We've all been told of the health benefits of meditation, but how exactly does it benefit us and those around us? Significant research findings are now being circulated to demonstrate the ways that meditation, and adopting a mindful approach to life, can enhance our wellbeing.
The following summary is just a brief synopsis of the current research into this burgeoning field.
1. Meditation makes you happier
There is a growing body of evidence that regular long term meditation shifts the set point of the brain increasingly towards the left pre-frontal cortex. If you’re not a neuroscientist, this probably means little to you, but in simple terms, the left pre-frontal cortex is the seat of positive emotions like joy, wonder and gratitude, while the right pre-frontal cortex fires when we experience emotions associated with withdrawal and avoidance, such as fear, anxiety, sadness and grief.
Dr Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist based at the University of Wisconsin studied experienced Buddhist monks who had undertaken significant amounts of meditation training. Using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), Davidson discovered the monks produced gamma brain waves that were 30 times as strong as non-meditators'. In addition, larger areas of the meditators' brains were active, particularly in the left prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for positive emotions.
Davidson realised that the results had important implications for ongoing research into the ability to change brain function through training. In the traditional view, the brain becomes frozen with the onset of adulthood, after which few new connections form. In the past 20 years, though, scientists have discovered that intensive meditation training can make a difference.
Whilst very few of us would be able to devote the amount of time to meditation that a Buddhist monk can, these findings present interesting considerations for the potential of meditation to enhance positive emotional states.
2. Meditation assists with greater emotional regulation
In a controlled clinical trial on an 8 week program of mindfulness practices and information on psychological theory, participants were found to experience reduced anxiety, depression and rumination (getting stuck in repetitive thoughts), and increased positive emotions, and this effect lasted for at least several months after the completion of the training.
The training participants experienced was a Cultivating Emotional Balance (CEB) program based on mindfulness meditation and emotion regulation training to improve and enhance well-being and emotional resilience.
Meditation can protect a person from the debilitating effects of some emotional events, like going off to war, according to a study published in February 2010. In this study, U.S. marines preparing for deployment spent two hours each week practicing mindfulness meditation training for eight weeks. Compared with the marines who didn't meditate, those who did showed improved moods and working memory, which allows for short-term retrieval and storage of information. The training seemed to allow individuals to stay alert and in the moment without becoming emotional, giving them a kind of "mental armour”, and increasing their ability to manage their emotions in traumatic circumstances.
3. Meditation improves your relationships
Mindfulness meditation practices are now being used to enhance relationships. A relatively new intervention, mindfulness-based relationship enhancement, is designed to enrich the relationships of relatively happy, non-distressed couples. Studies on the use of mindfulness meditation practices to enhance relationships have found these programs favorably impact couples’ levels of relationship satisfaction, autonomy, relatedness, closeness, acceptance of one another, and relationship distress. On an individual level, studies found that these programs positively affected an individual’s optimism, spirituality, relaxation and psychological distress; and that results were maintained after the program.
Those participants who practiced mindfulness meditation more had better outcomes, and measures showed greater mindfulness practice on a given day was associated on several consecutive days with improved levels of relationship happiness, relationship stress, stress coping efficacy, and overall stress.
Through mindfulness practices, participants cultivated the skills of moment-to-moment awareness, allowing people to gain insight into patterns in their thoughts, feelings, and interactions with others, and to skilfully choose helpful responses rather than automatically reacting in habitual ways.
4. Meditation makes you kinder
There is significant research now suggesting that kindness and compassion are skills that can be actively cultivated through meditation practices, and that doing so benefits both the meditator, and those around them.
A clinical trial conducted by the Center for Compassion and Altruism at Stanford University explored the deliberate cultivation of positive emotional states through compassion meditation training. Scientiﬁcally, compassion has been associated with decreased negative emotions and stress responses, and also with increased positive emotions, social connectedness, and kindness towards oneself and others.
A group at Stanford University along with the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE) created a compassion cultivation training (CCT) involving meditation practices explicitly designed to cultivate compassion and kindness. A study of the effectiveness of CCT demonstrated the success of cultivating a more compassionate approach to oneself and others through meditation practices.
A further study, published in 2008 explored both novice and experienced meditators who practiced compassion meditation, which involves focusing on loved ones and directing loving-kindness toward them, and then extending that goodwill to all beings indiscriminately. When participants heard emotional sounds, such as a distressed woman calling out or a baby laughing, they showed more brain activity in brain regions linked to empathy while meditating than when not meditating.
5. Meditation changes your brain
A study by the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) published in March 2012 found that long-term meditators have larger amounts of folding, of the brain's cortex than people who don't meditate. The extra folds may allow the meditators to process information faster than others.
Another UCLA study found that people who meditate also have stronger connections between brain regions and show less age-related brain shrinkage.
A further study recently undertaken by researchers at the Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School found that individuals who undertook an 8 week mindfulness meditation program had increases in the areas of their brain associated with learning and memory, and decreases in matter in the amygdala – the area of the brain in which negative emotions such as anxiety and stress originate. A control group that did not practice meditation showed no such changes.
Have you ever practiced meditation, and if so, have you noticed any immediate or longer term results?