Few activities have stood the test of 2500 years. Today we still have running, music, writing, swimming and… mindfulness meditation (among scarce others).
Such ancient interests that are still practiced today have a good reason for thriving so many centuries later. But while our ancestors could feel the benefits of meditation, they didn’t have the luxury of modern science to support their claims; it seemed to improve their lives, so they kept doing it.
Now, as western researchers have applied scientific rigor to mindfulness meditation, the results are in… and they’re more incredible than you might have imagined. Below are twelve science-based benefits of mindfulness meditation that will blow your mind.
1Make your brain younger
A Harvard neuroscientist and her team wanted to determine whether meditation can change the brain over the long run.
Amazingly, their research found that 50-year-old meditators had the same amount of gray matter (brain cells) as 25-year-olds in the prefrontal cortex (a key brain region used for decision-making and memory), which normally declines with age. The scientists concluded that “regular practice of meditation may slow the rate of neural degeneration.”
Meditation has also been shown to fight age-related cognitive decline and even slow cellular aging. While most peoples’ memory and other brain functions decline as they get older, these effects aren’t seen to the same degree in long-term meditators.
2Increase pain tolerance by 57%
Your read that right: After just four days of training in mindfulness meditation, participants in one study found painful hot sensations to be 57% less unpleasant on average.
This may sound too good to be true, but there’s solid neuroscience to suggest why. As you learn to meditate, your brain can begin to separate the physical sensation of pain from your emotional reaction to it. Most of the suffering we experience, scientists have found, is a result of our psychological reaction, rather than the pain itself.
3Gain back half of your waking life
Harvard researchers found that we spend an average of 47% of our days lost in thought. That’s nearly half of your waking life spent in some kind of mental simulation, daydreaming about the future or past. And the same study found that many of those thoughts are negative!
Mindfulness meditation can help you regain presence and spend less time mind-wandering. As you practice, you’ll spend more time immersed fully in whatever you’re doing and get more out of your life.
4Reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression
In our modern western world, millions of people suffer from anxiety and depression.
This has also led many of them to take up meditation, which has been shown to help with both mental problems. One of the reasons that mindfulness meditation helps in this area is that it teaches you to identify and detach from the harmful stories you might be telling yourself. Anxiety and depression, after all, are both negative narratives that get repeated over and over again in a mental loop.
5Become more self-aware
This isn’t something that can be studied in the lab, but it’s one of the first benefits that every meditator notices at some point.
Having sat for some time directing your attention inward during mindfulness meditation, you’ve trained in the art of self-awareness (or what psychologists refer to as “introspective metacognitive awareness”). To put it one way, your mind gets good at observing itself.
This benefit doesn’t just help others, who have to deal with less of your annoying habits, but it’s also a fast path to self-improvement. Us humans are the only species on earth with this skill of “5th-degree metallization,” the mind’s capacity to become aware of its own processes.
6Improve your concentration and working memory
In our current distraction crisis, it’s never been more important to have control of our attention. Furthermore, working memory is your ability to hold something in your mind in the short-term and is something that seems to be declining. Could you remember a 7-digit phone number if you had to?
Mindfulness meditation has been shown to improve both of these key areas of cognitive functioning. So to all the kids drinking insane amounts of caffeine to get better test scores, try meditation instead!
Inflammation is a major underlying cause of many illnesses, including depression, heart disease, acne, and fatty liver disease. While most people look to decrease inflammation by going on a special diet or exercising, there’s another option available that takes just a few minutes each day.
Studies have confirmed meditation’s ability to help diminish inflammation. Because of the mind-body connection, mindfulness meditation benefits your body’s health as well as your brain.
Whether to a chemical drug or something more minor, like chocolate, meditation has been shown to help reduce cravings and even addiction.
Addiction recovery centers are now using meditation, along with traditional treatments, to help addicts. Brown neuroscientist Judson Brewer, Ph.D. and his team found that mindfulness meditation was as effective as any other method for helping people quit smoking.
9Reduce feelings of stress
The modern world is full of things that stress us out, from traffic jams to an unreturned text message. But your brain often can’t tell the difference between those minor issues and a lion attacking you on the savannah, as it sets into the motion the fight-or-flight response.
When you meditate, the brain goes from active beta brainwave states to slower and more rejuvenating alpha and theta brainwaves. One of the first things you’ll learn to activate on command is a state of deep relaxation that you can spend more of your time immersed in.
10Boost your immune system
Nobody likes getting sick, and oftentimes we think of washing our hands as the best preventative.
But it turns out there’s another way to help bolster a healthy immune system. Some of the top meditation researchers in the world, including Richard Davidson, Ph.D. and Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D. found that eight weeks of mindfulness meditation training significantly increased key antibodies compared to a control group.
11Cultivate positive emotions, like compassion
While you won’t feel happy all the time, training a mindful mentality will gradually build up positive emotions. You’ll come to appreciate the smaller things in life more and better bear turbulent times.
Meditators commonly report feeling like they can better “surf the waves” of life, even when the ocean waters aren’t perfectly calm. And you also might uncover a natural well of untapped compassion within yourself as your practice continues.
12Enhance your sleep
Sleep is something that’s often viewed as a waste of time… until we get a bad night’s sleep and realize how important it is for mental clarity, mood, and productivity.
Shockingly, 40% of U.S. workers chronically under-sleep, costing over $63 billion in lost productivity each year.
And while some people try to use various cocktails or drugs to knock themselves out, oftentimes they are just knocking themselves out rather than actually sinking into a restful state.
Better to do it the old-fashioned way with an ancient practice that’s been the hero of our story: mindfulness meditation. In a randomized clinical trial, meditation significantly improved sleep quality and lessened fatigue.
How much would you pay for a “magic pill” that accomplished all of the same benefits of mindfulness meditation? But all it takes is a few minutes each day. And if you’ve tried meditation but it didn’t seem to work, it’s likely that you weren’t taught correctly.
So if you feel like getting all of these benefits for yourself, here’s where to start:
The Best Way to Learn Meditation
Many people find it best to learn from a professional app, where they can meditate on-the-go and access some of the world’s best instructors in their pockets at any time. But most of the apps provide only surface-level instruction and are trying to make a quick buck.
That’s why we recommend one app in particular, the FitMind meditation app, which was created with the help of neuroscientists and monks and takes a more in-depth approach to meditation. Unlike the other apps, you’ll learn over 50 different methods, progressing from beginner to advanced techniques.
Via fitmindFitMind teaches this same program at Fortune 500 companies, like Amazon and Uber, and was recently named the #1 meditation app for better sleep and less stress by CNET.
If you’re trying to start a meditation practice or take your current practice to the next level to reap the full benefits of mindfulness meditation, we recommend giving the FitMind program a shot.
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13Author: Liam McClintock
Liam McClintock is an MBSR and RYS-trained meditation teacher. He graduated with a B.A. from Yale University and is completing an M.Sc. in Applied Neuroscience at King's College London.