What could be better than reaching your big goals? Well, it turns out that meditation – something you could be doing daily, at no cost and with little effort – offers benefits that success can’t bring.
Meditation as Mindfulness
The studies on meditation generally focus on a broad type of meditation that could be called mindfulness. Mindfulness simply means keeping one’s thoughts focused on a single thing. It could be your breath (a typical point of focus in meditation) or it could be a single image or word or emotion.
It sounds simple but when you try it, you realize how much your mind wants to jump around. But that’s okay: “When a “stray” thought arises, the practitioner must be quick to recognize it, and then turn back to the focus of their attention,” says George Dvorsky, writing about meditation. “And it doesn’t just have to be the breath; any single thought, like a mantra, will do.”
Here are 15 ways meditation can improve your life, whether or not you ever reach those big goals.
1. Meditation helps you handle stress better.
According to the Mayo Clinic, “When you meditate, you clear away the information overload that builds up every day and contributes to your stress.”
Much of our stress comes from too much input and a lack of time or tools in handling the input. We get information, emotions, and we get overloaded. Our brains don’t know what to handle first, so they just keep cycling through all the information. Talk about crazy-making.
Meditation helps your brain to let things slide away by simply giving it time to rest and meander through the information, bit by bit, letting go of what is unimportant.
2. Meditation can improve how your brain functions.
A 2012 study showed a brain process called gyrification happening more in people who meditate. Gyrification is “the “folding” of the cerebral cortex as a result of growth, which in turn may allow the brain to process information faster. Though the research did not prove this directly, scientists suspect that gyrification is responsible for making the brain better at processing information, making decisions, forming memories, and improving attention.”
If that’s not enough, there is also evidence from MRI scans that meditation can reinforce connections between brain cells. Another study showed that meditation “may be associated with structural changes in areas of the brain that are important for sensory, cognitive and emotional processing. The data further suggest that meditation may impact age related declines in cortical structure.”
In other words, meditation may not only make your brain work better, it might also slow down the aging process within the brain.
3. Meditation can help you get in touch with yourself.
The busyness of modern life, along with the perpetual onslaught of media that tells us how we ought to look, feel, and behave, can leave us feeling detached form ourselves. It can be difficult to connect with our own values and emotions. We see standards put into place, and we want to meet those standards, so we pretend to be a certain way even when, perhaps, we are not.
Meditation can help us with that. According to researcher Erika Carlson,
“Mindfulness helps us to see our authentic selves in two ways: nonjudgmental observation, and attention. Nonjudgmental observation enables people to really get to know themselves without feeling any negative feelings.”
4. Meditation can improve your grades.
Whether you’re a part-time student, a full-time student, or someone who just likes to take tests for fun, meditation can help you learn and retain what you learn.
One study showed that mindfulness training resulted in “improved accuracy on the GRE and higher working memory capacity.” The researchers concluded that “the improvement could be explained, at least in part, by reduced mind wandering during the task.”
The researchers estimated that mindfulness training resulted in the equivalent of a 16 percentile-point boost on the GRE, on average.”
5. Meditation can increase your productivity in high-performance situations.
A study done in 2012 set participants up in a real-world multitasking situation. They had to do several activities that required various forms of input in a typical office setting. And they had to complete them all within 20 minutes. Some of the participants received mindfulness training, and some didn’t… and then, they tested them all again. “The only participants to show improvement,” reported the researchers, “were those who had received the mindfulness training.”
Another study, done in 2011, showed that “daily meditation-like thought could shift frontal brain activity toward a pattern that is associated with what cognitive scientists call positive, approach-oriented emotional states — states that make us more likely to engage the world rather than to withdraw from it.”
Handling high-stress, high-performance situations like a pro could certainly be a handy skill to have, and it’s one that meditation can help you cultivate.
6. Meditation helps you to appreciate music more.
Love music but find yourself drifting off and missing out in the middle of a concert or show? Meditation can help you to stay tuned in and aware, one study shows. The majority of the people in the “mindfulness groups” in the study said that the mindfulness task had “modified their listening experience by increasing their ability to focus on the music without distraction.”
7. Meditation affects your brain positively even when you’re not meditating.
Some research shows that the way meditation helps your brain to work better is consistent, staying with you not just when you’re sitting on a cushion with your eyes closed, but all the time. According to the research, “the effects of meditation training on emotional processing might transfer to non-meditative states.”
The researchers point out that this may mean that the benefits of meditation are not specific to a task or certain stimulus (such as that cushion or a mantra) but are process-specific, meaning that they “may result in enduring changes in mental function.”
8. Meditation helps you feel reduce a sense of isolation and feel connected.
It’s funny (not funny) that in the age of constant connectivity, isolation and loneliness can feel even more poignant. But it happens, and when that sense of isolation descends, it can be overwhelming.
However, meditation has been shown to reduce feelings of loneliness in one study on older adults, and those who have been practicing Transcendental Meditation, even for a very short time, say that the practice of meditation provides a feeling of being connected and whole, a “fundamental level of unity.”
9. Meditation reduces your symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Sure, so meditation can help you feel connected, and handle some stress. But what about ongoing anxiety? What about overwhelming negative feelings or that debilitating sense of depression? A study done on high school students showed that a mindfulness program could help a lot with both: students who stuck with it “exhibited decreased symptoms of stress, anxiety and depression both immediately after and six months after the program.”
10. Meditation can help you fight disease and stay healthier.
According to the Mayo Clinic,
meditation “might be useful if you have a medical condition, especially one that may be worsened by stress.”
Being able to handle stress better can reduce its impact on your body, which can decrease symptoms and physical aggravation.
A researcher at one of Harvard Medical School’s teaching hospitals notes that “The kinds of things that happen when you meditate do have effects throughout the body, not just in the brain.”
11. Meditation can calm you for a better night’s sleep.
Let’s do a quick review: meditation can help you cope with stress better, help you know (and like) yourself more, help you lessen anxiety and depression.
With those benefits alone, it seems pretty likely that you’d be able to get a better night’s sleep. After all, if you can stop your brain from racing and your emotions from raging, you’ll be much more likely to drift off to sweet dreams. Research concurs: “mindfulness is correlated not only with less moodiness, but also with improved sleep quality.”
12. Meditation can increase your metabolism and help you lose weight.
When a group of psychologists were asked to recommend a few strategies for reaching weight-loss goals, 7 out of 10 said meditation, or mindfulness training, would be beneficial.
Another study showed that meditation resulted in an increase in mitochondria. The mitochondria are what fitness expert Lisa Johns calls “ the energy centers of our cells. In layman’s terms, metabolism increased for people who meditated regularly and it was more pronounced in the more experienced group.”
13. Meditation can make you a better friend.
It makes sense that being able to know and accept yourself better might help you to know and accept others, as well. Other studies have also shown that meditation increases the “mental expertise to cultivate positive emotion.”
In other words, people who meditate tend to respond with positive emotions more than negative ones. They have a stronger sense of empathy and compassion for others.
14. Meditation can increase your attention span.
Are you still reading?
Or did you get distracted up there at point #10?
Meditation can help you stay focused.
Studies show that mindfulness training helps the brain to connect better. What that means for you is that your brain, after meditating, finds it easier to access and process information. Along with that, mindfulness trains your brain to release the information that’s not important, and quickly. So meditating regularly helps you get better at collecting information, processing it quickly, and discarding the stuff you don’t need.
Doing that well is what allows you to keep your attention focused on the information that you do need.
15. Meditation can help you come up with ideas.
If you wish you could access the creative, crazy, idea-making part of your brain more easily, it’s time to quit stalling and start meditating. The “catch-and-release” nature of mindfulness, that ability to let a thought in and let it go, turns out to be really helpful for what one study calls “divergent thinking.”
The meditative practice helps your brain to be less judgmental and more accepting, while exercising less “top-down control and local competition.” Your brain opens up to new ideas and inputs, which, say the researchers, “facilitates jumping from one thought to another – as required in divergent thinking.”
Featured photo credit: Chico.Ferreira via flickr.com