the study is based on the theory of change (ToC), usually applied to plan and promote social change (Quinn, 1988). The detailed design of experiment and evaluation approach will be based on literature review in the areas business management, education, mindfulness, (policy) evaluation, psychology, and sustainability. Also, there shall be continuous personal exchange with survey-experienced researchers of these areas.


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Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
ES/P000703/1 01/10/2017 30/09/2027
1917483 Studentship ES/P000703/1 01/10/2017 30/09/2020 Ute Barbara Thiermann
Description Environmental scientists are struggling to design interventions that promote long lasting pro-environmental behaviour (PEB) change in individuals. While researchers have gathered compelling evidence that mindfulness practices positively affect personal well-being and pro-social behaviours, less is known about their relationship with PEB and if their widespread promotion could help promoting a more sustainable society. To contribute to this knowledge gap, this thesis investigates the following research question: Do mindfulness practitioners show higher levels of PEB and if so, which mechanisms explain the link between practicing mindfulness and improved PEB?
This thesis progresses through three key analytical stages: First, a comprehensive literature review looks at the common definitions and operationalisation of the four core concepts constituting the research question. The second component explores the theoretical foundations of PEB change and suggests a new theoretical framework: the 2-pathway model of pro-environmental behaviours and experiential strategies for behaviour change (e. g. nature exposure, mindfulness). The third analytical step is an empirical evaluation of the research question in form of an explanatory sequential mixed-methods design. A cross-sectional survey with 300 non-practitioners, novice meditators and advanced meditators shows that advanced meditators have the lowest environmental impact associated with their animal-protein consumption and are most motivated to act in favour of the environment. The second study is based on semi-structured interviews with 18 volunteers from the survey sample and uses reflexive thematic analysis under a critical realist perspective. The analysis reveals five themes explaining the link between mindfulness practice and PEB: deepening mindfulness, awakening of the mind, awakening of the heart, internalisation of environmental motivation and eudaimonic well-being. At the end of the empirical section, the common themes and factors linking mindfulness and sustainability are presented in a dynamic network model, and the results of the mixed-methods study are triangulated in one global discussion which concludes with recommendations for policy making and future research.
The thesis demonstrates that mindfulness practices classify as a successful experiential strategy to change PEB, once practitioners develop the necessary self-regulation skills, relational capacities, and moral autonomy through their long-term commitment to integrating mindful living principles into their daily lives. The process of change is personal and depends on a dynamic network of factors, all funnelling towards the development of an embodied and compassionate connection with others and the natural world that helps to internalise the motivation for sustainable living and creates eudaimonic well-being.
Exploitation Route This work and resulting publications might be used by academics and policy makers who want to design new interventions to encourage pro-environmental behaviour change. In the report by the mindfulness initiative, some key findings and policy actions will be described as an outcome of this PhD work.
Sectors Environment,Healthcare,Government, Democracy and Justice

URL https://www.themindfulnessinitiative.org/activate-change-mindfulness-climate
Description Currently findings are being prepared for a policy report by the Mindfulness Initiative UK regarding the link between mindfulness and climate change. https://www.themindfulnessinitiative.org/activate-change-mindfulness-climate
First Year Of Impact 2021
Sector Government, Democracy and Justice
Impact Types Policy & public services