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(p. 204) Temporal orientation and mindfulness 

(p. 204) Temporal orientation and mindfulness
(p. 204) Temporal orientation and mindfulness

Andrew MacLeod

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date: 21 September 2017


People vary in how much they think about the future, what might be called future-mindedness. Sometimes called temporal orientation or temporal focus, this future-mindedness is quite different from how positively or negatively someone thinks about the future. Two people could be equally future-oriented, but whereas one of them eagerly looks forward to a future which is seen as full of promise, the other is preoccupied with a future that is bleak or threatening. How positively or negatively people think about the future is the main focus of this book, but there are interesting questions about to what extent being future-oriented in general, as opposed to being present- or past-focused, is good (or bad) for well-being and mental health. The psychological literature rarely affords answers to such causal questions, but an easier question to address is whether there is a relationship between temporal orientation and well-being. To say that the results are mixed is jumping ahead of ourselves, but it is nevertheless true. Interestingly, as well as mixed findings, different literatures appear to take a different stance on what the answer to the question should be. Some of the temporal orientation literature to be discussed in the present chapter, along with the literature on goals (Chapter 7) and plans (Chapter 8) discussed in other chapters, highlights and promotes the value of being future-minded. In contrast, the growing literature on mindfulness would point to the well-being value of being focused in the present. Although it is true that reminiscence can enhance mood (e.g. Bryant, Smart, & King, 2005), there are few champions for the general value of adopting a past focus.

The present chapter will review some of the findings from these different literatures and attempt to resolve the seemingly conflicting answers, or at least provide some sort of insight into how it is that such different answers can be arrived at. Temporal orientation has been assessed by a number of self-report instruments, and the first half of the chapter will mainly review those measures and the findings arising from them. The second half of the chapter will focus on mindfulness. The mindfulness literature is large in its own right, and growing fast, but its relevance to the present discussion is in its emphasis on a present focus, which (p. 205) would appear, at first glance, to pose a challenge to the importance and value of thinking about the future. The link between mindfulness and well-being, through correlations between self-reported mindfulness and well-being, differences in well-being between meditators and non-meditators, and effects of mindfulness interventions on well-being and psychological distress, will be briefly reviewed. Finally, connected with mindfulness, or, more precisely, lack of mindfulness, some of the key findings on mind wandering and its link to well-being and future-thinking will be described. But before all of that, there is one paradigm—delay discounting—to be discussed, the results of which imply that most people are simply too present-focused at the expense of consideration of the future.

Delay discounting

The rather non-intuitively named delay discounting effect is a way of illustrating simply that people place a value on having a reward1 now as opposed to later. The further into the distance the promised reward is located, the more we begin to value a smaller reward that we can receive straight away. Typically, people are presented with a hypothetical forced choice, for example, ‘would you rather have £20 now or £50 in six months’ time?” An attempt can be made to make the decision seem more real by conveying to participants that they might actually be able to have the money from some of the choices they make (Kirby, Petry, & Bickel, 1999). How much people prefer the smaller immediate rewards is usually influenced by the size of the difference between the rewards and the length of the delay. Someone might be willing to wait six months for £100, compared to £20 now, but only be willing to wait one week if the delayed reward was only £40. These examples may sound artificial, but something like them does exist in real life, notably, related to saving. For example, the UK government announced in March 2016 a scheme to encourage those on low incomes to save. The incentive was a bonus (up to a maximum of £600) of an additional 50% on money saved over a two-year period. So, someone could save £50 per month (i.e. choose not to receive £50 each month), and after two years receive an extra £600 bonus on the £1,200 that they had saved over that period.

Is the tendency to show delay discounting related to well-being? Lempert and Pizzagalli (2010) measured anhedonia in an unselected student sample using the Snaith-Hamilton Pleasure Scale (SHAPS; Snaith et al., 1995), which asks people how much they agree with statements such as ‘I would enjoy being with my family or friends’ or ‘I would feel pleasure when I receive praise from (p. 206) other people’. Higher SHAPS scores were related to lower discounting. That is, people who were more anhedonic appeared to be more future-minded: they were more likely than those low in anhedonia to say, for example, that they would prefer to wait and receive £50 in one month’s time rather than £20 now. Lempert and Pizzagalli (2010) suggest that the generally lowered sensitivity to reward that is characteristic of anhedonia reduces delay discounting because of the weaker emotional pull towards an immediate reward. However, Pulcu et al. (2014) failed to find a comparable effect in a group of depressed patients. Currently-depressed, remitted-depressed and never-depressed participants all showed similar rates of discounting. In fact, currently-depressed patients continued to show delay discounting (i.e. preferring smaller current rewards), even when the future reward was high, whereas both control participants and remitted depressed patients showed an increasing preference for delayed rewards as the value of that reward increased. Those meeting criteria for a diagnosis of schizophrenia showed greater delay discounting than a matched group of controls; that is, the value of future rewards tailed away more steeply for the schizophrenia group, an effect that was correlated with performance on a second task assessing how close to the present freely generated significant future events were (Heerey, Matveeva, & Gold, 2011). So, it is not clear whether there is a relationship between well-being and delay discounting. In fact, it is not really clear what the optimal response is to these kinds of situations; it cannot simply be assumed that choosing the larger reward, however long the delay, is the ‘right’ option. In the real world, things go wrong and the longer the waiting period, the greater chance there is of something going wrong. Even research contexts are not perfect—when it comes time to collect your larger reward six months later, the researcher who carried out the study has left the university and anyone you speak to claims to know nothing about the study!

Self-report measures of temporal orientation

Early research using a variety of methods pointed to lack of future-mindedness as being problematic for mental health. Suicidal individuals were found to be less oriented to the future than their non-suicidal comparison groups in that they provided less elaborate descriptions of the future (Yufit, Benzies, Fonte, & Fawcett, 1970), used fewer future tense verbs (Greaves, 1971), and the prospective thoughts that they did have extended less far into the future (Melges & Weisz, 1971).

The raw, imaginativeness of those early measures has since given way to self-report questionnaires designed to measure temporal orientation. Although (p. 207) there does appear to be quite a number of such measures, some are very specific to a particular concept, context, or group. The Temporal Orientation Scale (TOS; Holman & Silver, 1998) was developed solely with people who had experienced trauma (survivors of incest, Vietnam war veterans, and survivors of firestorms). The TOS is grounded in the idea of those who have experienced trauma needing to free themselves from the past in order to focus on the future and the present. Some items are not tied to that particular conceptual framework (e.g. ‘I believe it is important to save for a rainy day’) but others arise directly out of the concern for understanding the effects of trauma (e.g. ‘I often feel I am reliving experiences from my past’), somewhat limiting the scale’s general use. The past subscale appears to be designed specifically to identify problematic ways of thinking about the past in those who have suffered from traumatic experiences, illustrated by the ‘Getting “stuck” in the past’ part of the title of the original paper (Holman & Silver, 1998, p. 1146).

Also supporting the value of a future time perspective, but this time at the expense of a present-focus, the Consideration of Future Consequences Scale (CFC-14; Joireman, Shaffer, Balliet, & Strathman, 2012) and its longer predecessor (Strathman, Gleicher, Boninger, & Edwards, 1994), were designed to tap stable trait-like individual differences in the extent to which people consider distant as opposed to immediate consequences of their actions. The scale essentially measures a sort of ‘sensible’ attitude to decision making, where future consequences are considered (e.g. ‘when I make a decision I think about how it might affect me in the future’, as opposed to ‘I only act to satisfy immediate concerns, figuring the future will take care of itself’). Scores on the CFC-14 correlate with a range of health behaviours, such as diet, exercise, and condom use (Joireman et al., 2012). The CFC scale shares a strong similarity to the future subscale of the Zimbardo Time Perspective Inventory (ZTPI; Zimbardo & Boyd, 1999), which is reviewed in detail in a later section in this chapter.

Not only might there be individual differences in time perspective, but it may change as people age. The concept of time perspective has become central to socioemotional selectivity theory (Carstensen, 1993), which suggests that as adults age their perceptions of time change from being more expansive and seeing the world as full of possibilities, to a narrower, more limited time perspective. Along with this shift, people’s priorities change from informational goals, which are about looking outwards and learning about the world, to emotional goals and a preference for spending time with a smaller circle of people whom they are close to and who can meet these emotional goals. Driving this change is a shorter time perspective. The Future Time Perspective Scale (see Lang & Carstensen, 2002) was designed to assess time perspective specifically (p. 208) in older adults and contains items such as ‘Most of my life still lies ahead of me’ and ‘I have the sense that time is running out’ (reverse scored). Scores on such items are obviously very highly correlated with chronological age (Lang & Carstensen, 2002). The link between future perspective measured in this way and well-being in older adults is not entirely clear (see Kozik, Hoppmann, & Gerstorf, 2015), with some studies showing a negative correlation, whereas Lang and Carstensen (2002) found that those exhibiting limited time perspective adopted more emotionally meaningful and fulfilling goals, which potentially should enhance their well-being.

Zimbardo Time Perspective Inventory

The ZTPI (Zimbardo & Boyd, 1999) is probably the most widely used measure of temporal perspective, including being translated into many different languages and used in a range of cultural contexts (Sircova, van de Vijver, Osin, Milfont, Fieulaine et al., 2014). Like the TOS (Holman & Silver, 1998), the ZTPI has the advantage of measuring past, present, and future orientations as separate constructs. Two subscales measure past orientations (past-negative, past-positive), two measure present focus (present-hedonist; present-fatalistic) and there is one subscale measuring a future orientation (future). The past-negative and past-positive orientations are essentially as labelled: they measure unhappy (e.g. ‘Painful past experiences keep being replayed in my mind’) and happy (e.g. ‘It gives me pleasure to think about my past’) ways of thinking about the past. A present-fatalistic orientation measures a sense of lack of control over life (e.g. ‘My life path is controlled by forces I cannot influence’), which in western cultures probably does often represent feelings of hopelessness and helplessness as Zimbardo and Boyd (1999) suggest, although it is possible that in some cultures it might not have those same connotations. The meanings of the other two scales are not quite as clear as their labels would suggest. To give an idea of their content, Table 9.1 shows the top three loading items on the principal components analysis reported in the original scale development article (Zimbardo & Boyd, 1999) for both of those two subscales As can be seen from Table 9.1, present-hedonistic essentially measures a risk-taking, excitement seeking in the here-and-now dimension, and it correlates highly with sensation seeking and a measure of ego under control (Zimbardo & Boyd, 1999). The items for the future orientation show that it represents a particular type of future orientation, very similar to the CFC (Strathman et al., 1994) with which it correlates strongly (Zimbardo & Boyd, 1999). Someone scoring highly on the future subscale would be a diligent, responsible, work-focused individual with strong impulse control. (p. 209)

Table 9.1 Sample items for the present-hedonistic and future subscales of the ZTPI


Three reported highest loading items (Zimbardo & Boyd, 1999)


  • It is important to put excitement in my life.

  • Taking risks keeps my life from becoming boring.

  • I take risks to put excitement in my life.


  • Meeting other deadlines and doing other necessary work come before tonight’s play.

  • I am able to resist temptations when I know that there is work to be done.

  • I complete projects on time by making steady progress.

Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Putting time in perspective: A valid, reliable individual-differences metric, 77(6), 1999, 1271, Zimbardo, P. G. & Boyd, J. N., With permission of American Psychological Association.

How do the dimensions relate to well-being? The two past orientations, not surprisingly given how explicitly valenced they are, correlate with measures of well-being in predictable ways. So too does present-fatalistic, again not surprisingly given its strong connotations of hopelessness and helplessness. The other two dimensions are of more interest because of their less overt content overlap with measures of well-being. Typically, although not always, present-hedonistic shows a positive correlation with subjective well-being measures—those who like excitement and take risks to generate it show higher scores on measures of well-being and lower scores on measures of distress (see, for example, Boniwell, Osin, Linley, & Ivanchenko, 2010; Stolarski, Matthews, Postek, Zimbardo, & Bitner, 2014). Moreover, Boniwell et al. (2010) found correlations not only with positive affect, which might be expected but also with life satisfaction and a more eudaimonically-oriented measure of actualization of potential. Future orientation, on the other hand, consistently shows no correlation with measures of subjective well-being. For example, Stolarski et al. (2014), in two studies, and Boniwell et al. (2010), reported correlations close to zero between future orientation and three different aspects of subjective well-being. Boniwell et al. (2010) did report a correlation between future orientation and a purpose in life measure that measures a vigorous, purposeful, engagement with life, and Gruber, Cunningham, Kirkland, and Hay (2012) found symptoms of mania and diagnosis of bipolar disorder to be related to low levels of future orientation, although this latter finding further reinforces the idea of future orientation on the ZTPI as a measure of impulse control.

Zimbardo and Boyd (1999), in their original description of the concept and the scale, introduce the intriguing notion of a balanced time perspective, (p. 210) which they see as the ability to switch flexibly between the different orientations depending on the demands the person is facing in their situation and the personal resources available to them. The idea is most clearly seen in contrasting a future and a present-hedonistic focus. When relaxing with friends or family, for example, a present-hedonistic focus would be the appropriate one (although a quiet family dinner might not obviously benefit from episodes of risk taking and sensation seeking!), whereas failing to shift from that focus to a future focus when there are demands and obligations to meet, most notably work related, would not be adaptive2. Similarly, a total future focus (at least as defined by Zimbardo & Boyd, 1999) would be associated with workaholism and weak social connections (Boniwell & Zimbardo, 2004).

Such a subtle and dynamic psychological construct as a balanced time perspective is difficult to operationalize and measure, and, perhaps for that reason, subsequent studies have defined it in a quite different way to its original conceptualization as flexibility. Typically, a balanced time perspective has been operationalized as a particular combination of scores on the different ZTPI dimensions (Boniwell et al., 2010; Drake, Duncan, Sutherland, Abernethy, & Henry, 2008; Zhang, Howell, & Stolarski, 2013). Different techniques have been employed, from simple tertile splits (Drake et al., 2008) to cluster analysis (Boniwell et al., 2010), or different techniques for arriving at the combinations have been compared within the same study (Zhang et al., 2013), but the common underlying assumption is that those scoring high in past-positive, low in past-negative, low in present-fatalistic and high in future orientations will have a balanced time perspective. High scores on present-hedonistic are also sometimes included as part of the definition. Thus, a balanced time perspective appears essentially to have been defined by high scores on subscales that have already been found to correlate positively with measures of subjective well-being (past-positive, present-hedonistic) and low scores on those dimensions found to correlate negatively with well-being variables (present-fatalistic and past-negative). High future scores, even though future does not usually correlate with well-being, are presumably included in a balanced time perspective because having a future orientation is just thought to be inherently valuable (see Zimbardo & Boyd, p. 1272, footnote). It therefore comes as no surprise that a balanced time perspective construed in this way is then found to correlate with subjective well-being measures (e.g. Zhang et al., 2013). A similar (p. 211) sort of circular reasoning using a different measure of time perspective is found in Webster and Ma (2013) who defined a balanced time perspective as scoring highly on both future- and past-thinking. Unfortunately, the scales measuring past- and future-thinking actually represent positivity very strongly, for example, ‘Anticipating my later life fills me with hope’ (future) and ‘I get a renewed sense of optimism when I remember earlier life experiences’ (past). It is no surprise, again, that those who score highly on the sum of these items score highly on well-being. Operationalizing, and therefore defining, balanced time perspective in these sorts of ways does not take us any of the way towards understanding the notion of a balanced time perspective as the dynamic ability to switch between, for example, a future focus and a present focus, as originally outlined by Zimbardo and Boyd (1999). It remains for future research to see if such an intriguing and intuitively appealing concept of temporal flexibility can be operationalized, measured and related to well-being outcomes that are logically and conceptually distinct from it.

Separating temporal focus from value

The measures described so far are undoubtedly measuring interesting and useful constructs but unfortunately don’t quite answer the question posed at the beginning of this chapter—whether there is a relationship between temporal orientation per se and well-being—either because of being specific to a particular population, or because the way they measure a temporal orientation is very particular to only one way of thinking about it, sometimes imbued with a judgement about its value. As already argued, the sort of future orientation measured by the CFC or future subscale of the ZTPI is one particular aspect of future-mindedness, one that is in opposition (indeed, set up to be in opposition) to a particular type of present focus. There are obviously other aspects of future orientation, such as positively embracing future possibilities and eagerly looking forward to them with anticipation, which paints a quite different picture to the sensible, work-focused, and, frankly, rather dull, future-oriented person who scores highly on the CFC or the ZTPI future subscale. In some sense, a high scorer on the future subscale of the ZTPI need not be especially future-oriented at all, in the sense that it appears to describe someone who is mostly preoccupied with present demands and obligations. In a similar way, the two present-focused possibilities of the ZTPI—resignation and lack of agency, or sensation seeking and risk taking—clearly do not fully cover the spectrum of possible present-focused orientations, something that will become apparent when mindfulness is discussed later in the chapter. Furthermore, and this will be seen in a more frank way when self-report measures of mindfulness are discussed, there is often a pairing of value with orientation. For example, future (p. 212) focus as defined by the CFC and ZTPI is intended to be a valued dimension. Indeed, Zimbardo and Boyd (1999) acknowledge this explicitly:

At this point, we must acknowledge our theoretical and personal bias toward evaluating decisions from a future orientation. It is only from the perspective of future orientation that the decision to smoke can be seen to have a negative consequence: the future development of lung cancer. If judged solely through the lens of present orientation, smoking is just a pleasurable activity without articulated future consequences. In the context of present orientation, smoking may actually be the ‘right’ decision because it may lead to pleasure, however short lived.

(Zimbardo and Boyd, p. 1272 footnote)

Shipp, Edwards, and Lambert (2009), in recognizing the problem where temporal orientations are paired with other value qualities, attempted to develop a more neutral measure of orientation, the Temporal Focus Scale (TFS). Twelve items measure past, present, and future focus, and respondents rate how frequently they have the thoughts. The items are shown in full in Table 9.2. These items are quite different from most others reviewed in this chapter in their explicit attempt not to pair a particular orientation with some other quality, often one which is desirable or undesirable. The scale also allows people to score independently on each of the dimensions. Using this measure, Shipp et al. (2009) found differing correlations between the three orientations and measures of well-being. Interestingly, different measures of subjective well-being diverged in how they related to temporal focus, with negative affect (NA) only being related to a past focus, whereas positive affect (PA) only showed any correlation with present and future focus. Low life satisfaction was most clearly related to a focus on the past. Table 9.2 shows the correlations of life satisfaction, PA and NA, with scores on each of the three orientations.

Table 9.2 Temporal Focus Scale items measuring past focus, current focus, and future focus. Each item is rated by participants on a seven-point scale from ‘never’ to ‘constantly’. Correlations of the subscale totals are shown with three measures of subjective well-being




  • Past focus

  • I replay memories of the past in my mind.

  • I reflect on what has happened in my life.

  • I think about things from my past.

  • I think back to my earlier days.




  • Current focus

  • I focus on what is currently happening in my life.

  • My mind is on the here and now.

  • I think about where I am today.

  • I live my life in the present.




  • Future focus

  • I think about what my future has in store.

  • I think about times to come.

  • I focus on my future.

  • I imagine what tomorrow will bring for me.




Note: SWLS = Satisfaction with Life Scale; PA = Positive Affect; NA = Negative Affect.

Adapted from Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 110(1), Shipp, A. J., Edwards, J. R., & Lambert, L. S., Conceptualization and measurement of temporal focus: The subjective experience of the past, present, and future, 1–22, Copyright 2009, with permission from Elsevier.

Another way of trying to disentangle orientation (past, present, future) from valence (positive or negative) is to measure both orientation and valence and see how they relate separately or in tandem to well-being. Rush and Grouzet (2012) asked students to keep a daily diary for 14 days. At the end of each day they reported the extent to which their thoughts in the past 24 hours had been past-, present-, or future-focused and rated their levels of PA and NA.3 In addition, participants described two things from the past and the future that they had thought a lot about in the past 24 hours and rated the pleasantness of their thoughts about each. Interestingly, there was more within-person than between-person variability in focus, that is, people could not easily be (p. 213) categorized as one orientation or another; rather, they shifted their focus from day to day. Well-being correlated with present focus and this was not moderated by the valence of the thoughts. Past focus was related negatively to well-being overall, but especially on days when past thoughts were more unpleasant than usual. There was no overall relationship between well-being and future focus, but a relationship did emerge when the valence of the thoughts were taken into account: where future thoughts were positive, well-being was higher, but on days when they were unpleasant, then well-being was lower.

Summary of self-reported temporal orientation and well-being

Early work pointed to suicidality being related to a lack of future orientation, a relationship that is covered in detail in Chapter 2. Subsequent findings on temporal focus and well-being using self-report to measure temporal orientation are somewhat limited either by the measures being designed for a particular population or by them measuring a particular aspect of temporal orientation, (p. 214) often paired with a valued quality. The ZTPI (Zimbardo & Boyd, 1999) is the most widely used measure of temporal orientation. However, the future subscale generally fails to correlate with measures of well-being or shows a low correlation, but it only captures a very particular element of a future orientation, and arguably is actually more about being conscientiously work-focused on current projects. The TFS (Shipp et al. 2009) is an attempt at a more neutral description of temporal orientation, and other more naturalistic measures such as the diary study of Rush and Grouzet (2012) also avoid an a priori pairing of orientation with another valued or disvalued quality. From these studies, it would appear that a tendency to be past-focused is associated with low well-being. Consistent with the earlier work on suicidality, future-focus appears to be linked to higher levels of well-being, although more work needs to be carried out to establish whether different aspects of well-being relate differently to the different orientations. Interestingly, a present focus also shows a relationship to well-being. Over the last two decades, a large body of work has emerged, also emphasizing the importance of a present focus, something that would appear to pose something of a challenge to the idea of future-mindedness as a temporal orientation linked to mental health and well-being. The relationship between mindfulness and mental health and well-being will be the focus of the remainder of this chapter.


Mindfulness has different definitions (Williams & Kabat-Zinn, 2013), indicating its complexity as a construct, as well as the fact that its origins in Buddhism means that its essence is not always easy to translate into western perspectives. Nevertheless, the way that it is commonly used in relation to well-being and mental health in the psychological literature involves two main elements: a non-judgemental attitude towards one’s own thoughts and feelings and, most pertinently for the current discussion, paying non-judgemental attention to present moment experience. It will become apparent as this discussion progresses, that a present moment focus can include thoughts of the past or the future, although it is much more usual for present focus to be interpreted as being about where you are, what you are doing, and the attendant experiences. This quality of mindfulness is illustrated by self-report measures of mindfulness asking about doing things while being unaware of what you are doing, noticing or not noticing sounds, sights smells, and other sensory experiences, and so on. A present focus is seen most clearly in mindfulness meditation practice, the foundation of which is to learn to pay moment-by-moment attention to the sensations in the body, often the sensations of the breath. If attention is drawn away, as it is likely to be, by distractions in the environment, or to thoughts about other things (p. 215) (plans, daydreams, etc.), then this is noted and attention is gently brought back to the breath in a non-critical way. These competing thoughts can be thoughts outside of that moment, such as thoughts of past and future, but they could also be thoughts about what is happening right now. For example, it is not unusual for people to be thinking about how well or badly they are getting on with the practice. The aim of such training is to enable people to be more mindful in everyday life, not just while they are practising meditation.

There has been a huge growth in interest in mindfulness in recent years, with publications rising in an exponential fashion (Williams & Kabat-Zinn, 2013). One large growth area is in trying to understand the impact of mindfulness training on well-being through evaluating the usefulness of such training in helping people suffering from a range of mental and physical health problems. With its emphasis on non-evaluative noticing and acceptance of experience, rather than struggle, mindfulness-based approaches offer a way for people to relate to their psychological disturbance in a different way (Segal, Williams, & Teasdale, 2012). Rather than rationally disputing their negative thoughts and feelings, as traditional cognitive therapy encourages, a mindful outlook emphasizes non-judgemental observation of experiences. By doing so, people are more likely to prevent secondary problems, for example, feeling hopelessness about how frequently they feel hopeless, or being critical of oneself for not being able to stop having self-critical thoughts. Such secondary problems can be viewed as being as problematic as the primary problems because they create a vicious spiral, and therefore help to maintain the person’s psychological disturbance. By gaining insight into one’s own moment-to-moment thoughts and feelings, opportunities also arise for change. Two main strands of research exist examining the connection between mindfulness and well-being: self-report measures of mindfulness have been correlated with measures of well-being, and mindfulness-based interventions have been developed to enhance well-being and reduce distress. It is beyond the scope of the present chapter to review these literatures fully, but a brief overview of both will be outlined.

Dispositional mindfulness and well-being

Probably the most widely used and highly cited4 of the numerous self-report measures of mindfulness is the Mindful Attention Awareness Scale (Brown & Ryan, 2003). The MAAS consists of 15 items, such as ‘I break or spill things because of carelessness, not paying attention, or thinking of something else’ and ‘I forget a person’s name almost as soon as I’ve been told it for the first time’. (p. 216) Like these examples, all of the items actually describe the opposite of mindful attention, and not endorsing these items is taken as indicative of mindfulness (subsequently reverse scored so that a high score equals high mindfulness). The MAAS correlates significantly with self-report measures of well-being, including medium to large negative correlations with depression, anxiety, and NA, alongside positive correlations with PA and life satisfaction (Brown & Ryan, 2003).

Despite Brown and Ryan’s (2003) title including ‘The benefits of being present’, the data are clearly correlational rather than causal. However, there are other difficulties with interpreting these findings. As the sample items illustrate, the items contain other elements. These other elements are negative things in themselves—who would like to be the sort of person who goes around breaking things and forgetting people’s names? But, in the MAAS these sorts of negative elements are systematically paired with a non-mindful response, leading to a serious conflation of a negative content with a non-mindful response. The scale, in fact, appears to be measuring a state of negatively valued distractedness. It therefore comes as no surprise that it correlates so strongly with low well-being. Furthermore, there is some even more direct construct overlap between the MAAS and well-being. Items asking about forgetfulness or attention problems obviously overlap strongly with some depressive symptoms, rather than being something distinct that can meaningfully be correlated with those symptoms. Again, endorsing these affectively negative items are paired with a non-mindful response. Items such as ‘I find it difficult to stay focused on what’s happening in the present’ or ‘I find myself preoccupied with the future or the past’ suffer from the same problems. It is self-evident that people low in well-being will endorse items suggesting that they have difficulty with things, and are preoccupied. Pairing that content with low mindful responses will result in those low in well-being scoring low in mindfulness (or to be more precise, high mindlessness). It would be interesting to see what would happen if the items were reconfigured so that the ‘good’ response was the other way round, for example, ‘I am often able to do one thing while thinking about another’ or ‘I find it difficult to use the time doing routine tasks to think about other more important things’ (reverse scored)5. A ‘non-mindful’ response (p. 217) in these hypothetical examples is now being paired with a positive element. Such questions are equally biased, of course, but in the opposite direction. Would well-being now correlate positively with these newly configured questions, thereby indicating that well-being is associated with low mindfulness? That remains an empirical question, but my guess is that it would.

The MAAS has also been criticized on the different ground of failing to do justice to the concept of mindfulness, instead, measuring only the single aspect of not having attention focused in the moment (Baer, 2006). In contrast, the other most popular self-report measure, The Five Factor Mindfulness Questionnaire (Baer, 2006) does what its name suggests it might—defines and measures five different facets of mindfulness: (1) observing mental and physical experiences; (2) describing those experiences; (3) awareness of what one is doing; (4) not judging or evaluating inner experiences, and (5) not reacting to inner experiences—simply letting them come and go. Describing and observing have been found to be weakly, or not at all related to measures of psychological distress, both on the full measure (Baer, 2006) and a shortened version (Bohlmeijer, Peter, Fledderus, Veehof, & Baer, 2011). Of the remaining three subscales, acting with awareness, and non-judgement are the most strongly correlated with symptoms of psychological distress, with non-reactivity showing an intermediate level of correlation with distress. Acting with awareness essentially measures the same as the MAAS, drawing on many of the items from the MAAS itself, again, all negatively phrased. The problems already outlined with the MAAS also apply to the acting with awareness subscale. Unfortunately, non-judgement has very similar problems. There is a very strong element of self-criticalness, with six out of the eight items containing negative self-judgement (e.g. ‘I tell myself I shouldn’t be feeling the way I’m feeling’, ‘I criticize myself for having irrational or inappropriate thoughts and feelings’, ‘I believe that some of my thoughts are abnormal and bad and I shouldn’t think that way’). Two of the items are more neutral (‘I make judgements about whether my thoughts are good or bad’, ‘When I have distressing thoughts or images, I judge myself as good or bad, depending what the thought/image is about’), and there are no items about judging one’s thoughts positively. In other words, non-judgement (which, again, is misnamed as all the items are about being judgemental) is about the presence of a particular type of judgement, the type of negative judgement that goes along with being psychologically distressed. Finding a correlation with depression and concluding that those who are depressed judge their thoughts more is misleading because what the correlation actually shows is that, not surprisingly, people who are depressed judge their thoughts negatively. What would be of much greater interest would be to demonstrate that self judgement per se, rather (p. 218) than negative self-judgement, shows some kind of relationship to well-being. That remains a challenge that has yet to be taken up.

A second way to examine the relationship between well-being and mindfulness is through comparing well-being levels of meditators and non-meditators. The findings are somewhat mixed. Hanley, Warner, and Garland (2015) found that those who reported having a regular contemplative/meditative practice scored higher than non-practitioners on life satisfaction. They also had significantly higher scores, as show in Figure 9.1, on five out of the six subscales of the Psychological Well-being Scale (Ryff, 1989), most markedly on self-acceptance (e.g. ‘In general I feel confident and positive about myself’) and personal growth (e.g. ‘I think it’s important to have new experiences that challenge how you think about yourself and the world’). In contrast, Koopmann-Holm, Sze, Ochs, and Tsai (2013) found no difference in positive or negative affect between meditators (who averaged four years of practising meditation), and non-meditators. Clearly, the measures of well-being used in these two studies are really quite different, as are the inclusion criteria, which could account for some of the result variability between these (and other) studies. Koopmann-Holm et al. (2013) also introduced two aspects that were different to most other studies in the area. First, they separated affect into high and low, positive and (p. 219) negative, affect (enthusiastic, euphoric; calm, peaceful; hostile, worried; dull, sleepy). Second, they measured ideal affect as well as actual affect, that is how much participants would like to experience a particular affective state, as well as how much they reported actually experiencing it. Meditators valued low activation positive affect (calmness) more than non-meditators (although they did not report experiencing it more), and they placed less value on experiencing high activation positive affect (excitement). It is worth pointing out that it is not necessarily clear what well-being effects to expect from meditation practice. Adopting a more complex, multidimensional account of well-being certainly opens up possibilities for finding that different aspects of well-being relate to meditation practice, but as Gowans (2016) points out, there is no simple way to relate contemporary western concepts of well-being to those implicit in traditional Buddhist thinking.

Figure 9.1 Scores of contemplative practitioners on measures of well-being, expressed as standard deviations (SDs) from scores of non-practitioners. All, except environmental mastery, were significantly elevated, although self-acceptance and personal growth are notably elevated—more than half a standard deviation above the comparable scores of the non-practitioners.

Figure 9.1 Scores of contemplative practitioners on measures of well-being, expressed as standard deviations (SDs) from scores of non-practitioners. All, except environmental mastery, were significantly elevated, although self-acceptance and personal growth are notably elevated—more than half a standard deviation above the comparable scores of the non-practitioners.

Adapted from Hanley, A., Warner, A., & Garland, E. L. (2015). Associations Between Mindfulness, Psychological Well-Being, and Subjective Well-Being with Respect to Contemplative Practice. Journal of Happiness Studies, 16(6), 1423–1436.

To summarize, the evidence showing a relationship between self-reported well-being and self-reported mindfulness is undermined by problems with the measures of mindfulness, which either have strong and obvious overlap with the constructs that they are attempting to show a relationship to, or they have a clear bias in their questions where an inherently negative quality is paired with a response indicating lack of mindfulness. This is not to say that there is no relationship between mindfulness, or facets of mindfulness, and well-being, simply that the existing self-report measures of mindfulness are incapable of testing this relationship. Studies comparing meditation practitioners with non-practitioners bypass these problems, although of course any results are open to being interpreted as reflecting other self-selection biases in those who practise mindfulness and those who do not. Nevertheless, there are well-being differences between practitioners and non-practitioners, although interestingly, these differences appear to be stronger for the non-affective elements of well-being. All of the findings reviewed in the present section are in essence correlational and do not speak to questions about causality. Studies testing the impact of mindfulness interventions on well-being or distress would be needed to address this issue. A number of such studies have been conducted.

Mindfulness-based interventions

One area where ideas about mindfulness have had a strong impact has been in interventions for psychological distress. A wide array of problems has been subjected to mindfulness-based intervention, starting with mindfulness-based stress reduction (Kabat-Zinn, 1990). Probably the most relevant for the current discussion is mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for depression (MBCT), developed by Zindel Segal, Mark Williams, and John Teasdale (Segal, Williams, & Teasdale, 2002, Second edition 2012). MBCT is a therapeutic (p. 220) approach aimed at preventing relapse in people who have experienced recurrent episodes of depression in the past but are currently remitted. It combines the psychoeducation elements of cognitive therapy (e.g. identifying negative automatic thoughts) with intensive practice of mindfulness meditation. What differentiates it clearly from traditional cognitive therapy is the meditation element, the aim of which is to teach people to be able to focus on their present moment experience in an accepting, non-judgemental way. There is a variety of ways that MBCT might work and attention has turned to uncovering possible mechanisms (Gu, Strauss, Bond, & Cavanagh, 2015; van der Velden, Kuyken, Wattar, Crane, Pallesen et al., 2015). However, essentially, the present moment focus might reduce much of the unhelpful past- (rumination) and future-(hopelessness) thinking characteristic of depression. By adopting an acceptance orientation to ongoing thoughts, the tendency towards continual critical self-evaluation will be minimized, and thoughts (including thoughts about the present) come to be seen as transient mental events rather than necessarily indicators of reality. By practising mindfulness meditation, people learn to be more skilful at experiencing their daily ongoing experience in this way.

Two recent, large-scale randomized controlled trials (Kuyken, Hayes, Barrett, Byng, Dalgleish et al., 2015; Williams, Crane, Barnhofer, Brennan, Duggan et al., 2014) have evaluated MBCT. The studies were very similar in recruiting remitted depressed patients with a history of repeated (three or more) episodes of depression and in comparing MBCT to a defined alternative treatment. Williams et al. (2014) conducted a dismantling trial, comparing MBCT with psychoeducation, which contained the elements of MBCT not linked to meditation, that is, MBCT without the meditation. Kuyken et al. (2015) compared MBCT against continuing treatment with antidepressants. Patients in the MBCT group were encouraged to taper off their antidepressant medication, while those in the continuing medication group were encouraged to persist with it. The results of the studies were also strikingly similar: MBCT performed no better than the alternative treatment either post-treatment or at follow-up. However, additional analyses in both studies showed that a subgroup of patients with a history of abuse showed better outcome if they received MBCT than if they received the alternative treatment. The implications are that while MBCT may not be superior overall to other treatments, there is an identifiable subgroup who may particularly benefit from it. In addition, although strictly speaking, both trials were superiority trials testing whether MBCT produced better results than an alternative treatment, the lack of difference between groups points to the possibility of an equivalently effective alternative treatment that people may choose to follow. A recent meta-analysis of nine randomized controlled trials provides further support for mindfulness as a viable alternative (p. 221) treatment for those with a history of repeated episodes of depression who are currently remitted (Kuyken, Warren, Taylor, Whalley, Crane et al., 2016).

Meditation-based interventions have also been tested in non-clinical contexts. In general, when compared with a control group not receiving a meditation-based intervention, intervention participants show higher levels of well-being following the trial period, although the results are not entirely clear-cut. For example, using a seven-week long loving kindness meditation, Fredrickson, Cohn, Coffey, Pek, and Finkel (2008) found increases in positive emotions but no change to negative emotions. Chambers, Lo, and Allen (2008) compared participants at the end of a ten-day meditation course to those on the waiting list for the course, and found reduction in negative affect and depression, whereas positive affect was unchanged. Koopmann-Holm et al. (2013) found that participants allocated to an eight-week meditation class showed a higher valuing of low activation positive emotions (e.g. calmness) compared to a control group, but did not report experiencing more calmness or show any change in other types of emotions. Interestingly, after a brief 15-minute meditation, Thompson and Waltz’s (2007) participants reported reduced levels of positive affect as measured by the Positive and Negative Affect Scale (PANAS; Watson, Clark, & Tellegen, 1988), which assesses the presence only of high activation states such as excitement and enthusiasm. Clearly, the types of interventions, the participants, the length of the interventions, and the measures of well-being are all different, rendering it difficult to make comparisons across studies. However, it does appear to be the case that there are well-being benefits to be found in taking part in meditation practice, although questions remain about which particular aspects of well-being are responsive and whether different types of practice are sensitive to different aspects of well-being. Additionally, practice is generally compared with a non-active control, the presence of which would provide a stricter test of effect.

Mind wandering

There is a third strand of findings that appear to speak to the value of a present versus a future or past focus. Data from studies on mind wandering would appear initially to support the value of a present focus, although, again, there are reasons to question that simple conclusion. Mind wandering is the name given to thoughts that have shifted from the task at hand to become focused on something other than that task. The term ‘mind wandering’ itself has an evaluative quality—the thoughts are supposed to be focused on a particular task—but mind wandering during a discrete task is actually a particular example of a broader category of thought which is defined by what it is not: it is thought (p. 222) that is not focused on the immediate sensory input of the moment. To give an everyday example, someone may be walking to work thinking about the meeting that they have later that morning, rather than thinking about putting one foot in front of the other or noticing the sound of the traffic that is going past or the feeling of the wind on their face. This broader category is different from situations where someone is supposed to be paying attention to a particular task, as in experimental tasks, because they may have intended, or at least been prepared for, their mind to be on the upcoming meeting. In other words, what really should define something as mind wandering is whether it departs from whatever it is that the person intends, or is happy to be, the focus of their attention. Not paying attention to the immediate environment is, therefore, not necessarily mind wandering. As Baird, Smallwood, and Schooler (2011) point out, being able to engage in mental activity that is about something other than what is happening in the immediate temporal present confers a great deal of mental freedom. Such mental freedom might be of great value. So, rather than mind wandering or daydreaming, or some other term that has a slightly negative tone, a more neutral name for such mental activity is stimulus independent thoughts (SITS; Teasdale, Proctor, Lloyd, & Baddeley, 1993), sometimes also called self-generated thoughts (SGTs; Ruby, Smallwood, Engen, & Singer, 2013) task unrelated thoughts (TUTS; Smallwood, Nind, & O’Connor, 2009) or even stimulus independent and task unrelated thoughts (SITUTS; Stawarczyk, Cassol, & D’Argembeau, 2013), but stimulus independent thoughts, despite its lack of elegance, captures the phenomenon well.

SITs are a common feature of everyday experience. Killingsworth and Gilbert (2010) used a phone app to randomly sample activity, thoughts and feelings during waking hours in over 2,000 US residents. In almost half (47%) of the samples participants answered ‘yes’ to the question of whether they were thinking about something other than what they were doing. Song and Wang (2012), in an experience-sampling study of Chinese students found 24% of thoughts were described as mind wandering, the lower percentage raising the question of possible cultural differences, although there were also some methodological differences from the Killingsworth and Gilbert study. Particularly interesting for the discussion here is that when the temporal orientation of the mind wandering thoughts in the Song and Wang study were categorized, more of them were about the future, rather than being about the present or the past.

Experimental studies of SITS are able to provide an insight into some of their more detailed aspects. Typically, participants are asked to perform a cognitive task during which they are probed at random points to see whether they are thinking about the task or not. If not, then further questions are asked about the nature of the thoughts they are having. The tasks tend to vary in complexity from (p. 223) simple choice reaction time tasks to more complex working memory tasks. Of course, the assumption is that when people’s (usually students’) minds are drifting from a tedious laboratory task that they are performing for course credits or a small payment, that this is similar in important ways to what happens when people engage in SIT in everyday life. If we can live with these assumptions, then the results of these studies are informative about SITs.

Most importantly for the present discussion, a lot of SITs reported in experimental tasks are future-oriented. For example, Stawarczyk (2013) found that 43% of off-task thoughts on a simple choice reaction time task were reported by participants as being about the future, compared to 26% about the past. Rather than asking participants directly to say what the temporal focus of their thoughts were, Baird et al. (2011) asked participants to describe their thoughts, which were later coded by independent raters. Just under half of off-task thoughts were coded as future-related whereas only 12% were past focused and 29 % present-focused (the remainder were uncodable).

Traditionally, SITs have been seen as a bad thing because they are related to poorer performance on tasks—not surprisingly, the more people think about things other than the task at the hand, the worse they perform on that task (see Randall, Oswald, & Beier, 2014; Smallwood, 2013). However, rather than being seen simply as a failure of sustained concentration, one view of SITs put forward by Klinger (1971) proposes that SITs have an important role in people’s wider personal concerns and goals. In this view, people’s minds are drawn to things other than the immediate perceptual input (whether it be a focused task like the experimental tasks already described or broader tasks such as walking to work) when their personal goals or wider concerns are of sufficiently pressing interest to capture their attention. This is most likely to occur when what is happening in the environment is either not very interesting or not very demanding of cognitive resources, or both. It is also likely to happen when concerns or goals are especially pressing.

As well as being intuitively plausible, there are several different sources of evidence to support this view. First, in SITs measured in experimental tasks there is a significant preponderance of self-related and goal-related thoughts concerned with the planning and anticipation of future events (Baird et al., 2011), and this tendency for SITs to be self- and goal-focused is even greater when participants are primed by writing about their goals before the task (Stawarczyk, Majerus, Maj, Van der Linden, & D’Argembeau, 2011). Second, tasks that require executive processes reduce future-directed SITs. For example, as an alternative to describing whether a target is an odd or even number, participants can be asked to describe whether the digit previous to the target was odd or even. As Figure 9.2 shows, using this more complex working (p. 224) memory version of the task reduces the number of future-directed SITs by almost half but, interestingly, does not affect the number of past-related SITs (Smallwood, et al., 2011). One interpretation is that future-directed SITs are distinct from other SITs in being concerned with autobiographical planning, an activity requiring greater executive resources (Baird et al., 2011; Smallwood, 2013), suggesting that they represent an active constructive process (see Chapter 6). Interestingly, mind wandering during experimental tasks is associated with the activity of the default network (Mason et al., 2007), an interconnected set of neural structures that are associated with goal planning (see Chapter 7). Future SITs are also distinct from past SITs by their standard range of temporal focus: Stawarczyk et al. (2013) found that only 3% of future-focused SITs were about more than one year in the future, in contrast to past-focused thoughts, where 31% were about more than one year in the past.

Figure 9.2 Data from Smallwood et al. (2011) showing the proportion of SITs that were past- or future-focused in a simple choice reaction time task or a more demanding working memory task. The working memory task appeared to reduce future- but not past-focused thoughts.

Figure 9.2 Data from Smallwood et al. (2011) showing the proportion of SITs that were past- or future-focused in a simple choice reaction time task or a more demanding working memory task. The working memory task appeared to reduce future- but not past-focused thoughts.

Adapted from Smallwood, J., Schooler, J. W., Turk, D. J., Cunningham, S. J., Burns, P., & Macrae, C. N. (2011). Self-reflection and the temporal focus of the wandering mind. Consciousness and Cognition, 20(4), 1120–1126.

The preceding discussion has argued that, despite being associated with poorer performance on tasks that demand attention, SITs—and hence the particular type of future-directed thinking that occurs in those situations—can be understood as being something of value. A second challenge to the value (p. 225) of SITs, and one that is particularly salient for the focus of this book, is that they appear to be associated with low mood. Participants in the Killingsworth and Gilbert study (2010) reported lower levels of happiness when they were sampled during episodes where they reported that their minds were on something other than what they were currently doing, compared to times when they responded ‘no’ to that question. Of course, even from a utilitarian perspective that values feeling good above anything else, episodes of low mood might not necessarily be bad for someone because of their contribution to a greater sum total of positive mood in the long run. Nevertheless, this finding of lower mood in off-task thoughts, which are known to be more future-oriented than anything else, still represents something of a challenge for the link between future focus and well-being. It is often assumed that when lower mood accompanies mind wandering that it must have been caused by the mind wandering. But one plausible alternative is that both mind wandering and negative mood are the result of loss of interest in the perceptual input. For example, it is well established that people’s moods are at their lowest at the point of the day when they are commuting (Kahneman, Krueger, Schkade, Schwarz, & Stone, 2004). I am not aware that the study has been carried out but it is not difficult to imagine that rates of SITs would also be found to be very high when people are commuting. Does that mean that the greater frequency of SITs is causing people’s moods to be low? Or is it that commuting is such a repetitive and boring activity that it leads to both lower mood and more SITs? This is not to say that there cannot also be causal links between SITs and low mood, but there is an alternative common sense view that both SITs and low mood are part of an overall package of loss of interest in the environmental input.

If this preceding interpretation is correct it should be possible to shift interest from perceptual input (or, in everyday language, for one’s mind to wander) and mood not be lowered, if the focus of what a person’s mind goes to is sufficiently interesting to them. In fact, that is exactly what has been found. In an experience sampling study where participants had to rate the topic of their off-task thoughts on how interesting they were, off-task thoughts where interest was rated highly had more positive mood associated with them than both off-task thoughts where interest was low and on-task thoughts (Franklin et al., 2013). Killingsworth and Gilbert (2010), in their naturalistic study also found that when people’s off-task thoughts were about pleasant topics their moods were equivalent to when they were on-task. In an attempt to look at causality, Ruby et al. (2013) using lag analysis in an experimental task found evidence of negative mood both following and preceding off-task thoughts. Interestingly, within that general pattern, off-task thoughts that were about the past and other people (p. 226) were related to negative mood, consistent with an earlier finding that inducing a negative mood increases the frequency of past-focused SITs (Smallwood & O’Connor, 2011). In contrast, thoughts that were self- and future-related were linked to positive mood, even if those thoughts were not rated as themselves positive. There is clearly a complex relationship between off-task thoughts and mood, much more complex than a simple causal one whereby off-task thoughts produce negative mood.

The present section has covered some of the literature on stimulus independent thought because of the reliable finding that when people are thinking about things other than what is in front of them they are often thinking about the future. Because SITS have often been characterized as mind wandering, with its negative connotations, performance deficits, and low mood states, this seems, again, to present a challenge to the view of future-thinking as being something that might be desirable. Set against this rather negative view of SITs is the idea that spontaneous future-directed thoughts are valuable in relation to a person’s goals and concerns. Although SITs may be associated with low mood, that does not appear to be the case when their content is interesting to the person, reinforcing the idea that both low mood and SITs can arise through boredom and loss of interest in the environmental input. Alternative thoughts can also compete for attention if they relate to pressing concerns or interests. It is quite possible that my writing in this chapter would be compromised by my mind wandering, but if in doing so I am reminded that I have to pick up my daughter from school, and so end up not leaving her stranded, then my mind wandering was a good thing. If, however, my writing is impaired by having thoughts that this chapter is not good enough, I will never get it finished and, anyway, no one is going to be interested even if I do, then most people would agree that those SITs are not beneficial for me. What emerges from the naturalistic and experimental work is that there is no simple view of whether SITs are good for a person or not. If current perceptual input and self-generated thoughts compete for attention, what is good for the person will depend on how important each of them is for the person’s overall well-being, both short- and long-term, something that is also influenced by the affective tone or content of the thoughts.

In fact, within mindfulness, the mind ‘wandering’ onto something that is temporally dated as other than the present need not be viewed as a mistake that needs to be rectified by bringing it back to the immediate temporally dated present. Mindfulness training is concerned with training the mind to focus on the immediate sensory present; but if that is conceptualized as simply a way of anchoring the skill of noticing where the mind’s attention is and enabling choices about where one would like it to be, then it is perfectly possible at other times to be thinking in a mindful way about the future, or, indeed, the past. The (p. 227) critical point is that, after all, thinking about the future or the past happens in the experienced present, and therefore when I am thinking about the future, that is my present experience. In other words, the experienced present may involve thinking about the temporal present (e.g. where I am, what I am doing) but the experienced present could equally be filled with remembering something from the past or imagining something in the future, or even with thoughts and emotions that have no particular temporal anchor. It may be good for me, or be my choice, for my subjective awareness in the present moment to be future-focused, and mindfulness can be seen as a way of facilitating the control and awareness of those thoughts, rather than being a dictat to pull thoughts back to my current sensory experience. This understanding of mindfulness being about the experienced present is implicit in some of the writings about mindfulness within the psychological literature, but in the absence of explicit reference to the distinction it is easy to confuse the experienced present, where thinking can quite reasonably be about the future, with the temporally dated present, where thinking about the future can only be seen as a mind wandering error.

General summary and concluding comments

Different literatures appear to have different starting points in relation to whether a future as opposed to a present focus is desirable. Much of the goals and plans literature (see Chapters 7 and 8) emphasizes the value of being future-minded, and some of the literature on temporal orientation reviewed in the present chapter also starts from that point, although data do not always bear it out. In contrast, the concept of mindfulness, with its emphasis on being focused in the present, appears to present a challenge to the value of a future orientation. However, the apparent contrast dissolves if mindfulness is seen as being about the experienced present (which obviously can include thoughts about the future or the past, as well as the present) rather than the temporally dated present. If this is the case, then it is perfectly possible to be mindful about the future, or, indeed, the past. That is, being mindful about the future would essentially mean viewing those thoughts as mental events (like any other) and being able to respond to them in a way that one chooses to. Embracing future-focused thinking is, of course, consistent with the evidence reviewed elsewhere in this book. Obviously, thinking that is about the past can enhance well-being, as in pleasurable shared reminiscence, but a general orientation to the past does tend to be associated with lower well-being.

It remains true that many findings in both the temporal orientation and mindfulness literatures are undermined by self-report measures that do not access their intended constructs without also, in the process, contaminating (p. 228) them by attaching other value elements to those constructs in a systematic way that biases their connection to well-being. Orientation measures that try to avoid such biases indicate there is evidence of both a present- and a future-focus link with well-being, whereas a focus on the past appears to be associated with lower well-being.

There is evidence that people experiencing psychological distress, particularly those currently in remission from repeated depressive episodes, respond to mindfulness-based interventions. The evidence points to meditation practitioners demonstrating higher levels of well-being than non-practitioners. Of course self-selection cannot be ruled out as an explanation for these differences, that is, it might be that those higher in well-being choose to meditate, although there is no obvious reason that presents itself as to why this should be the case. Interestingly, the differences in well-being shown by meditators might be more linked to eudaimonic aspects of well-being and less connected to its affective elements, although no definitive conclusions can be drawn about this based on the existing, limited evidence. In any case, as already covered, if mindfulness proved to be a highly effective way of enhancing well-being this would not have any implications for the value of future-directed thinking because mindfulness and prospective thinking are entirely compatible.

In their development of the ZTPI, Zimbardo and Boyd (1999) raised the intriguing notion of temporal flexibility—being able to shift temporal focus depending on the situation. Asking whether one temporal orientation is better than another might be posing the wrong question. The flexibility to be able to switch temporal focus is the sort of high level skill that might be key to well-being, both short- and long-term. It is possible that mindfulness meditation, by increasing awareness of current experience, develops this skill, rather than simply being about getting people to be more present-focused at the expense of memory and prospection. Clearly, though, in addition to the skill of being flexible, someone would also need to possess the knowledge and wisdom to choose when to think about past, future, and present in a way that functions best for their well-being.


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1 The term ‘reward’ is used to describe the hypothetical sums that people are offered, although participants are not asked to do anything to attain it, so it is not a reward in the usual sense of being contingent on their behaviour.

2 It is worth noting that a ZTPI future orientation is not inconsistent with hedonism. A future orientation could derive its value from setting up greater enjoyment in the future through foregoing pleasure now, a calculation that is entirely consistent with hedonism as properly defined (MacLeod, 2015).

3 For the analyses, NA was subtracted from PA, providing an overall measure of emotional well-being, meaning that it was not possible to compare differential relationships involving the two mood states.

4 1845 citations, retrieved from Scopus, 3 February 2016.

5 Note, that this is different from the reversal conducted by Brown and Ryan (2003) who did test an alternative positive phrasing. For example, ‘I find it difficult to stay focused on what I am doing’ became ‘I find it easy to stay focused on what I am doing’, which is actually what the items should be in the first place for a scale of mindful attention rather than one of mindless attention. However, the ‘mindful’ response is still being paired with a good quality—finding something easy—which is functionally equivalent to a non-mindful response being paired with a bad quality. The correlations with well-being were slightly attenuated, suggesting that ‘difficult’ sticks slightly more strongly to low well-being than ‘easy’ is repelled by it.