Meditation, especially mindfulness, has become popular – and as a researcher who has spent many years studying meditation, this worries me. My fear is that like so many other fads that have swept through America in the recent past, meditation will be abandoned altogether when people discover that—despite the hype—it’s not a magic cure-all for life’s pains or problems.
Just because I fear that meditation is being oversold, however, does not mean that I doubt its benefits. I meet people all the time who assure me that their lives have been transformed for the better as a result of starting a meditation practice. And my own life has been deeply enriched from my long exposure to meditation.
But scientific studies tell a much less enthusiastic story. We recently finished a large study and found that several forms of meditation had no effect whatsoever on how people handle stress, how they behave in their daily lives, or on their levels of depression and anxiety. Fortunately, data from many other studies—when taken as a whole—paint a slightly brighter picture. On average, meditation does help depression and anxiety, but the effects are small and no better than what one sees with any number of other interventions.
My take on all this is that meditation is not for everybody, despite its current status as a panacea for our every ill. When it works for someone, it really works. When it doesn’t work, it can make you feel frustrated at best and unhappy at worst. So if you’ve tried meditation and decided that it’s not for you, you shouldn’t feel bad about it. There are lots of other strategies for enhancing your health and well-being.
But if you haven’t tried meditating and want to see if it might benefit you, here are a few simple suggestions:
1. Give it a try for a week or two. Try short sessions of meditation in the beginning. Several good sessions of five-to-ten minutes are better than one frustrating long one. And, if you find that meditation is difficult, welcome to the club! Everyone finds it difficult.
2. Try using an app, especially in the beginning, as these can provide guidance and a framework for starting out. Stop, Breathe & Think is a good app (and free), but there are lots of others out there.
3. If you can, join a group of people learning to meditate. Despite meditation being a solitary practice, group support can make an amazing difference.
4. If you are struggling with clinical levels of anxiety or depression, make sure to keep your clinician in the loop. Also, consider reading The Mindful Way Through Depression by Mark Williams, John Teasdale, Zindel Segal, and Jon Kabat-Zinn. This book will introduce you to Meditation-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) which—of all meditation programs—has the best scientific evidence behind it.
5. If you give meditation a try and feel it is not for you, don’t be surprised. Despite the hype, it’s not for everyone. And that’s fine because there are lots of other ways you can enhance your well-being.