What Meditation Can—and Can’t—Do for Your Health
You know you should meditate. You’ve probably had plenty of friends tell you so and seen plenty of headlines about the benefits of meditation. It makes you happier, healthier, calmer, glowier, smarter, younger, nicer—a generally better human, or so you’ve heard. Maybe you've even dipped your toe into meditating once or twice, after a stressful day, and couldn't really motivate yourself to make it stick. Or, hey, maybe you are one of those people who actually sets aside 30 minutes a day to meditate.
Considering society's fleeting attention span when it comes to wellness advice, it's impressive that meditation—which has roots in a variety of ancient Eastern traditions like Jainism and Buddhism—has achieved this status as a pillar of well-being.
But is meditation’s ubiquity based on rock-solid scientific research? Or are there other factors to thank for its staying power? What exactly is meditation capable of, and should we all be doing it? We spoke to several experts behind the growing body of research on the health effects of meditation to hear more about what the science tells us—and what we have yet to learn.
What is meditation?
“Meditation is generally used as a broad umbrella term that covers a wide array of contemplative practices, many of which are drawn from Buddhist traditions but have often been adapted and secularized for application in Western society,” neuroscientist Wendy Hasenkamp, Ph.D., science director at the Mind & Life Institute and visiting professor of contemplative sciences at the University of Virginia, tells SELF. “[It is] a broad set of practices that seek to use the mind in specific, intentional ways.”
Although the goals and methods vary widely depending on the type of meditation, at the core of several is a quality called mindfulness. “We still don’t have any single authoritative definition or source that defines mindfulness in a way that’s accepted by all researchers in a contemporary context,” David Vago, Ph.D., research director of the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine and director of the Contemplative Neuroscience and Integrative Medicine Laboratory at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, tells SELF.
When you think of mindfulness, you probably think of being present or focusing on the current moment, and that’s the gist of it. The most widely accepted definition of mindfulness today is attributed to Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D., a molecular biologist, meditation teacher, and professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Medical School (UMMS). Kabat-Zinn once described mindfulness as an “awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.”
So, mindfulness meditation is the practice of experiencing and cultivating this quality of mindfulness “by a steady practice of attending to the breath, body sensations, thoughts, feelings and even awareness itself,” Susan Smalley, Ph.D., professor emeritus of psychiatry at UCLA and founder of the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center, tells SELF.
This is sometimes called open monitoring or open awareness, says Vago. At the center of a variety of mindfulness meditation practices is “learning how to let go of distractions as attention is pulled away, and to do so with a gentle or kind quality,” Smalley says.
As Vago explains, “You open your mind and your attention to any object that arises, and you gently note and label whatever arises and passes, without following those thoughts or feelings down the rabbit hole, so to speak.”
All of this might sound familiar if you’ve ever tried this yourself, maybe while lying in Savasana at the end of yoga class. You focus on the sensations of your rib cage rising and falling as you inhale and exhale; then your mind wanders to thoughts of dinner prep or shopping, before you redirect your attention back to the present moment, focusing again on your breath. That is, in essence, mindfulness meditation.
Today, mindfulness meditation is the practice for which the most convincing body of evidence exists.
Obviously, mindfulness meditation looks very different outside of the clinical world, and practices can vary from person to person—from the kind of meditation they practice, to how often they do it, and for how long. The majority of people who meditate aren’t following a formal program with an hour of practice every day plus weekly group classes with specially trained teachers personally coaching them and researchers keeping tabs.
But the scientists conducting research need to be able to compare apples to apples when they’re studying meditation, and these formalized programs are a way to control that variability and ensure that researchers are looking at the effects of the same active ingredient in their studies.
You may have already read dozens of articles with flashy headlines about meditation.
There are one-off studies looking at meditation’s potential effects on nearly every aspect of physical or mental health. The stories those kinds of studies produce might grab your attention, but they’re pops of color when what we’re looking for is the big, real-world picture.
The explosion in the field over the last few years has led to an overwhelming number of one-off studies about the effects of meditation on just about any health-related issue. According to PubMed, the U.S. National Library of Medicine’s database of biomedical papers, there are nearly 8,000 papers on mindfulness or meditation today, more than half of which were published since 2014. (There were fewer than 800 in 2000.)
As with many other areas of medical science, the most sound evidence emerges from meta-reviews and meta-analyses. These are rigorous, large-scale papers that aggregate data from a bunch of individual studies (all meeting a given set of criteria) and perform statistical analyses in order to identify the most consistent, reliable findings in the field. This prevents fluke findings from slipping through the cracks and any one study receiving undue weight. In science, replication of findings is key; the more studies that point in the same direction, the more confident scientists feel about that path of discovery.
The experts we spoke to agree that, when looking at the science on the benefits of mindfulness meditation, there are three conditions with a strong and convincing body of evidence to support its effects: depression, anxiety, and chronic pain.
Although the research still is not definitive, the positive effects of mindfulness meditation on these conditions “is holding up to the strongest, strictest standards of research” in well-designed, well-powered trials, Vago says.
Many of these rigorous studies are randomized controlled trials (RCTs), in which participants are randomly assigned to either receive the treatment being tested (in this case, a mindfulness-based intervention) or be in a control group, to which the treatment group is compared at the end. The people in the control group may receive no treatment, a placebo, or a different kind of treatment. Often, the control group will receive an evidence-based therapy (EBT)—a well-studied conventional treatment for certain conditions, such as antidepressants for depression. Researchers can also get creative to control for placebo effects, using “sham mindfulness meditation” or psychological placebo groups (such as taking educational classes about depression), to control for such factors as the expectation of getting better, getting attention from a professional, or group support, and isolate the active ingredient, e.g. mindfulness meditation.
Vago points to a heavily cited meta-analysis published in JAMA Internal Medicine in 2014 that evaluated the strength of evidence for several different meditation practices in improving a variety of “stress-related outcomes” related to both mental and physical health. The strongest evidence they found was for improving depression, anxiety, and pain.
Meditation In The World