This month, we sat down with a psychologist whose mission is to bridge the gap between Positive Psychological science and practice. Dr. Alberts is the founder of the Positive Psychology Program and more recently created the Mindfulness X program for practitioners. We have referenced their tools in our monthly kits, and today we sit with Dr. Alberts to learn more about what brought him into the field and what drives him today.

Dr. Hugo Alberts - Positive Psychology - Mindfulness X

What brought you into the field of mindfulness?

Back in 2002, while experiencing a quite turbulent phase in my own life, I started to practice meditation. I soon realized how much meditation helped me to cope with the difficult times I was experiencing and became fascinated by the idea of mindfulness, both from a theoretical and practical point of view. To satisfy my curiosity as a researcher, I designed my first experiment on the link between mindful acceptance and self-control in 2006. In this study, we found that the acceptance of emotions requires significantly less cognitive resources compared to suppression. It was the first study testing the link between mindfulness and cognitive resources. After this study, many other studies followed. 

Was this also the starting point of Mindfulness X?

Yes. To become more familiar with the practical side of mindfulness, I joined a formal 8-week mindfulness training program. Although I could clearly see the benefits of the program, I was missing an explanation of the processes and mechanisms of mindfulness. For instance, I wanted to know why it was so important to do a body scan or focus on the breathing, but the trainer could not provide me with a satisfying answer. I thought this was a pity because there were already so many valuable insights on the working mechanisms of mindfulness back then. This is why I started to design my own mindfulness training program. This program was based on the 8-week Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction Program, including the same exercises, but with attention to the working mechanisms and the research behind mindfulness. In the years that followed, the many people that participated in the program always reported how valuable the combination of psychological insights and practice was. In 2017, after more than 6 years of running the program, I decided to make it publically available in the form of a train-the-trainer course that includes all teaching materials. This is when Mindfulness X was born. You could say that Mindfulness X was created as a result of need that I felt to bring science and practice closer together.

In what ways has your experience with positive psychology influenced how you view mindfulness?

I consider mindfulness to be a part of positive psychology, specifically the 2nd wave of positive psychology, which has a more balanced view towards positive and negative experiences. Actually, I think positive psychology made me realize that mindfulness, in a way, doesn’t do anything. Mindfulness is a very powerful way to create awareness. It creates the necessary awareness and space for stepping out of an auto-pilot way of reacting. This awareness creates room to approach this moment, including your experiences, other people and yourself in a new way, however, while mindfulness creates space for action it does provide answers for or insight into alternative options. Positive Psychology has made me realize that once we have created awareness of this present moment, we can deliberately use the space that is created by awareness for something positive if we want.

I believe the biggest problem with Positive Psychology, especially in the beginning was that many people thought it was about happy thinking, positive thoughts and creating positive emotions. If you approach Positive Psychology from this perspective, it easily becomes a way to avoid negative experiences, which is the very opposite of a mindful stance toward experiences. Mindfulness is a way of allowing any kind of experience to be present, both positive and negative. You could say that mindfulness is a prerequisite for applying positive psychology interventions effectively. This is why we deliberately chose to include mindfulness exercises in our Positive Psychology toolkit and make Mindfulness X the first teaching package that we released.

Is there one particular exercise in Mindfulness X that you prefer the most?

Well, personally I like the 3-minute coping exercise the most. The essence of the 3-minute coping exercise is to just stop, pause and ask yourself, how am I doing? What’s going on in my mind?

Although I think formal mindfulness practices like meditation are also beautiful, as well as very powerful, for many people, they are a leap too far. It requires them to sit and focus on meditating for an extended period and many people simply don’t have or are not willing to take that much time. What I like most about the 3-minute coping exercise is that it can be done many times a day and therefore can easily turn into a regular daily practice.

Performing these exercises — like the 3-minute coping exercise — on a daily basis can be a very powerful way to cultivate mindfulness. What you hope is that people start living more mindful in general and that mindfulness becomes something that is embedded into all aspects of their work, personal life and life in general. This is exactly what Mindfulness X was designed for. One of the main goals of including psycho-education in Mindfulness X was to allow participants to see that mindfulness operates at a very profound level. It is not a trick or a technique but a very fundamental way of relating to ourselves and our environment.

What does it mean to you to live mindfully?

For me, in this busy world with a lot of distractions that ask for attention, it means finding a balanced way to navigate through these external demands and not lose ourselves in everything that is going on outside of ourselves. This is easier said than done and more than I would like to admit, I also fall prey to the things that are happening outside of me, such as deadlines and work demands. So, first of all, mindfulness is a way to not lose ourselves in outside influences and tune into what our needs are rather than blindly following what seems to be required from us. I think a very nice metaphor that is often used here is a hurricane. Sometimes, especially when a lot is going on and times are turbulent, you could compare life to a hurricane. What mindfulness does in a way, if you are able to stay connected to yourself and not get lost in stressful or anxious thoughts, is allow you to stay centered and position yourself in the eye of the hurricane where it is quiet. So, it’s actually interesting to use a metaphor. While the outside is very turbulent, twisting and turning, the eye of the hurricane is very quiet, and so for me, a mindful way of living is a bit like the center of that hurricane. Mindfulness helps you to be centered and at peace in a world that is constantly moving and changing and at times, very turbulent.

Secondly, it means you’re also in connection with your own experiences. In my opinion, mindful living means that we pay attention to the feedback we get from our body. If you’re stressed and really need to take some rest, your body will often give you signals, for instance, you could feel tension in your back or something else that tells you, you need to calm down. Because the mind is so overly represented in our culture, it’s often difficult to listen to the body and do something with the feedback we are receiving and make choices based on what you feel and what you experience. Mindfulness is a way to listen more to our system, our body, our emotional world and our feelings and use that information to navigate through life and make choices based on what we need, rather than what is believed to be right. Therefore, Mindfulness is a very important way to stay more autonomous.

Last but not least, mindful living to me means that you have a balanced view of the past, the present moment and the future. In a goal-driven culture, we are so often focused on achieving and becoming that you can easily get lost in a mindset that is always focused on the future. I’m not sure about your readers but many people when they get up in the morning and take a shower, including myself, often are not actually taking a shower but are lost in the future. We’re thinking of what’s ahead, we’re thinking of what’s next that day and what we should and need to do, etc. There are so many things on our mind that while we are taking a shower, our mind is already in the future, planning ahead and so on. I think mindfulness is a way to identify when the mind is constantly in a future mode and bring it back to the present moment because ultimately it is the realization that this is everything we have. I think that planning for the future is necessary. Planning is a beautiful tool but if there is an unbalanced state of future, present and past, people get lost. Not connecting to the present moment and thinking, for instance, how beautiful times once were or how negative things once were, you lose contact with the only thing we have. The same applies to the future. Mindfulness is not only a way of being present in this moment, but also a way to create a balance between past, present moment and future and the realization that this moment is all we have. If we cannot make contact with it, if we cannot find happiness, well-being or satisfaction, or any other kind of state we’re looking for in the present moment, it is very unlikely that we will find it in the future. However, the mind will try to convince us otherwise. A balance between the three is an important characteristic of mindful living. This is why in Mindfulness X, I decided to devote one complete session to goal setting and maintaining a healthy balance between past, present and future.

What upcoming research on the science of living well are you currently most excited about?

Well at the moment we’re designing the world’s first questionnaire on Mindfulness at work. Work fills a large part of our lives and the ability to be mindful at work is really important. Work is a beautiful source to derive meaning from but at the same time, is also a great source of stress and I believe embedding mindfulness into the workplace is going to make a huge difference. In our research, we have already found that mindfulness can help to deal with stressful thoughts or low sleep quality caused by stress at work. Also, in another recent study, we found that participants who received a mindfulness intervention at work experienced significantly less emotional exhaustion and more job satisfaction than participants in a control group who did not receive this intervention. What these findings show us is that there is potential for mindfulness in the workplace.

There are a lot of topics that have been covered already within the field of mindfulness, there is a lot of research on well-being, stress reduction and anxiety but the workplace is definitely under-represented. Hopefully, when the Mindfulness at Work scale is published, it will encourage other researchers to embed mindfulness in work and organizational research and help this field expand.

What are you currently working on that gets you excited?

The thing I’m most excited about at the moment is Positive Psychology X. It is a new training package, similar to Mindfulness X, that we are developing and has been the focus of my work for the past two years. It’s a huge project. Mindfulness X is eight 2,5 hour sessions, but this training package involves 8 full days of training. It was designed for people who are teaching Positive Psychology. It’s a second wave Positive Psychology teaching package, so it embeds all the principals from mindfulness and also includes third wave therapies like acceptance and commitment therapies into Positive Psychology. In doing so, it uses a metaphor that I developed called the sailboat metaphor. The Sailboat metaphor is basically a framework that is very easy to use and understand. It is also very intuitive and at the same time very profound. Many, psychology and positive psychology concepts and topics can be explained by the model. The model can be used to show the intricate connections between them and provide what I believe is a very holistic and balanced view of human functioning.

For instance, the steering wheel of the boat represents the general direction the boat will travel. Just like a steering wheel that is being used to steer the boat, the values that people have also steer the general direction they want to have in life. Unlike goals which are fixed endpoints, general values can only be concretized from moment to moment, so values are in fact very similar to the steering wheel of a boat. In this metaphor, the captain of the boat is who it is all about. Just like the captain can choose to pay attention to the steering wheel or not, people can choose to pay attention to their values. They can ignore them or be aware of them but at the same time, they need to take action. Being aware of values is not enough to lead a life of purpose. To live aligned with values requires action. The captain has the power to grab the steering wheel of the boat and turn it towards the direction that he or she considers to be meaningful or valuable.

The boat metaphor is something I’ve been working on for a very long time. The Positive Psychology X product is a very extensive attempt to create a platform that offers helping professionals, teachers and everybody else working in the field a very effective way of teaching psychology, while also being able to use it with their clients. In addition to all the training materials is a handbook incorporating all the current scientific knowledge, theories and evidence behind the elements of the sailboat. So, this is the project I’ve been most enthusiastic about. For the past two years, I’ve spent most of my free time developing it, it’s a labor of love!

And lastly, how do you define a successful life? Or what does a successful life look like for you?

For me, success has nothing to do with financial status or the approval of others. A person who is successful is a person who believes their life is meaningful and when his or her life is over, they can look back and say that life was worth living. That is what successful living is to me. A life which is felt worth living. For me, successful living has nothing to do with avoiding mistakes or avoiding suffering, on the contrary, I often think the most inspiring people are people that have suffered and know the dark side of life but are still able to be passionate about and grateful for life.


Thanks so much to Dr. Alberts for sitting down with us and sharing a little more about his life and work. Visit the Positive Psychology Program’s website for more of Dr. Alberts wonderful work.

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