The New Resilience

Better health in an interconnected world.

Does Short-Term Meditation Work? Here's What Research Found

Do even brief periods of meditation help with anxiety and depression?

I regularly encourage the people I work with to practice meditation. It builds a kind of inner "shock absorber" that helps you maintain calm and focus in the midst of daily stress and the multiple demands of living in today's world. While that's not the true purpose of meditation (another subject altogether), it's certainly a by-product benefit. The problem for many people is that they say it takes too much time to devote to regular meditative practice.

Well, some new research looked the results of short-term meditation for your thought processes -- your judgment in making decisions -- and also your level of resilience in the face of negative emotional states. Here's what they discovered:

Research conducted at INSEAD and The Wharton School, and published in Psychological Science, found that even short-term mindfulness meditative practice of about 15 minutes can help you make wiser choices when making decisions. In mindfulness meditation, you build awareness of the present moment and try to let go of other thoughts that intrude and distract.

The researchers found that meditation can help counteract the tendency to people to "have trouble admitting they were wrong when their initial decisions lead to undesirable outcomes," according to the lead author Andrew Hafenbrack, from INSEAD. "They don't want to feel wasteful or that their initial investment was a loss. Ironically, this kind of thinking often causes people to waste or lose more resources in an attempt to regain their initial investment or try to 'break even.'" The researchers referred to this tendency as the sunk-cost bias -- commonly known as "throwing good money after bad."

Co-author Zoe Kinias added: “We found that a brief period of mindfulness meditation can encourage people to make more rational decisions by considering the information available in the present moment. Meditation reduced how much people focused on the past and future, and this psychological shift led to less negative emotion. The reduced negative emotion then facilitated their ability to let go of "sunk costs."

"This tool is very practical," added co-author Sigal Barsade. "Our findings hold great promise for research on how mindfulness can influence emotions and behavior, and how employees can use it to feel and perform better."

Then, in the realm of your emotional well-being, one recent study found that a brief mindfulness mediation practiced for 25 minutes for three consecutive days diminished participants' stress level. Published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology, this study was different from most that have focused on longer periods of meditative practice, over a span of weeks. That's significant because the latter studies have already added to the evidence that mediation does build more effective stress management, especially when dealing with troubling emotions or the multitasking challenges of everyday life. This new study showed similar benefits over a shorter period of practice.

In another study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers focused on 47 clinical trials performed among 3,515 participants. They underwent what was typically an eight-week training program in mindfulness meditation. The researchers found evidence of improvement in symptoms of anxiety and depression after just 30 or so minutes per day of meditation. The findings held even as the researchers controlled for the possibility of the placebo effect.

"A lot of people have this idea that meditation means sitting down and doing nothing. But that's not true," says Madhav Goyal of Johns Hopkins University, and a lead researcher in the study. He adds, "Meditation is an active training of the mind to increase awareness, and different meditation programs approach this in different ways."

So if you've put off practicing meditation because you envision that it requires long periods of practice before realizing any benefit, take heart: These studies show even a short period a day -- probably less than what you spend surfing the Internet — increases your cognitive judgment and your emotional resilience.

dlabier@centerprogressive.org

Blog: Progressive Impact

Center for Progressive Development

© 2014 Douglas LaBier

Douglas LaBier, Ph.D., is a psychologist and the Director of the Center for Progressive Development in Washington, DC.

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