Over the last 40 years, academic research in the fields of neuroscience, psychology and physical medicine have documented the wide-ranging benefits of practicing mindfulness, particularly in an 8-week mindfulness course format.
The past 5 years in particular, as you can see from this graph, have produced a significant number of studies in the mindfulness field.
Mindfulness brings about long-term changes in mood and levels of happiness and wellbeing as well as supports adult stage development and leadership development.
Other studies have shown that regular meditators see their doctors less often and spend fewer days in hospital. Memory improves, creativity increases and reaction times become faster.
Scientific studies have shown that mindfulness not only prevents depression, but that it also positively affects the brain patterns underlying day-to-day anxiety, stress, depression and irritability so that when they arise, they dissolve away again more easily.
According to neuroscientists, as you continue to meditate, your brain physically changes, even though you’re not aware of it re-shaping itself.
They’re also beginning to understand why meditation is effective for managing stress. Using brain imaging techniques, they’ve observed changes in the threat system of the brain. The response kicks-off in the amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for triggering fear.
People who suffer from chronic anxiety have a more reactive amygdala, and this leaves them feeling threatened much of the time.
Mindfulness meditation activates the ‘Rest and Digest’ part of our nervous system helping with stress management.
A study performed at Stanford found that an 8-week mindfulness course reduced the reactivity of the amygdala and increased activity in areas of the prefrontal cortex that help regulate emotions, subsequently reducing stress. (1)
Similarly, researchers from Harvard University discovered corresponding changes in the physical structure of the brain with a similar meditation course; there was a lower density of neurons in the amygdala and greater density of neurons in areas involved in emotional control – evidence that meditation served as a realistic and maintainable stress management technique. (2)
Another study, conducted by researchers at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, taught mindfulness to a group of people with clinical levels of anxiety and found that 90% experienced significant reductions in anxiety – and depression too. (3)
Numerous scientific studies have found meditation to be effective for treating anxiety. One group of US researchers looked at how mindfulness had helped with anxiety management across various types of people: from those suffering with cancer, to those with social anxiety disorders and eating issues.
They examined 39 scientific studies, totalling 1,140 participants and discovered that the anxiety-reducing benefits from mindfulness might be enjoyed across such a wide range of conditions because when you learn mindfulness, you learn how to work with difficulties and stress in general. (4)
Nursing is a famously stressful occupation, so it’s a good one to test the effectiveness of mindfulness meditation in treating stress. A 2006 North American study of nurses and nurse aides concluded:
“The results of this study support the feasibility and potential effectiveness of a brief mindfulness training program for reducing symptoms of burnout, enhancing relaxation, and improving life satisfaction for nurses and nurse aides.” (5)
One of the many proven benefits of regular mindfulness meditation is that it improves relationships. Not just with those nearest to you, but also with everyone you meet.
You see yourself, your world and the people in your world in a new light. You become more comfortable with yourself, which makes it easier for others to get on with you, and you find it easier to accept them as they are. In fact meditation for relationships can be valuable gift, not just to yourself, but the people around you.
One US study of married couples found that increased mindfulness through meditation improved marital quality. It positively influenced the identification and communication of emotions, as well as regulating the expression of anger. (6)
A 2007 study by researchers at The University of Rochester revealed that mindfulness practice was associated with greater relationship satisfaction. It was also related to better communication quality during relationship discussions. (7)
Another study, at the University of Leuven, found that couples who meditated displayed more mindful observation and more empathy toward each other. They were inclined towards more mindful description, acting with awareness, and non-judgmental acceptance. With those changes, couples were better able to identify and describe their feelings, more satisfied with their bodies, less anxious socially, and they were less likely to share any distress. (8)
A 2012 US study examined how meditation training affected individuals’ behaviour in multitasking at work (if you’re an employer or an employee, this is well worth your attention). Researchers tested three groups: (1) those who underwent an 8-week training course on mindfulness-based meditation, (2) those who endured a wait period, were tested, and then underwent the same 8-week training, and (3) those who had 8-weeks of training in body relaxation.
The researchers found that, compared with the people who didn’t meditate,
“Those trained in meditation stayed on tasks longer and made fewer task switches, as well as reporting less negative feedback after task performance.” (9)
Numerous studies have shown that mindfulness meditation can improve our ability to sustain attention. (10) The ability to concentrate on our breathing for long periods of time transfers over to other pursuits. If we can focus on a subtle object like our breath for 20 minutes, think how easy it will be to focus on sports, work, our partner, or anything else for that matter.
In 2012, scientists from the University of Groningen and North Dakota State University tested the theory that mindfulness affects awareness and the filtering out of other mental processes during creative tasks. Studying a large number of volunteers, the researchers found that mindfulness practice predicted and improved “insight” problem solving, which is “seeing” and solving problems in a novel way. This study was the first of its kind to document a direct link between mindfulness and creativity. (11)
In a 2012 study at Leiden University, Netherlands, scientists reported that “open monitoring” meditation (non-reactive observation of your thoughts over time) promoted “divergent thinking”, a type of thinking that allows many new ideas to be generated. (12)
Other recent research, in Israel, yielded similar results. Scientists there experimented to see if there was a connection between mindfulness practice and “cognitive rigidity” (an inability to think of different possible solutions to a problem) by using
a creative task.
They found that experienced mindfulness meditators scored much lower in rigidity – that is, their minds were freer to come up with new ideas – than non-meditators who had registered for their first meditation retreat.
The researchers concluded,
“… that mindfulness meditation reduces cognitive rigidity via the tendency to be ‘blinded’ by experience”.
Their results reflect “the benefits of mindfulness practice regarding a reduced tendency to overlook novel and adaptive ways of responding due to past experience, both in and out of the clinical setting.” (13)
A recent article from Harvard Business Review, based on neuroscience research asserts that practicing mindfulness is essential to effective leadership: https://hbr.org/2015/01/mindfulness-can-literally-change-your-brain
The regular practices of mindfulness give leaders a different perspective on their world, opening them up to ways of being which are both more focused on what matters and more observant and appreciative of what is there. Paradoxically, becoming more present enables leaders to see reality more clearly and act more purposefully and with less of their own stuff getting in the way (Senge, Scharmer et al. 2004; Sinclair 2007).
This is one of a number of paradoxes which we often see operating in mindful leadership: to open up for change, it is necessary to sometimes stop striving to change things; to empower others, stop talking and listen from a different place; to go forward effectively, notice the present; to achieve things, stop doing and start being.