If you took part in last month’s 21-day happiness challenge, you’re probably rocking a smile so large your face hurts. Okay, maybe your results weren’t quite so dramatic—but hopefully you saw some improvement in your happiness. I know I did. I chose mindful meditation. While (confession time) I definitely fell asleep a few times mid-meditation, quieting my mind for 15 minutes an evening made a significant difference in how I felt throughout the day. Just 15 minutes. That, my friends, is Om-azing.
Everyone’s Doing It
I’m not the only one who believes in meditation. What once only seemed appropriate for flower children and devout Buddhists is now becoming so mainstream and popular that many people—from professional athletes and business executives to healthcare professionals and physical therapy patients—are adopting this ancient tradition and touting the benefits. Some are even calling it the “new caffeine.”
You Should Do It, Too
And there’s plenty of scientific evidence to back up the anecdotes. For starters, researchers from the University of Rochester Medical Center showed that doctors who received mindfulness meditation training are more self-aware, less judgmental, and better listeners in their interactions with patients. And patients who implement meditation as part of their plan of care experience a myriad of health benefits, including less pain, lower blood pressure, a decrease in the expression of genes that activate inflammation, and an increase in overall feelings of well-being.
It Creates Happiness
While no one knows exactly how meditation achieves all of this, scientists think it has something to do with its impact on the brain’s neuroplasticity—the ability to change structure and functionality.
Neuroscientist Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin–Madison and several colleagues looked at the brain activity of expert meditators (Buddhist monks). Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the researchers were able to pinpoint the exact regions of the brain that were active during a meditation exercise, and activity in the left prefrontal cortex (the home of positive emotions, like happiness) overwhelmed activity in its counterpart to the right (the home of negative emotions, like sadness). The monks also demonstrated 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.” This suggests that by meditating you can actually train yourself to experience more positive emotions. More happiness, anyone?
A Massachusetts General Hospital study built on these findings by demonstrating meditation-induced changes in grey matter in participants who completed an eight-week mindfulness meditation program. Specifically, scientists found an increase in the density of grey matter in the hippocampus—an area known for learning and memory—and in other structures of the brain associated with self-awareness, compassion, and introspection. They also found a decrease in the density of grey matter in the amygdala—an area known to play a role in processing fear and stress—which correlated to study participants’ self-reported feelings of stress reduction.
And That Happiness is Long-Lasting
A joint research team from Massachusetts General Hospital, the University of Arizona, Boston University, the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies, and Emory University found that the positive effects that meditation has on emotional processing and mood stability remain, even when you aren’t meditating.
In his smartly written memoir 10% Happier, television news anchor Dan Harris explains meditation in the most perfectly simple way: “Once you get the hang of it, 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.” Good, right? And Harris would know: after having a nationally televised panic attack on Good Morning America, he began a four-year journey to regain control of his life and his “internal narrator” through meditation.
Got 5 Minutes?
Tapping into your inner zen is easier than you might think. Here’s a basic meditation routine to get you started (adapted from 10% Happier):
- Download a meditation timer for your phone (I use this free one) and set it for five minutes (or however long you’re comfortable with).
- Sit, stand, or lie down comfortably. (Lying down is what got me into trouble, so if you don’t want to meditate to sleep, you may want to sit or stand.)
- Close your eyes.
- Choose a spot on which to focus—nose, belly, or chest—and feel your breath go in and then out of that location, in and then out.
- Every time your mind wanders—and it will—gently, without judgment or self-reproach, bring your attention back to your breath. (According to meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg, “Beginning again and again is the actual practice, not a problem to overcome so that one day we can come to the ‘real’ meditation.”)
For a guide on mindful meditation that includes several other meditation exercises, check out this Relax Like A Boss resource.
Don’t Take It From Me
If you are still wondering if meditation is worth your time, this might help. Here’s what biochemist turned monk Matthieu Ricard—the “happiest man in the world”—has to say on the subject:
“[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.”
Are you a meditator? What results have you experienced? Do you have any advice for beginners? Tell me your thoughts in the comments section below.