These days, when you go looking for the benefits of meditation, it starts to seem like a cure-all for everything! Meditation will make your brain younger, make you more attractive, help you sleep better, even make more money! What's real and what's not? Is there real science to back all of this up?
Meditation does have real, measurable benefits. But let's be serious, some of this stuff is just trendiness. Great things can happen from just reducing the levels of stress in our lives. In fact, many of the health benefits of meditation are only results of reduced stress. Which is no small thing! But it's not magic.
I'm going to break down some of the newest research into three categories, Mind, Body, and Spirit. This way, you can jump to the section you're most interested in, or read them all, and see the incredible impact that a meditation practice can have. Remember - all the benefits that we see come from regular practice, you have to put in the time and effort, just like anything else.
For many, the reason given for wanting to learn meditation is to be able to control their thoughts. While meditation doesn't stop thoughts from coming, it can undoubtedly calm a racing mind.
According to two recent, large-scale studies. Mindfulness-based meditation does have a positive and lasting impact on patients with depression and anxiety. It is recommended as a supplement to be done with other therapies, not alone. One of the most impactful outcomes is the long-term effects that a mindfulness-based intervention had on people.
The science of happiness has long been studied by psychologists, and more recently, there are studies explicitly examining the link between meditation and happiness. A 2015 study out of Spain showed in particular that two components of Mindfulness, observing and awareness, and two components of Self-compassion, self-kindness, and common humanity, had a positive and lasting impact on participants' happiness.
A creative state of mind requires both concentration and "flow." Flow is a well-studied state. It's loosely defined as being in the zone, that state where you are entirely immersed in an activity, and enjoying the process.
To maintain flow, we need to be able to maintain focus, usually for about an hour to an hour and a half. Meditation has been clearly shown to aid in getting into and maintaining flow states. As well as increasing divergent thinking (another term for creativity).
Just about everyone would like to improve their sleep habits, whether it's just getting more hours in, or improving the quality of their sleep. Sleep is a critical cornerstone of health, and when you're not getting it, everything suffers. Meditation has definitely been shown to help.
We've already seen that meditation can help calm a racing mind, and that will improve your ability to fall asleep without a doubt. But a regular meditation practice can also increase the production of melatonin, the sleep hormone critical for falling asleep and staying asleep.
Slows down aging:
A recent study got a lot of attention for showing that the brains of meditators looked younger than the brains of non-meditators. Gray matter is what brain scientists call the portion of the brain made up of neurons, and it has been shown that gray matter decreases with age. Neuroscientist Sara Lazar showed that in the brains of long-term meditators, the decline had slowed, and in some cases, they actually had increased their gray matter. In this way, their brains looked more like younger ones.
Taking it a step further, she then enrolled folks new to meditation into an eight-week course and measured their gray matter before and after. Turns out, even meditating for an average of 30 minutes a day for eight weeks, can increase your gray matter too!
When it comes to the immune system, the negative impacts of stress can't be overstated. Excess levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, can tax the body's immune responses and make people much more susceptible to getting sick. For this reason alone, meditation has a positive effect. But, there have been many studies examining specific ways that meditation can help, and there's good evidence that it can reduce inflammation, increase T-cell count and reduce telomerase activity (in other words, reduce aging!)
Finally, this brings us to the benefits of the spiritual aspect of meditation. The positive effects of spiritual practice have been widely studied, and it is proven that individuals who believe in an adhere to a spiritual practice of some sort tend to experience more resiliency and happiness. A connection to something greater than ourselves is the cornerstone of many recovery programs and does seem to have a positive effect on people experiencing life-threatening disease or grief.
Some may even argue that factors such as compassion, happiness, and creativity are also spiritual gifts. These mind states are clearly increased by meditation, so no doubt it is a practice that has profound implications. And, whether you view it as a spiritual practice or not, you will still receive all of the health and mental wellness it provides!