“Comfortable with all of life’s inevitable discomfort.”
Directed by Julian Harvey and Shannon Harvey
International Science Film Festival (SCINEMA) Best Film Winner 2020
My Year of Living Mindfully (2020) is a very well thought out documentary that explores the merit of mindful meditation, and whether it is a scientifically proven method that improves and maintains mental health . It takes us through the scientific method, as Shannon Harvey, our guide and and experimental subject, conducts an experiment to find whether mindful meditation can be used to maintain her mental health and what, if any, biological effects it has on her body
The first step of the scientific method is to identify an issue through research. The film uses animation to help us see how this was done. We watch as important statements from articles get highlighted and notes are made in the borders in Shannon’s handwriting. The handwriting on the screen along with actual handwritten notes in her notebook resemble the laboratory notebooks that all scientists have to keep as a record of each experiment, enforcing the idea that this is a science experiment. Shannon finds an article from The Lancet (a prestigious peer-reviewed scientific journal) which talks about the dangers of mental health issues1. Peer-reviewed articles are important as they can only be published if other experts within the field in question agree that the data is sound and the conclusions drawn from that data are realistic.
“The global burden of disease attributable to mental disorders has risen in all countries.”Patel et. al (2018) The Lancet
However this article is not the only research being done in this documentary. Shannon also interviews experts that explain the extent of the global mental health crisis:
“Unless we change course by 2030, depression will overtake heart disease and be the single biggest health problem we face.”
So Shannon has now identified an issue. The next step in the scientific method is to see whether there exists a solution to this problem. Shannon goes back to the research and although there is plenty of research on how to physically maintain your body, there is no scientifically proven way to take care of your mind;
“When I looked for a widely accepted, evidence-based recommendation for our mental health, the brain’s equivalent of a 30 minute jog around the block or the mind’s daily serving of five fruit and vegetables, there was nothing.”
The dramatic tone used here and stark black background which the words are said against really highlight the issue and ‘hook’ the audience, leaving us wondering, what can we do?
The next thing that experiment needs is scope, what kind of answer to this issue are we looking for. Shannon decides on the following criteria:
“It has to be avaliable to anyone, anywhere, at any time, which means it has to be free or at least low cost. It has to be available to anyone regardless of their education or life circumstances and it has to fit into the busy schedules of people living in the real world….It also has to based on a solid foundation of scientific evidence.”
The point that she is trying to make is that the solution cannot be expensive therapy or a complete change in lifestyle, such as quitting your job and living on the beach. Rather, this has to a realistic practice that almost everyone can do every day, such as eating 5 fruit and vegetables.
These requirements draw Shannon to mindful meditation. Here, animations help us to understand the extent of research that has been done on mindful meditation and the number of articles that have shown that is does have some impact on brain activity or mental health. She finds a randomised study that shows 8 weeks of mindfulness training can help prevent recurrent depression to an equal extend as medication2. Unfortunately, medications often fail to appropriately treat depression due to the complicated nature of the disorder and its comorbidity with other mental illnesses, but maybe mindfulness meditation is something that patients can do in addition to medication to increase their likelihood of treatment success. However, is this evidence too good to be true?
Shannon decides to test it for herself. Her research question is:
“…is it just self report quality of life that changes or is there something really interesting that happens on a biological level?”
Now that Shannon has decided on the question, she needs a method. Shannon plans on meditating every day for 20 minutes for a year, to do an 8-week course in mindfulness and also a 10-day silent retreat. All the while she will periodically have tests that will measure her brain activity levels and the structural size of different neural areas. She will also measure gene expression of inflammatory genes, the symptoms of her chronic disease and the length of her telomeres – caps on your DNA that reduce with age. No good methodology section is finished without a fantastic montage and this film does not disappoint. The montage follows Shannon meditating while life goes on around her. The only issue I have with this methodology is that it changes over the year. At Day 123, she jumps up to 45 minutes of meditation per day. By not sticking strictly to her pre-determined methodology she will not know whether 25 minutes was enough, or whether the increase to 45 minutes was needed to get any results. However, Shannon also highlights to us that there is no scientifically proven way to correctly meditate or any information on how long you should meditate for.
There is also the concern that this is a single person experiment (n=1) and it is therefore difficult to extrapolate any data found to determine whether similar results will be seen in any other person. This is discussed with the scientists and also made abundantly clear throughout the film that this is a personal, subjective experiment. We see intimate footage of Shannon with her children, we are invited into her home, we see footage filmed on her phone at 1am when she cannot sleep, we are exposed to her anxieties about the film and even the film making process as when we see Shannon interviewing any of our specialists she is surrounded by equipment – camera, microphones and lights. This allows us to form an attachment to Shannon, but also enforces that this is subjective experiment, based on one singular person. Filming these intimate moments also suggests that the film tries exceptionally hard to show that it is not trying to hide anything, that this is actually what happened in Shannon’s year of mindfulness.
The film also tries to prove to its audience that it is trying to set itself apart from the many companies on the internet that try to sell a cure for everything. Shannon has an autoimmune disease called lupus. Seeing her health records we are not only exposed to intimate details of Shannon’s life, but she is proving to us that she does in fact have this disease. In a world of Belle Gibsons, who pretended to cure brain cancer with healthy eating and made a fortune off of the vulnerable, this is unfortunately an important part of showing the authenticity of the film. Shannon discusses how the desperation of a diagnosis with no known cure means that you are exceptionally vulnerable to scams.
“I have spent thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars trying to find something that would cure me.”
Shannon even discusses how she was once caught out with one of these scams. This indicates to us how important it is that this film does not scam people out of their money and the importance of using scientifically proven methods of mindful meditation;
“If someone tells you this new intervention will fix everything, then ask them hard questions. Because anyone that is trying to tell you that one thing works 100% of the time for 100% of the people is not telling you the whole story.“Dr. Nicholas Van Dam
The film also explores the many criticisms of mindfulness, and is conscious that after watching the documentary may want to try it themselves. There are many mindfulness programs/products/retreats advertising a non-evidence based cure-all, and therefore the film highlights that importance of learning from experts, and provides names of the apps and courses Shannon uses. It advertises against buying into the mindful hype that is now being used to sell things such as KFC and mayonnaise. The film is very clear about the dangers of mindfulness retreats. Silent retreats have been known to cause some people to lose their sense of self and to create heightened feelings of fear. This is discussed to ensure that people are careful when deciding whether this is something they actually want to do.
The film also highlights other case studies and single person experiments. These are not as scientifically rigorous as Shannon’s experiment, but show people who have used mindfulness to improve their lives. We are shown affluent news reporters, life-long disabled meditation teachers and refugees in Tel Aviv. This is important as it shows that if this experiment does have positive results, then it may have positive results in people in every life circumstance.
My Year of Living Mindfully then arrives at the results. The film has uses beautiful animations sparingly, purely to explain difficult concepts or to make boring graphs and journal articles more interesting by drawing our attention to what is important. The film exposes the audience to the difficulties of science:
“I might not find any black and white answers and that the scientific process is actually made up of shades of grey.”
The film shows all the external factors that impacted the data which means that it may not be as reliable as it appears at first glance. This is the equivalent of a conclusion and discussion section and as the limitations of the data become apparent it is clear that more research needs to be done… as there always is with each scientific experiment.
This documentary, My Year of Living Mindfully (2020), is fantastic. Not only does it discuss the pros and cons of mindful meditation and offer clear ways that the public can go about doing it themselves, it also teaches the scientific method clearly by going through each step of an experiment, explaining the faults, rather than hiding them, and explaining how the experiment could be improved in the future. I highly recommend it for your Friday Night Film Night.
- Patel V, Saxena S, Lund C, Thornicroft G, Baingana F, Bolton P, et al. The Lancet Commission on global mental health and sustainable development. The Lancet. 2018 Oct 27;392(10157):1553–98
- Kuyken W, Hayes R, Barrett B, Byng R, Dalgleish T, Kessler D, et al. Effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy compared with maintenance antidepressant treatment in the prevention of depressive relapse or recurrence (PREVENT): a randomised controlled trial. The Lancet. 2015 Jul 4;386(9988):63–73.