Minding the Body

The guide to health and happiness

Meditation Can Make You Calmer, Kinder, Smarter

New studies offer fresh insights into the benefits of meditation.

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Meditation has more in common with psychotherapy than immediately meets the eye. Done well, both can have a profound, lasting effect on how you feel, how you think, and how you relate to others.

As a journalist, I first began reporting on scientific research into the benefits of meditation about 20 years ago. It’s an infinitely harder job today, thanks largely to the explosion of interest in mindfulness. But it’s also much more gratifying, because the research is increasingly varied and sophisticated.

Here are four of the most interesting studies to appear within the last six months. In one way or another, each demonstrates how the regular practice of meditation can help you become your best self.

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Meditate to…Value Calmness

A recent study in the journal Emotion looked at meditation’s effect on how people ideally want to feel. The feelings people value most help guide their behavior. For example, those who value feeling calm may be motivated to take actions such as streamlining their schedules, setting aside a block of quiet time, or signing up for a yoga class.

Researchers, led by Birgit Koopmann-Holm of Stanford, found that meditators placed a higher premium on calmness than non-meditators. In one experiment, 96 participants were randomly assigned to eight weeks of mindfulness meditation class, compassion meditation class, improvisational theater class, or no class at all.

Mindfulness meditation teaches people to focus their awareness on moment-to-moment experience, noticing and accepting it without judging it. Compassion meditation teaches people to focus their mind on compassionate thoughts and feelings for all beings, even strangers and enemies.

By study’s end, participants in the meditation classes valued calmness more than those in the other two groups. The type of meditation they practiced didn’t make a difference in this regard.

Meditate to…Subdue Anxiety

Meditation may also help quell anxiety and stress. A study in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry included 93 people with generalized anxiety disorder. This disorder causes exaggerated worry and tension over many different things, even when there is little or nothing to provoke it.

Researchers, led by Elizabeth Hoge of Massachusetts General Hospital, randomly assigned half the participants to a mindfulness-based stress reduction program. The others took part in a more general stress management class. After eight weeks, both groups were less anxious. However, the mindfulness group showed a greater reduction in anxiety as well as less reactivity to stress.

Meditate to…Foster Compassion

Buddhist philosophy teaches that meditation can lead to greater compassion. A small study in Psychological Science, led by Paul Condon of Northeastern University, supports this idea. Participants were randomly assigned to mindfulness meditation, compassion meditation, or a waiting list. After finishing the eight-week study, each was scheduled to come in to the lab for a series of tests.

What participants didn’t know was that it was a ruse. The situation was rigged so that the waiting area had only one empty chair. Once the participant sat down, an actor using crutches arrived, visibly wincing and audibly sighing in discomfort. Meditators, regardless of the type of meditation they had practiced, were more likely to offer the sufferer their chair than non-meditators.

Meditate to…Boost Learning

Meditation develops mental focus—a skill that may come in quite handy for other activities requiring sustained attention. In a study in the journal Mindfulness, college psychology students who briefly meditated right before a lecture scored better on a post-lecture quiz than students who didn’t meditate.

The effect was stronger in classes with a preponderance of freshmen. According to study coauthor Robert Youmans of George Mason University, that may be because meditation was particularly helpful for students who had lots of trouble paying attention in class. Those students are at risk for dropping out, so fewer of them make it to being upperclassmen. Potentially, meditation might help them be more successful in their college courses and later in their careers.

Linda Wasmer Andrews is a writer who specializes in health, psychology, and the intersection between the two. Follow her on Twitter. Like her on Facebook.

Linda Wasmer Andrews is a health writer with a master's degree in health psychology.

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