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Shanthi Project’s Guide to Mindfulness Science

No matter your involvement in the wellness community, you’ve surely heard it before: practicing mindfulness offers a long list of benefits. These claims are everywhere—but they’re not just hearsay or clever branding. Decades of evidence back up the advantages that come along with a mindfulness practice: evidence that supports the very work we do at Shanthi Project. It’s written into our classroom curricula, weaved into workshops and public events, and serves as the foundation for our teacher training. This post is your guide to the science—your introduction to the research upon which we’ve built Shanthi Project!


Throughout this guide, we’ll focus on the claims we encounter most often, but this list in no way encompasses all of mindfulness science. Along with the benefits we’ll be covering, studies also suggest that practicing mindfulness boosts creativity, eases burnout symptoms, and can help manage addiction. Mindfulness is also beneficial in the classroom, as our own research reveals: a Shanthi Project study, published in the Journal of Child and Family Studies, showed that our Calm+Kind+Focused mindfulness program led to an increase in students’ positive behaviors, plus an even larger decrease in students’ problem behaviors.


One more caveat: in this field, studies often feature small groups of participants and self-reported results. While research quality has been steadily improving for the last 50 years, these limitations are important to consider. Still, the sheer breadth of current findings does suggest sound, confident scientific clarity on the benefits of mindfulness. In fact, new research is published every week, month, and year. We won’t be able to include every single study, but there’s so much more out there—all you have to do is look.


10 Benefits to Mindfulness Practice

1. Increased focus and attentional control

Across the board, studies show that practicing mindfulness is associated with an increase in one’s ability to focus. One study, published in PNAS, found that experienced mindfulness meditation practitioners experienced less mind-wandering than their counterpart control group. Another study followed participants on a weeklong meditation retreat, finding improved executive attention—the ability to concentrate—after the experience. Yet another showed that mindfulness training led to significant increases in sustained attention, relative to a comparison group that did not undergo meditation training.


2. Reduced anxiety and stress

One of the most frequently cited benefits of mindfulness is its ability to improve emotional wellbeing. In 2014, one study observed that meditation was more effective at managing anxiety than treatment as usual, with greatest effects observed in individuals with high anxiety. This result has been substantiated many times over, notably in this study, which showed that an 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) intervention meaningfully reduced psychological stress. Perhaps most significantly, a meta-analysis of 47 different studies suggests that mindfulness meditation programs can improve anxiety and depression.


3. Improved sleep

Want to catch some deeper ZZZ’s? Try mindfulness! Researchers believe that meditating causes changes in physiological functions similar to those that occur during sleep. One study from 2014 evaluated different mindfulness techniques, finding each of them to be successful in treating insomnia. Another, published in the International Journal of Behavioral Medicine, examined sleep quality among cancer patients and found that mindfulness meditation significantly reduced sleep disturbance and fatigue. Participants also self-reported improvements in sleep quality, too!


4. Boosts to physical health

A wide array of research suggests that practicing mindfulness can have tangible effects on different measures of physical health. One example is this study, which found a link between regular meditation and reduced risk of heart attack. Our immune function may benefit demonstrably from mindfulness, too, as Davidson et al. found in 2003. Interestingly, cellular aging may also slow with mindfulness practice. Two different studies, one from 2016 and one from 2019, found that meditation slows the shortening of telomeres—protective caps on the ends of chromosomes that affect how quickly cells age.


5. Increased compassion

Recently, researchers have begun to establish a link between practicing mindfulness and exhibiting compassion for the self and for others. In one study from 2014, researchers surveyed healthcare professionals, finding that mindfulness-based interventions increased self-compassion, while loving-kindness meditation increased other-focused concern, too. Weng et al. found similar results, seeing greater altruistic behavior in their test groups following compassion training.


6. Pain relief

While mindfulness can’t cure physical pain, preliminary research does suggest that it can help individuals change their relationship to pain. In other words, it’s more about the experience of pain, rather than the feeling of it.

Because everyone experiences pain differently, it can be challenging for scientists to quantify or compare across study participants. Still, the current research is promising! Dating all the way back to 1985, a study published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine examined ninety patients with chronic pain. After treatment in a 10-week mindfulness meditation program, pain-related drug utilization decreased and activity levels and feelings of self-esteem increased—even at a check-in over a year later! More recent research, like this study from 2011, and this one from 2012, suggests that practicing mindfulness can even reduce in-the-moment pain unpleasantness and intensity.


7. Positive impact on relationships

The benefits of mindfulness extend beyond the individual level, too. An interesting study from 2016 suggests that practicing mindfulness can help moderate conflict in romantic relationships by buffering the potential physiological impacts of negative behaviors. Recent research has found promising results for parent/child relationships, as well. Corthorn and Milicic analyzed reports from sixty-two mothers, ultimately finding a significant negative correlation among mindfulness behaviors and parental stress, depression, and anxiety.


8. Strengthened brain function

Though it may sound like a stretch, research shows that practicing mindfulness can, quite literally, change how our brains work. In 2010, sixteen study participants underwent a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program, and in just eight weeks, scientists found changes of gray matter concentration in brain regions involved in learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, self-referential processing, and perspective taking. Gard, Hölzel, and Lazar built upon these results in 2014, finding in their study that meditation can offset age-related cognitive decline—a measure defined by attention, memory, executive function, processing speed, and general cognition.


9. Mental health support

Mindfulness practice can act as a strong supplement to mental health treatment. A novel study from 2007 found that mindfulness training participants improved their ability to separate current experiences from the baseline chatter happening inside their heads. This means they could differentiate between two distinct streams of self-awareness, which points to an increased ability to free their minds from overthinking and rumination, leading to heightened mental health. In fact, a recently-published study suggests that mindfulness practice may even work as well as medication, a more traditional method of mental health treatment.


10. Reduced bias

Interestingly, bias—prejudice for or against someone or something—can be reduced through the practice of mindfulness. A 2016 study found that mindfulness meditation lowered instances of discrimination and reduced implicit race and age bias. This research suggests similar results, showing that a singular, brief loving-kindness meditation intervention reduced prejudice toward people experiencing homelessness. But it’s not just interpersonal bias—mindfulness can alter outlook biases, too. A 2011 study demonstrates that negativity bias lowered after only a brief mindfulness practice; the same participants reported higher levels of optimism compared to the control!


 

The research is plentiful and clear—yet we don’t want to fall into the comfort of quantitative proof. Having run through our guide to mindfulness science, we want to remind you not to discount anecdotal evidence, too. Peer-review makes it difficult to incorporate qualitative results into scientific papers—but people’s lived experiences are just as valid as cut-and-dry data. If you’ve ever practiced mindfulness or meditation and noticed personal benefits as a result, we see your experience, and we’re thrilled that you found a practice that works for you!


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