Life of the Mindful

What it takes to pursue well-being.

Mindfulness is having a moment right now—but what exactly is it? According to psychology professor Karen Dobkins, PhD ’92, who teaches a class on mindfulness and mental well-being, the answer is multifaceted: “Sometimes I say it’s freedom from suffering. Sometimes I say it’s awareness. Sometimes I say it’s loving all of it—the good, the bad and the ugly.”

Karen Dobkins
Karen Dobkins, PhD ’92

But if she had to give one answer, Dobkins says it’s “cutting through the storytelling to get clear on what’s happening inside you. It’s not about being happy, it’s about being at peace.” And one thing she’ll always say is that it is extremely valuable in helping people improve their quality of life. Especially in the modern age, and especially for the modern student, mindfulness is more important than ever.

“When I was on campus 25 years ago, there was a lot of camaraderie, curiosity and excitement. Grad students met up at the Pub; it really felt like the time of our lives. But students today seem so worried about the future that they can’t enjoy the present moment,” Dobkins says. “They can’t take in the experience that they’re having because they’re thinking about the next step.”

She describes having a wake-up moment six years ago, when she realized that she was no longer truly fulfilled by her neuroscience research, but instead sought to answer the many questions she had about mental well-being. So she took a risk on a mid-career shift, starting fresh with no publications or research history, just a commitment to seek personal fulfillment in her work and answers to the questions she really cared about.

Dobkins now leads a lab on mindfulness, where a significant portion of her research efforts study the mental health of undergraduates. She also started a Learning Sustainable Well-being effort on campus, with the ultimate goal to implement a mandatory 1-unit mental wellness course into the undergraduate general education curriculum.

She has tested the concept by teaching the class “Principles of Clarity,” an interactive mindfulness seminar to help students improve their well-being. The class has thus far been enlightening and rewarding for both Dobkins and her students. Student surveys report strong bonds that allow for vulnerability, interaction, and personal development. And Dobkins says the connections made with her students around this subject make starting fresh all the more worthwhile.

“One thing I would say is it’s never too late to change your career, to change your path. But you have to be willing to constantly ask yourself, does this path have heart?” she says. “And if the answer is no, you have to trust that you have to get off that path and you’ve got to find another one.”