Scientific studies confirm: Meditation Helps. These studies track the impact of meditation on physical health and psychological distress. Because they use the scientific method and focus on empirical findings, they’re something (just about) everyone can agree on. This is one of the wonderful things about science.
The scientific benefits of meditation are increasingly well-documented. Here are a few of the headlines—the most striking benefits, from the most credible sources:
- Cuts cardiac patients’ heart attack and stroke risk nearly in half (by 47%) over five years (American Psychological Association, 2011)
- Reliably reduces reported psychological distress by 35% on average (UMass Medical School; Journal of Instructional Psychology, 2011)
- Leads to an average 28% savings on physician fees over five years among high-cost patients (American Journal of Health Promotion, 2011)
- Reshapes the brain: strengthens parts involved in emotion regulation, compassion, introspection; quiets parts involved in anxiety and stress (Harvard Medical School/Mass. General Hospital, 2011)
- Leads to clinically important reductions in depression and anxiety in patients with over a dozen mood disorders and chronic illnesses (Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 2010)
- Treats insomnia as effectively as a prescription sedative (University of Minnesota, 2011)
- Leads to clinically significant (5 mm Hg on average) reductions in blood pressure (Medical College of Wisconsin, 2009)
Not science: the subjective benefits of meditation
Many of the benefits of meditation reside in the world of individual, subjective experience, which is harder to measure and categorize than the largely physical health outcomes listed above. The slow psychological changes that meditation can bring—”I don’t fly off the handle so easily,” “I’m quicker to notice and empathize with others’ pain,” “I feel ‘wiser’ and better attuned to reality,” ”I’m not so hard on myself”—are what makes meditation so special, and much more than another tool in the health-care arsenal.
Sort of science: tracking the subjective benefits of meditation
Whether or not they are verified by science, subjective experiences can be credible and intelligible to us, the people having them. Recording, tracking, and reviewing your own experiences is “sort of science.” As you practice meditation, look carefully at your psychological state and see how it changes over time. Try to understand how the whole thing works. Just like a scientist, except that your experience is measured personally, rather than empirically.
As you take and retake your own “meditation portrait,” a picture will develop of the ebbs and flows in your life, and meditation’s influence on them. If you collect enough convincing data this way, you might even tell some scientists—but in the meantime, you will notice the gradual but profound changes meditation can bring.