Although there's an abundance of empirical evidence linking meditation with more positive mental health outcomes, surprisingly little is known about the exact mechanisms that drive the psychological benefits associated with meditation.
A recent study of 828 people (414 "meditators" and 414 "non-meditators") deconstructs why a consistent meditation practice tends to have positive mental health outcomes. The findings (Yela et al., 2020) are published online ahead of print in the Journal of Clinical Psychology.
Yela and his colleagues at the Pontifical University of Salamanca in Spain found that "meditation was positively associated with mental health, although the regularity of practice was an influential element to be considered." On average, those who meditated more frequently had better mental health outcomes.
During this research, multiple‐step and multiple‐mediator models were tested using bootstrap‐based structural equation modeling (SEM). The authors acknowledge Kristin Neff and Christopher Germer of the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion (MSC) for inspiring their research.
Yela speculates that consistently practicing meditation can boost levels of self-compassion, which triggers a chain reaction of sequential mechanisms that unfold positively over time.
More specifically, Yela et al. hypothesize that increased self-compassion generates an upward spiral that leads to experiencing more meaning in life, fewer avoidance behaviors, and, ultimately, better mental health.
"After reviewing some of the contributions of previous research on this subject, we proposed that three variables could play an important role," Yela said. "[These include] the capacity for self-compassion; experiencing that life has meaning—that is, that there are valuable and important things in life and valuable objectives to pursue; and finally, reducing the extent to which a person avoids thoughts, emotions or experiences that may be unpleasant but are part of his or her life."
To quantify these variables, study participants completed a questionnaire that measured self-compassion, the degree to which each survey-taker experienced meaning in life, and the extent of his or her "experiential avoidance."
"This type of research is very interesting because we can collect data from very large samples and analyze the role that multiple variables may play concerning mental health and psychological well-being," Yela told MedicalXpress. "However, it has some limitations, such as the fact that it is complicated to make causal attributions concerning the relationships among variables. For this reason, we are also carrying out longitudinal research."
"Being self-compassionate is especially important when a person goes through a difficult period in life," Yela said. "In this sense, it is important to clarify the meaning of self-compassion, which includes three components."
Three Components of Self-Compassion
- The ability to be kind and forgiving towards oneself and less self-critical.
- Recognizing that the human experience is inherently riddled with varying degrees of pain, suffering, and difficulty.
- The ability to be consciously aware of disturbing thoughts and upsetting emotions from moment-to-moment without letting these negative feelings become all-consuming or ruin your day.
"In sum, we highlight the relevance of being kind to oneself, treating oneself compassionately, recognizing what is valuable in life and moving forward even though life is not always as one would like it to be," Yela explained.
José Ramon Yela and his team at the Pontifical University of Salamanca are currently conducting another study designed to evaluate the effectiveness of self-compassion practices such as MSC in comparison to the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn and colleagues at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center's Stress Reduction Clinic in the 1970s.
"We are also planning research on the effects of self-compassion practices on a number of psychological, health and biological parameters, the latter being connected with cellular aging," Yela concluded. This longitudinal research will track study participants who are just starting to practice self-compassion over the next three years and compare their outcomes to long-term meditators.
José Ramón Yela, Antonio Crego, María Ángeles, Gómez‐Martínez, Laura Jiménez. "Self‐Compassion, Meaning in Life, and Experiential Avoidance Explain the Relationship Between Meditation and Positive Mental Health Outcomes." Journal of Clinical Psychology (First published online: January 24, 2020) DOI: 10.1002/jclp.22932