by Dr. John Edwards
For centuries, people have practiced meditation. Their reasons for doing this vary. Some do it to gain wisdom, some to become more compassionate, others are in search of a spiritual experience, and some simply want to manage stress and anxiety. But they all do it because they believe it will somehow lead to a better life. But is this true?
Psychologists, neuroscientists, and medical researchers have studied meditation for many years, with the first published paper in a western journal on this topic coming in 1963. In the early days, it was very much a fringe topic. Recent years have seen a dramatic change in the landscape, with meditation becoming an extraordinarily hot research focus. Last year alone saw over 400 academic papers published on meditation. All of this research has given us a great deal of knowledge about the effects of meditation.
Although reports of this research often treat meditation as though there were only one technique, there are actually many different meditation techniques. What all forms of meditation have in common is that they involve manipulation of one’s attention in one way or another. They vary in terms of two dimensions: first, the extent to which they involve focused versus defocused attention (is the goal to focus on just one thing, or to broaden attention to attend to many things?) and second, the object of attention (that is, to what are you paying attention?
In recent years, much of the research on meditation has focused on a particular type of meditation called mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness meditation involves paying attention to what is going on in the present moment in a nonjudgmental way.
This is harder than it appears, because people’s minds are constantly wandering and being distracted by stray thoughts, memories, worries, plans, and so on. But mindfulness meditation isn’t the only type that has been studied — others, such as loving-kindness meditation, Christian contemplative techniques, and yoga, have also been researched.
The pattern of results from these sorts of studies indicates that regular meditation practice has numerous beneficial effects. For instance, it is associated with increases in happiness, decreases in symptoms of depression, and increases in life satisfaction.
Indeed, meditation is perhaps the only intervention that psychologists have found that overcomes the “hedonic treadmill”, which is the tendency for people to habituate to things that make them happy. (Try watching the same comedy every day for two weeks. The first day it will make you laugh. The tenth day? Not so much.) Meditation, so long as it is done regularly, leads to sustained increases in happiness.
Meditation has other psychological effects as well. It leads to increases in optimism and feelings that one can accomplish things. It also leads to increased ability to focus one’s attention. Meditators also report having better relationships.
Meditation also has physiological effects. It is associated with reduction in physiological markers of stress, in part because people are beter able to manage their emotions and thoughts in response to negative events. This leads to a reduction in negative health outcomes related to stress, including things as diverse as psoriasis and migraines. Not surprisingly, this has led meditation to be used as a treatment for certain kinds of mental and physical health problems. It has been used as a way to help people manage chronic pain, binge eating, panic disorder, and depression, among others.
So What’s the Catch?
There appear to be few negative effects associated with meditation, but there are a few things to bear in mind. One of them is simply the commitment involved. Although positive effects have been observed among novice meditators in even very brief sessions, the best effects are associated with a sustained, regular practice. Research on the relationships between meditation and happiness indicates that people who stop a regular meditation practice may slowly see their happiness levels revert to the old levels. Much like an exercise routine, if you stop doing it, you slowly get out of shape.
There are also some initial indications in the research literature (as well as from anecdotes) that people differ with regards to which meditation technique will offer them the most benefit. For instance, a person who already has high concern for others, or who has a tendency to feel guilty about their interactions with others, may not benefit from compassion meditations. This is especially true for meditation when it is used as a treatment for mental illness. Some meditation types simply don’t work for some forms of mentall illness (and indeed may make things worse). A related issue is that the allure of meditation as a simple, side-effect free way to deal with life’s problems may lead people to fail to seek out help from mental health experts for serious problems, or to discontinue treatment for such problems without consulting their doctor (ironically, becaue meditation makes them feel better).
That being said, a great deal of research has shown that a meditation practice can be an important component of a happier, healthier life. It’s something that virtually anyone can do. So find a meditation teacher, and get started!
Dr. John Edwards is the Head of the School of Psychological Science at Oregon State University. He is a social psychologist specializing in social cognition and individual differences. He has received grants from the National Science Foundation and he Department of Defense, among others. His recent research has focused on uncertainty, “best practices” for communicating risk and probability information to people, and the intersection of Buddhist philosophy and social cognition. Along with Dr. Winston McCullough, he teaches a course on the Psychology of Meditation.