How meditation improves our quality of life: proven benefits of meditation
Far from only being a practice to “fix” us by reducing stress, anxiety or any ailment, the proven benefits of meditation show that it can change our brains to develop qualities that help us be our most authentic self, enjoy meaningful relationships and live a fulfilling life
Meditation, which derives from the Latin word ‘meditari’, is the practice of contemplating our minds, with a variety of exercises that develop different mental faculties within us. For the last 70 years the science of meditation has shed light on the many benefits of meditation. The practice itself is ancient: people from different traditions around the world have meditated for spiritual, mental and physical wellbeing. However the reasons we meditate are not so different today from what they used to be – the Buddha meditated to alleviate suffering, and modern audiences are learning meditation to alleviate stress. While Vipassana (insight meditation) has been passed on over thousands of years to transform the self through self insight, many people meditate today to get a deep understanding of how their minds work.
The reasons people meditate today are not so different than what they were a thousand years ago
Different types of meditation reap more of different benefits. While mindfulness meditation helps us focus better and feel calmer, loving kindness meditation develops our empathy, compassion and positive outlook.
And far from only being a remedial practice to “fix” us, be it through reducing stress, anxiety or pain, we believe deeply in meditation’s ability to help us thrive by being the best of ourselves, whether this is by helping us feel more connected, improving mental clarity or making us younger in both body and mind.
It’s important to know that while we can certainly experience some of the benefits of meditation after any single session of meditation, ultimately as with any practice, we experience the benefits fully with regular, long-term practice.
Here we look at some of the main benefits of meditation with an established evidence base that can significantly improve the quality of our lives
Meditation: the great stress-reliever
Many of us have tried meditation because it helps us manage stress. So how does it actually do that?
To begin with, it’s good to keep in mind what stress actually is. As Dr Gabor Mate explains, stress is”…a biological process including a wide range of events in the body, that occur when an organism perceives a threat to its existence or wellbeing.” This is our body’s stress response, and it is triggered by our perception of a threat.
Meditation helps relieve stress in a number of ways.
Firstly, we begin to change our perspective of what poses a threat, and over time, feel less threatened by what may have been stressors before. For example, you may be someone who gets very stressed if you miss a deadline. Anxiety sets in, you think you’re going to lose your job, and you start catastrophising about ending up homeless. By practicing mindfulness meditation, overtime you may get a different perspective on missing a deadline – and instead of worrying about its consequences, you become more present, realise that it is only one deadline, you can make amends for it and ensure you finish it as soon as possible to a high quality, and see that it doesn’t happen again.
We begin to change our perspective on what poses a threat and see them less as stressors
Secondly, our body’s baseline stress level reduces. When we meditate and practice the various calming techniques, we are less prone to feel “always on alert”. This is a state where our bodies “fight or flight” response is always present, even when there is no existential threat. Being on alert is useful when needed, but being constantly stressed is unhealthy and there are negative effects of the body constantly releasing the stress hormone cortisol. The deep breathing techniques of meditation bring about a relaxation response in our bodies, so that instead of being on a state of alert all the time, we activate the parasympathetic nervous system which is the rest and relax system in our bodies. So not only are we less on alert generally, even when we do perceive a threat, we can deal with it without becoming overwhelmed by a stress response, and any elevated stress levels can fall back more quickly once we’ve dealt with the threat appropriately.
Meditation helps reduce anxiety
Anxiety is a state of fear and general unease, worrying about future scenarios either consciously or subconsciously. Many types of meditation help reduce its severity. Mindfulness meditation reduces anxiety with its focus on staying completely present. Because some of anxiety is based on projections of what might happen in future, by staying completely present we focus only on our in-the-moment experience, without jumping ahead to what might happen.
Meditation also helps reduce feelings of anxiety by giving it space…when we allow ourselves to gently hold the feeling of anxiety in our minds and bodies, overtime we see that there may be subtle shifts in the feeling. Feelings need space to surface and move on, and meditation allows the openness for this to happen.
Meditation helps relieve depression
Meditation, in particular Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy, has been shown to be as effective as anti-depressants for those who suffer from long-term depression.
The way it does so is again by helping us stay extremely present. A part of feeling depressed is ruminating, or going over the same unhappy thoughts again and again. Mindfulness meditation helps to stop rumination in its tracks because we learn to stay present to what is going on now, and not get carried away by any one thought or feeling. Our brain activity is directed only to the present, and there is less room for worrying projections of the future or negative thoughts about the past.
Meditation can also help us develop a sense of safety in gently experiencing all of our emotions instead of avoiding or indeed depressing them.
We develop a sense of safety in experiencing all of our emotions instead of avoiding or indeed depressing them
Meditation enhances our concentration
Even 8 minutes of mindfulness meditation has been shown to reduce mind-wandering …for a while. And those who practice regularly are much less easily distracted than the rest of us. Improving our focus and concentration has been one of the main draws of mindfulness meditation, and its impact is tremendous. In a world of increasing distractions and stimuli, we become more present, better able to concentrate, drown out that which is not important, and either get on with what needs doing or just…stop and relax.
Meditation improves memory
The more we practice meditation, the more our brain changes. This is because our brains have the capacity to change with experience, this is called neuroplasticity. Just as with physical exercise, when we practice something over and over again, we develop stronger capabilities for it. And so meditation has also been shown to improve our memory – we can hold and recall more, the more we practice.
Meditation makes us more creative
Meditation creates space in our minds for inspiration and creativity to flourish. It works on brain areas in such a way that our minds are more open to new ideas, and it helps us stay focussed enough to make the most of them. The key is of course to give the mind space, something that is so valuable and difficult in the present day with our busy lives. To help you practice some meditative techniques to help your creativity thrive, you can try the exercises in this book by award-winning graphic designer Radim Malinic in his book Pause, Breathe and Grow. You can also download some free meditations from Adiba Osmani from the site designed specifically to help with enhancing creativity.
Meditation helps us feel less pain
In 1970 an American doctor called Jon Kabat-Zinn created the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction programme specifically to bring the benefits of meditation to his patients to help them manage their pain and stress. Since then mindfulness-based interventions have been used widely for sufferers of chronic pain.
Brain scans of monks who have meditated for thousands of hours show that they feel pain less than the average person.
One of the ways this happens is that with meditation we develop a beginner’s mind, where we pay attention to our experience without preconceived judgements about them. For instance, when someone pinches our arm, we start to notice how it feels as just that…as an experience…and get very curious about the detailed sensations without labelling it as “painful” and thereby without feeling it as pain.
Brain scans of monks who have meditated for thousands of hours show that they feel pain less than others
Meditation improves our immune system
The mind-body connection is no more obvious than when we see how feeling mentally pressured is directly linked to being more vulnerable to physical effects such as high blood pressure, weakened immune system and pain. When we are constantly stressed, our immune system suffers. Recent studies have shown that regular meditation increases our levels of antibodies, which fight illness. Our bodies are more able to produce more of what is needed for our physical health to thrive, when it is not in constant fight-or-flight mode.
Meditation makes us younger
So how does meditation make us younger?
Telomeres are distinctive structures found at the ends of our chromosomes, and recent studies have shown they have a crucial role in determining how fast we age. WIth time, our telomeres shorten, and this leads to our brain and body becoming less able to renew themselves. Nobel Prize winner Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn discovered the biological indicator called telomerase, the enzyme that replenishes telomeres, which protect our genetic heritage, and her book with Dr Elissa Eppel “The Telomere Effect” explains how meditation can increase telomerase activity and help shorten telomeres. They recommend meditation as one of the key practices, among others, to remain our youngest self over time.
Evidence also shows that long-term meditators’ brains age more slowly compared to brains of other people their age. In “The Science of Meditation” we read the story of Mingyur Rinpoche with 62,000 hours of meditation – he went on retreat for another 4.5 years, and when he returned his brain resembled the brain of a 33 year old even though he was 41.
There is high-quality evidence that meditation, chanting and other mindfulness practices can reduce stress, stimulate telomerase, and perhaps even help your telomeres to grow.
Dr Elizabeth Blackburn
Dr Elissa Epel,
"The Telomere Effect"
Meditation develops empathy
Dr Richard Davidson is a Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and he has devoted his career to researching the benefits of meditation in his Centre for Healthy Minds. His research shows that meditators who practice for instance loving-kindness meditation develop more empathy and appreciation for themselves and others, and the boundaries we impose between “us” and “them” begin to blur. Empathy is an essential quality for the quality of our relationships – if we are unable to sense what others feel, we will not be able to relate to them as well.
He cites that even in as little as 8 hours of loving kindness meditation we become less biased to ourselves or specific others. And in 16 hours of practicing we are generally more empathetic to everyone.
When we feel more empathy, we are more easily able to connect to others in a meaningful way. We understand that we all experience a huge spectrum of feelings and emotions with the ups and downs of life, and so we can feel kinder to others as well as to ourselves. We can forgive others and ourselves more easily, and open up to new, accepting interpretations of why people are the way they are.
Meditation helps us face and manage emotions
While meditating we open up to our experience exactly as it is, becoming intimate with our existence. This means we notice and give space to feelings and emotions, even the ones that we may call “difficult”. Emotions are a vital part of our life and humanity. Whether they are the “easy” or “difficult” ones, each one is valid, and equal in its important – and they need to be felt if we want to stay connected to ourselves, others, and live our lives fully. Meditation helps us notice and give unconditional space and acceptance to all our emotions…while at the same time helping us dis-identify with them. We begin to notice that emotions come and go, so we are not our emotions. We shift from saying”I am sad” to knowing “there is sadness in me”.
It is not always easy to give space to our emotions…and so some guidance is helpful when learning how to hold emotions gradually, gently, so that we are not overwhelmed or consumed by them. The more we practice holding the emotion without labelling it as “good” or “bad”, the less we act out on them. For instance, if we feel anger, we make space to be with the anger, feel it in our bodies and give it space to move through us, so that we can get insight into why the anger appeared in the first place, what function it is trying to serve, and then act from a more composed place instead of lashing out.
Meditation makes us more positive
Long-term meditators are happier. This has been shown in brain scans of monks, who generally have a more positive outlook after their years of practice. Regardless of the form of meditation we practice, it makes sense that any practice that helps our minds and bodies relax, creates space between us and our thoughts, feelings, and sensations will develop a sense of calm, perspective and understanding that will help us be more positive in life. We worry less, are more present to what is now, are more connected to ourselves and others. The overall result is a quality of equanimity…when we remain composed and undisturbed no matter what life brings. And the good thing is we don’t need to be a monk, as you will see if you persist in a regular practice.
Meditation helps develop our sense of self
The big question of life, “Who am I”, is one where the effectiveness of meditation really shines through. When you spend minutes and hours and days in contemplation of your mind, your inner experience, you start unravelling the layers of your personality, patterns of thoughts and behaviours, the minute sensations and the waves of emotions that make up your experience of life…and you start to find what is beyond conditioned and preconceived ideas about who you are. With the space, the attention and the guidance that meditation offers, we start to get a sense of the self that is the witness to all our experience, and we can start to act from this self with all its wisdom.
With this increased sense of self we are more connected to ourselves, and so in relationship we have more authentic connection to others. We feel less aloneness, less at the mercy of our thoughts and emotions, a little more inner peace in knowing that we can navigate life with more ease.
Beyond trying to prove this with any meta-analysis, one can feel these benefits with a regular practice in a daily routine or even weekly commitment.
A regular meditation practice will without question reward us with health benefits that will lead to improvements in our relationships, our mindset, productivity and in our body, as both our physical and mental health improve. For beginners trying meditation training for the first time the practice can seem a little challenging at first but as with all practice, a little persistence will pay off and you will start to notice improvements in your quality of life. It matters less what type of meditation you try, whether it’s with the help of an app, tailored meditation programs or group or individual classes, the practice of meditation will lead to a healthier relationship with your mind that will show up as a healthier, happier life.
Read about our personalised meditation lessons with Adiba Osmani, or you can book with the link below.
If you are interested to find out more about the science behind what we have explained here, we recommend the following books:
- The Science of Meditation by Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson
- The Telomere Effect by Elizabeth Blackburn and Elissa Epel
- When the Body says No – the Cost of Hidden Stress by Gabor Mate