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What Science Says about the Benefits of Mindfulness-Based Practices

What Science Says about the Benefits of Mindfulness-Based Practices: image

Every semester I give my online Introductory Psychology students a meditation challenge.  They are often surprised to have an assignment like this and are generally eager to engage. It’s not a typical academic assignment assessing a specific learning outcome. It takes them by surprise.  Often students consider meditation to be a waste of valuable time with no clear benefits.  When they complete the lecture material and read the textbook chapter on consciousness and altered states, they learn just how relevant the meditation challenge is to the objectives of their psychology course, and that there is a plethora of scientific research published on the topic.   After all, psychology is the science of mental processes and behavior. Meditation is both of those things and a useful psychological intervention. 

Thich Nacht Hahn, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk educated in psychology, literature, philosophy, and science came by invitation to the United States in 1961 to teach Comparative Religion at Princeton University. His move to the U.S. came within the context of war and political oppression in his country. Although he had founded the Engaged Buddhism Movement to address the suffering caused by the war, he left Vietnam after several of his peers were imprisoned and the government destroyed the school he established. The Vietnamese Government eventually exiled Thich Nacht Hahn and he was unable to return home until 2006. During his time in the United States, he established monasteries and trained thousands of people in mindfulness meditation. Jon Kabat-Zinn, who studied with him, created a psychological intervention called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) based on his teachings. [1]

Jon Kabat-Zinn put his intervention to practice in 1979 at the Stress Reduction Clinic at the Massachusetts Medical School. He was a professor of medicine at the University of Massachusetts.  He integrated Buddhist mindfulness practices with a scientific perspective, opening the door for mindfulness meditation to be used as a stress reduction tool for people regardless of religion or spiritual practice.  Research at the clinic has consistently demonstrated long-lasting improvement in psychological and physical symptoms for research participants.[2]

Thich Nacht Hahn is credited with bringing Buddhist-based meditative practices mainstream in the West.  Jon Kabat-Zinn made it flexible and brought awareness to the science behind the mind-body connection to health benefits. In his view, if “you have a mind, you can practice mindfulness, and if you can breathe, you can practice yoga (connecting the mind to the body).”[3]

The meditation challenge that I give to my community college students includes the following instructions:

·        Set aside 10 – 20 minutes each day for a week.

·        Sit quietly and breathe in and out as usual for about thirty seconds.

·        Lower your eyes and focus your concentration on breathing in and out.

·        Focus on the abdominal area, aware of the movements of the breath.

·        Count each breath – one, inhale, one exhale; two, inhale, two exhale until you reach the count of ten.

·        Each time you notice a thought, return to the count of one.

·        Alternatively, you may focus on a word, phrase, or prayer.

Students are instructed to research the benefits and challenges of mindfulness meditation, report their findings, and discuss their experiences with the meditation challenge.  General student reports range from “life-changing,” and “enlightening,” to “stressful,” and “a waste of time.” For the most part, students embrace the challenge, and some are motivated to continue practicing.  Those who have positive experiences report outcomes like some of that found in the research, and the obstacles are no different.  It’s those who would benefit the most that often have a more difficult time completing the challenge. Mothers raising young children and working full-time while attending community college classes must carve out early morning or late evening time to focus their attention on meditation. Rambling thoughts pertaining to the myriad of responsibilities and tasks left undone create more stress. They perceive that they are wasting precious time. However, those who stick with it often report that those few minutes that they tenaciously held for the assignment had become precious time they now hold dear.

The term “mindfulness” is easy to find in the research and popular literature.  Cheavens and Feldman (2022) define it as “present-moment awareness, the attention you bring to your current thoughts, feelings, and sensations, as well as to the external environment in which you find yourself in any given moment.”[4]  The Buddhist principles that form the core of mindfulness meditation include nonjudgement of thoughts, feelings, and other subjective experiences; nonreactivity to those subjective thoughts, feelings, and sensations; and the attitude of acceptance of the present moment. Another important component of mindfulness practice is the beginner’s mind, approaching experiences with curiosity. 

Scientific research on mindfulness practices and meditation is growing rapidly.  The PsychInfo database reveals greater than 11,200 peer-reviewed articles published in the last decade.  Much of the research is based on mindfulness personality traits and mindfulness practices. 

Some of the reported health benefits of mindfulness include:

·        Reduced stress, including stress-related disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome, post-traumatic stress disorder, and fibromyalgia

·        Improved memory and mental clarity, which can help fight age-related memory loss and dementia

·        Increased attention span

·        Increased self-regulation

·        Improved sleep quality and shorter time to fall asleep

·        Reduction of chronic pain and increased emotion regulation

·        Lower blood pressure

·        Less anxiety, including social anxiety and obsessive-compulsive behaviors

·        Less depression

·        Greater compassion  [5]

A review of research literature found that meditation and mindfulness practices, including Jon Kabat-Zinn’s MBSR, show improvements in anxiety, depression, and pain perception scores. Changes in brain structure and function have also been found in the brains of long-term meditators and people who completed the MBSR program. Behan (2020) suggests that the research supports the assumption that meditation and mindfulness practices are beneficial methods to support different populations and people of varying ages during crises such as the global COVID-19 pandemic. [6]

A review completed by Cheavens and Feldman (2022) suggests that meditative practices can reduce psychological distress and unwanted psychological experiences such as depression, anxiety, stress, and the likelihood of relapsing after treatment for depression. They also found evidence that it can improve sustained attention, problem-solving, and working memory, as well as increase positive emotions and decrease negative emotions and rumination. [7]

The scientific evidence supporting the benefits of mindfulness-based practices such as meditation and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction is clear. Pioneers like Jon Kabat-Zinn led the way for Martin Seligman’s Positive Psychology, the new science of happiness and well-being. Positive Psychology interventions have been shown to help people increase happiness, and flourishing, and have what Seligman, calls “a life worth living.” [8]  Meditative practices are part of this growing Positive Psychology toolkit. 

Students in my Positive Psychology classes are introduced to mindfulness meditation from day one.  They begin the semester by taking an assessment to measure their perceived level of “flourishing.” Flourishing is defined by high levels of subjective well-being and low levels of psychological distress. Through the course of the semester, they experience in-class meditations, and other mindfulness practices such as “savoring,” and “flow.”  To savor is to expand a pleasurable experience through present-centered awareness. Flow is a term coined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and refers to complete immersion in an activity. To experience this present-centered state of consciousness, the activity must be one with the right balance of skill and challenge.[9]  Interventions such as goal setting, gratitude journaling, and performing random acts of kindness are some of the other interventions that students apply. By the end of the semester, they take the flourishing assessment again. Most report a higher score.  When asked what they believe attributed to the increased score, many stated that it was taking the positive psychology class. Interventions students typically plan to continue after the semester ends are the mindfulness-based practices of meditation and savoring.   

As presented in this article, there are a number of evidence-based reasons to try meditation and other mindfulness-based practices. The physical, psychological, behavioral, and spiritual benefits appear to be worth the effort.   

[1] Cheavens, J. & Feldman, D. (2022). The science and application of positive psychology. Cambridge University Press.

[2] Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Training. (N.D.) Jon Kabat-Zinn. Jon Kabat-Zinn - Mindfulness Training (mbsrtraining.com)

[3] Ibid.

[4] Cheavens, J. & Feldman, D. (2022). The science and application of positive psychology. Cambridge University Press.

[5] UC Davis Health (2019). 10 Health benefits of meditation. https://health.ucdavis.edu/newsroom/news/headlines/10-health-benefits-of-meditation/2019/06

[6] Behan, C. (2020). The benefits of meditation and mindfulness practices during times of crisis such as COVID-19. Irish Journal of Psychological Medicine vol. 37, 4, 256-258. doi: 10.1017/ipm.2020.38

[7] Cheavens, J. & Feldman, D. (2022). The science and application of positive psychology. Cambridge University Press.

[8] Seligman, M. (2012). Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and well-being. Atria Books.

[9] Csíkszentmihályi, M. (2008). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. Harper Perennial Modern Classics.