The Mindfulness Definition: What Is Mindfulness?

Medically reviewed by Melissa Guarnaccia, LCSW
Updated February 22, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Self-care has become an important concept for many individuals. Along with healthy eating, "me" time, exercise, and massages, mindfulness practice is often discussed as a way to practice self-care and improve your overall well-being. While other self-care activities can be self-explanatory, many people do not fully understand the definition of mindfulness. Additionally, mindfulness can look different for everyone, and understanding it on a deeper level may help you decide whether it’s something you’d like to incorporate into your routine. 

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What is mindfulness?

The mindfulness definition is fairly simple: it is a state of being completely focused on the present moment, without dwelling on or reacting to your thoughts. In other words, it’s about being present in everything that you do, rather than letting your mind wander or getting lost in your thoughts about the past or future.

It also has a component of being non-reactive. Rather than immediately reacting in challenging or stressful situations, mindfulness encourages you to take things slow and not respond to these situations immediately. Instead, it involves letting your negative thoughts about the situation go, and then coming back to the present. When you give yourself some time to let your thoughts pass, you might find that you can respond in a more calm, reasonable manner.

When you are living mindfully, you are living in the present. Many people feel that this helps them enjoy life more because they genuinely experience every moment, rather than getting distracted and missing what is in front of them.

How does mindfulness work?

When practicing mindfulness, there are distinct shifts that take place in our bodies and minds. Many people experience positive health benefits due to their mindfulness practice. While the mechanisms behind why mindfulness can improve health are not fully understood, researchers have identified four factors of mindfulness that may contribute to the positive changes that practitioners experience:

  • Attention regulation: A major goal of living mindfully is to live in the present moment. When the mind does wander, mindfulness practitioners can quickly bring it back to the object of attention. Researchers believe that sustained attention to an object of focus can positively impact emotions.
  • Body awareness: Another mindfulness technique is the "body scan." This involves slowly and mentally checking in with every part of your body, from your head to your toes, and taking note of where you feel positive and where you may feel a bit "off." Improving your body awareness can, in turn, improve your emotional awareness and control.
  • Altered perception of self: The ability to alter one's self-perception is associated with happiness. Experts believe mindfulness can help practitioners see the self as fluid and changing, which in turn can lead to greater happiness.
  • Emotional regulation: Mindfulness teaches you not to react to your emotions. This does not mean you do not feel emotion, but rather that you accept everything you are feeling, both positive and negative. This perspective can help promote overall well-being due to the understanding and acceptance that your emotions will pass eventually.

Alternative definitions of mindfulness

Along with the more common mindfulness definition, there are some alternative ways you can define it. These explanations may help you grasp how the practice can make you feel and influence your life. A few of the alternative mindfulness definitions include:

  • "Mindfulness is letting go of taking things for granted."

Mindfulness challenges practitioners to break free of their thought patterns and start living in the present moment. When you do this, you are likely to notice and appreciate the little things more than you usually do. When you get out of your thoughts and pay attention to what is in front of you, it may remind you to be grateful for what you already have.

  • "Mindfulness means a return to the present moment."

One of the most important aspects of mindfulness is living in the present moment. This does not mean that you must stay in the present moment to live mindfully. Even those who have been living mindfully for years cannot always prevent their mind from wandering. All humans have thoughts that can distract them, even those who are very mindful. Rather, mindfulness can be thought of as a practice of returning to the present moment when your mind does start to wander.

Thinking about mindfulness from this perspective can be very comforting for beginners who feel that they are "bad" at being mindful because they cannot fully stay in the present moment. Remember that it is okay if the mind wanders. The important thing is that you try to bring it back to the present. 

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

This mindfulness definition is an older, scientific definition that was popular among experts over a decade ago. Many people, even those who practice mindfulness regularly, have never heard this definition. However, it may be one of the clearest definitions of mindfulness you can find. This definition was developed by a group of top mindfulness researchers who wanted an accurate, simple way to describe the practice to both academia and the public.

While it may not have had the staying power that researchers had hoped for, this mindfulness definition does clearly explain the process of practicing mindfulness. "Self-regulation" refers to controlling one's attention to focus on the present moment. The second part of the definition means that mindfulness practitioners should be open to whatever it is they may end up facing in the present moment. Even if a situation is unpleasant, mindfulness teaches that we should calmly accept the situation rather than try to fight it.

A brief history of mindfulness in the West

Mindfulness is believed to have originated from ancient religions and practices like Hinduism, Buddhism, and yoga. A major component of Buddhism is the eightfold path to enlightenment, and "sati" is the first step on that path. The Buddhist practice of Sati is explained as "an awareness" or being in one's "right mindfulness," and is similar to the mindfulness many people in the West are implementing into their lives today.

Job Kabat-Zinn and MBSR

Jon Kabat-Zinn played a large role in bringing mindfulness to the United States and is both an expert and one of the biggest influences in the world of mindfulness. Kabat-Zinn founded the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and its corresponding Stress Reduction Clinic. In 1979, the first group of patients were exposed to his newly developed Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, which Kabat-Zinn now teaches around the world. Before these developments, Kabat-Zinn studied under Buddhist teachers, where he was introduced to Eastern mindfulness techniques. He combined what he learned with Western science to develop MBSR and the popular style of mindfulness many people in the United States practice today.

Along with Kabat-Zinn, the founders of Insight Meditation Society, a meditation retreat, played a big role in popularizing mindfulness in the United States. The IMS and its founders helped introduce mindfulness meditation in the United States, which has now become very popular in the U.S. and other Western countries.

Should you practice mindfulness?

Most anyone can benefit from being more present, letting go of troublesome thoughts, and becoming more aware of their surroundings. Some mindfulness techniques, like deep breathing, are proven to reduce stress. In general, mindfulness requires that you only focus on one thing at a time, rather than trying to do multiple things at once, which can also help reduce stress.

Mindfulness and mental health

Conditions like anxiety and depression are on the rise, and many people are looking for natural ways to soothe their anxiety or provide relief from depressive episodes. Mindfulness can help those who live with these conditions. Living mindfully means living in the present moment and not getting caught up in your thoughts. When you are truly living in the present, and not thinking about the past or the future, you may find that there is less to be anxious about. Of course, this can be easier said than done, and even those who practice mindfulness regularly can still experience anxiety, worry, or depressive thoughts sometimes.

While many people who struggle with anxiety and depression find that mindfulness techniques can help them find some relief, for some, mindfulness on its own is not enough. In these cases, it’s recommended to seek professional support for additional help and guidance. 

Mindfulness has risen in popularity quickly, but it has been present, even in the United States, for decades. The positive impact it has on the lives of many people indicates that mindfulness practices are likely going to continue to become more common. If you have yet to explore mindfulness, consider giving a few basic practices a try and see how they impact your life.

Online counseling with BetterHelp

Mindfulness can be beneficial for a variety of reasons, but it is not a replacement for medical attention. If you’re experiencing issues that feel beyond your control, confiding in an online therapist could be a helpful next step. BetterHelp is an online counseling platform that allows you to connect with a therapist who specializes in your area of need. Whether you’re trying to develop more peace of mind, find relief from symptoms of a mental health condition, or reach a goal, a licensed therapist can provide support. BetterHelp allows you to chat through phone calls, video calls, or in-app messaging according to your preferences. This can make therapy feel more comfortable and convenient.

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The efficacy of online counseling 

Online counseling can be helpful for those wanting to incorporate mindfulness into their lives. In a review of 97 trials of mindfulness-based interventions, researchers found that there were “statistically significant moderate pre-to-post effects” on depression, stress, and mindfulness. There were also small effects on anxiety. When these MBIs were offered with guidance, participants experienced even higher effect sizes for stress.


Mindfulness can play an important role in your life by allowing you to become more focused, disciplined, and self-aware. It can help you regulate your emotions with more ease and experience healthier, more satisfying relationships with others. While mindfulness can affect many different aspects of your well-being, it may not be enough to help you through every challenge you face. In some cases, having a licensed online therapist you can confide in at your convenience can be a powerful source of support and healing.
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