7 Benefits of Mindfulness
If you’re curious to try meditation, or looking for motivation to stick with it, it might help to understand the full scope of how meditation can change your life.
This list of 7 benefits can be a point of reference when you need that extra jolt of motivation. Use it to cajole yourself to carve out time for a daily practice.
1. Reduced Stress
Mindfulness meditation has been scientifically shown to get at the root of the problem of stress: our brain’s over-active tendency to see potential disaster everywhere we look.1 When we sit mindfully, we become aware of the constant sense of urgency and discontent in our mind.
What’s revolutionary about meditation is that instead of feeding this stress by doing more or speeding up, we do the opposite. We slow down, and focus on something simple and unproblematic like our breath. After we’ve started to calm down a little, we can observe those stressful feelings and thoughts without getting swept up in them.
Over weeks and months of regular practice, our brains actually change. We react less strongly to difficult situations and when we do get triggered, we recover faster.2 We still live in a stressful world, but with meditation we learn to face it all a lot better.
2. Better Focus
As an easily distracted kid, my teachers often shouted, “Pay attention!” But nobody ever taught me how to do this. Imagine if teachers taught 5th grade math by repeatedly shouting, “Add fractions!”
The good news is, concentration can be learned just like any other skill.3 All it takes is practice and good instruction. In meditation, we cultivate concentration by repeatedly bringing our attention back to a chosen point of focus, often our breath or some other sensation in the body. What we choose to focus on is less important than the fact that we pick something and stick with it. Over time, our attention begins to go where we tell it rather than being drawn every which way by random impulses.
3. Improved Flow
Meditation lets us slip into the groove of a task with more ease. The key to entering into flow is to be relaxed but alert, focused but not uptight.4 Non-meditative concentration tends to use a lot of brow-furrowing effort, which creates tension and discomfort, and actually prevents us from getting into a state of flow.
In meditation, rather than tightening up around our point of focus, we relax into it. This allows the mind to settle down, and let’s us really sink into what we’re doing. The same principle applies when we’re writing computer code or playing the saxophone. We enter flow when we’re vibrantly engaged with what we’re doing while at the same time we relaxing into it.
4. Increased Happiness
More and more research is showing that real happiness doesn’t come from possessions or success. It comes from the quality of our experiences.5 Meditation leads to more happiness by improving our ability to notice and appreciate pleasurable experiences, while cushioning some of life’s hard edges.
Technology has brought us all kinds of comforts and luxuries. Yet even with all this progress and innovation, we still face face pain, illness, and everyday annoyances. These can sabotage our ability to enjoy life. Mindfulness teaches us how to be more fully aware and accepting of painful experiences as they happen. Studies of the brain have shown that this has a counter-intuitive effect: increased awareness of pain results in less activation in brain areas associated with suffering.
With pleasurable experiences, the effect of mindfulness is the opposite. By allowing us to be vividly present to the joy and goodness of these experiences, we magnify the positive impact they have on our happiness.
5. Stronger resilience in the face of life’s challenges
Life’s big challenges inevitably visit us as unwanted guests, whether a loss, a layoff, or a trauma. When we get hit hard, meditation can help us recover faster and grow from adversity.
When something awful has just happened, the most counter-intuitive thing in the world is to focus on something that has nothing to do with what we’re facing. Mindfulness gets us in the habit of doing just that, noticing things like the sunlight reflecting off the leaves outside our window, or the quiet purr of the ceiling fan.
We notice that the present moment is filled with a bunch of very ordinary things that aren’t contaminated by fear, pain, anger, or loss. Focusing on something emotionally neutral in a time of distress is like a secret ninja move that lets us slip sideways past our gnawing awareness of the terrible event.
That doesn’t make the bad stuff go away. But it does give us a break from our suffering. It gives us a starting point in the here and now to collect ourselves so we can courageously face the future.
6. Better Relationships
The hidden emotional forces within a single person are complicated enough, but put two people together and you’ve got a real tangle.
In our important relationships, the stakes are often very high, and we can see our ugliest side come out. We want so badly for things to work out that we become flooded with emotion when things go wrong. The problem isn’t the fact that we’re emotional creatures. Emotions are what allow us to form and strengthen relationships in the first place. The problem is that these emotional forces can get out of control, driving us to say or do things we regret.
Meditation teaches us the be more aware of our own feelings and the feelings of those we care about.6 Emotional awareness is just the first step. We also learn how to step back, take a breath, and choose our response with clarity and compassion. Our usual feelings still arise —fear of abandonment, rage at a perceived slight, and many others. But instead of shutting down or screaming or running away, we learn to notice and name these feelings while maintaining a calm stable center.
Scientists are starting to uncover many ways that meditation can improve our physical health, addressing problems like high blood pressure, diabetes, and chronic pain.
For decades, doctors have known that stress is one of the biggest contributors to problems with our health. When we’re under chronic stress, it’s not just a mind thing. Stress affects the whole body, leading to inflammation, pain, trouble with digestion, and lowered immunity. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that meditation, which lowers our overall stress level, also improves our basic physical functioning.
If you’re interested in learning more about the amazing physical health benefits of meditation, we’ve got a whole article on that here.
Jenny, G. Strauss, C., Bond, R. & Cavanagh, K. (2015). How do mindfulness-based cognitive therapy and mindfulness-based stress reduction improve mental health and wellbeing? A systematic review and meta-analysis of meditation studies. Clinical Psychology Review, 37, 1–12.
Sharma, M. & Rush, S. (2014). Mindfulness-based stress reduction as a stress management intervention for healthy individuals: A systematic review. Journal of Evidence-Based Complementary & Alternative Medicine, 19, 271–286.
Lazar, S. W. (2010). Stress reduction correlates with structural changes in the amygdala. Social Cognitive & Affective Neuroscience, 5, 11–17.
Zeidan, F., Johnson, S. K., & Diamond, B. J., et al. (2010). Mindfulness meditation improves cognition: Evidence of brief mental training. Consciousness and Cognition, 19, 597–605.
Mrazek, M. D., Franklin, M. S., Phillips, D. T., et al. (2013). Mindfulness training improves working memory capacity and gre performance while reducing mind wandering. Psychological Science, 24, 776–781.
Kee, Y. H. & Wang, J. K. C. (2008). Relationships between mindfulness, flow dispositions and mental skills adoption: A cluster analytic approach. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 9, 393–411.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper & Row.
Van Boven, L. & Gilovich, T. (2003). To do or to have? That is the question. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85, 1193–1202.
Birnie, K., Speca, M., & Carlson, L. (2010). Exploring self‐compassion and empathy in the context of mindfulness‐based stress reduction (MBSR). Stress & Health, 26, 359–371.