Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last several years, you’ve probably heard at least someone in your social circle—or on TV—mention the power of meditation. What once only seemed en vogue for peaceniks and Buddhists is now becoming so commonplace that everyone—from doctors and physical therapy patients to pro ball players and business execs—are grabbing a cushion, folding themselves into lotus position, and tapping into their inner zen. After all, the benefits are positively impressive, leading some to call meditation the “new caffeine.”
Ready to write this off as yet another self-improvement fad? I wouldn’t. There’s plenty of scientific evidence to back up the personal stories. To begin with, University of Rochester Medical Center researchers found that physicians who completed mindfulness meditation training demonstrated more self-awareness, were less judgmental, and listened better than their untrained peers. Additionally, patients who practice meditation as part of their treatment plans experience less pain, lower blood pressure, a decrease in the expression of genes responsible for inflammation, and an increase in well-being. While scientists don’t know exactly how meditation produces such great results, they believe it has something to do with the fact that our brains are neuroplastic (i.e., they have the ability to change structure and functionality). This is a somewhat recent development that replaced the decades-longstanding belief that adult brains were almost completely static.
Meditation + Happiness
Neuroscientist Richard J. Davidson and several of his colleagues at the University of Wisconsin–Madison studied the brain activity of Buddhist monks who were expert meditators. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), they were able to identify the specific regions of the brain that were active during meditation. Interestingly enough, activity in the left prefrontal cortex (the region associated with positive emotions, such as happiness) far exceeded activity in the right prefrontal cortex (the region associated with negative emotions, such as sadness). The team also found that the monks had an extremely high level of gamma wave activity—“the signature of neuronal activity that knits together far-flung brain circuits” and “underlie[s] higher mental activity, such as consciousness”—which suggests that we can use meditation to train ourselves to have more positive feelings. Who wouldn’t love an extra dose of happiness? I know I would.
And that’s not all: a Massachusetts General Hospital study found that participants who completed an eight-week mindfulness meditation program demonstrated meditation-produced changes in their grey matter. Specifically, researchers found an increase in the density of hippocampal grey matter—the hippocampus is associated with learning and memory—as well as an increase of grey matter in other structures of the brain that are linked to compassion, self-awareness, and introspection. Participants also self-reported lower stress levels, which correlated to a decrease in the density of grey matter in the amygdala—an area associated with both stress and fear.
Forever + Ever
According to a collaborative research team from Emory University, Massachusetts General Hospital, the University of Arizona, the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies, and Boston University, meditation’s effects on emotional processing and mood balancing are long-lasting (i.e., they remain even when you’re not meditating). In his memoir titled 10% Happier, news anchor Dan Harris—speaking from experience—explains the phenomenon like this: “Once you get the hang of [meditation], the practice can create just enough space in your head so that when you get angry or annoyed, you are less likely to take the bait and act on it.” (Just think, if everyone meditated, we could say goodbye road rage—among other anger-motivated acts.)
You + 5 Minutes
Think meditation is a bit too complicated or time-consuming for your busy schedule? It doesn’t have to be. In fact, practicing this ancient tradition can be both easy and enjoyable. Here’s a super-simple but still incredibly effective meditation practice (adapted from 10% Happier) that you can do right now:
- Download a meditation timer for your phone or iPad (I use this free one) and set it for five minutes (or as long as you’re comfortable).
- Sit, stand, or lie down comfortably. (Warning: For some—like me—lying down can lead to falling asleep.)
- Close your eyes.
- Choose a spot on/in your body on which to focus—nose, belly, or chest—and feel your breath go in and out of that spot.
- Every time your mind wanders off—and it most definitely will—gently, without frustration or self-beration, bring your focus back to your breathing. (If you’re ever feeling discouraged about how prone your mind is to wander, here’s a note from meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg that should help: “Beginning again and again is the actual practice, not a problem to overcome so that one day we can come to the ‘real’ meditation.”)
Wisdom + What Matters Most
Still searching for some more inspiration before you start carving out time to meditate? Read this from biochemist turned monk Matthieu Ricard—a.k.a. the “happiest man in the world”:
“[Meditation] is not just a luxury. This is not a supplementary vitamin for the soul. This is something that’s going to determine the quality of every instant of our lives. We are ready to spend 15 years achieving education. We love to do jogging, fitness. We do all kinds of things to remain beautiful. Yet, we spend surprisingly little time taking care of what matters most—the way our mind functions—which, again, is the ultimate thing that determines the quality of our experience.”
Whether you’re a pro meditator or just getting started, tell us how meditation is impacting your life in the comments below.