Younger Canadians are more prone to self-judgment

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Youth and adolescents are more likely to display traits of self-judgment and hav
Youth and adolescents are more likely to display traits of self-judgment and have worse mental health, including anxiety, depression and stress.

A study by Simon Fraser University psychologists that examined different facets of mindfulness in Canadians has found that youth and adolescents are more likely to display traits of self-judgment and have worse mental health, including anxiety, depression and stress.

By contrast, older participants were found to be more likely to be mindful and focus their attention on the present moment, observing themselves and others without judgment. Those who showed these traits of high mindfulness and nonjudgmental awareness also reported the greatest mental health and wellbeing, with less anxiety, depression and stress.

"Researchers have known for years that older people tend to report being more mindful. But this doesn’t mean we should assume that youth are not mindful at all," says Hali Kil, a professor in SFU’s Department of Psychology and Principal Investigator on the study. "When we tease apart specific components of mindfulness, we see that younger people are actually quite good at paying attention to their surroundings; they just don’t tend to be as kind to themselves as older people."

Mindfulness as a concept has its roots in Buddhist philosophy, and is defined as a state of being that is characterized by attention to the present moment in a way that consciously promotes ethical action and non-attachment. Since the late twentieth century, mindfulness has gained mainstream popularity in many societies as a secular practice. While mindfulness is a term that may be familiar to many, precise definitions of what it entails and how it works are a little harder to pin down.

This study, carried out by PhD candidate Nathaniel Johnson and undergraduate student Ryan Smith, under the supervision of Hali Kil, aims to change that. The researchers set out to examine specific dimensions of mindfulness and how they manifest in different people by surveying a large sample of 1,600 participants ranging from 14 to 90 years of age, of whom half were women.

The participants completed questionnaires to assess how they measured across distinct facets of mindfulness, as well as in life satisfaction, existential well-being, and mental health. The results supported previous findings that high mindfulness is associated with better mental health in general, and further pointed to generational differences; while younger participants were more observant, they generally fared less positively in mental health scores, which might be explained by their tendency to be self-judgmental.

"Younger individuals may be particularly observant of social messages and social cues because social approval tends to be important when we are young," says Nathaniel Johnson. "Teens also tend to negatively compare themselves to others, which could explain why they are judgmental towards themselves.

The study and its findings have important implications for further research on facets of mindfulness and their impact on well-being, as well as research relating to mindfulness-based interventions to support wellness.

"Although mindfulness can be good, being mindfully observant alone is not enough to support mental health," notes Johnson. "Being purposeful in our actions and compassionate towards ourselves may be the two key mindful dimensions that promote well-being."