Dr Kelly Neff, The Lucid Planet
For thousands of years, ancient traditions have encouraged a variety of meditation techniques to calm the mind and relax the body.
I began meditating during an incredible tumultuous time in my life. I was suffering through personal and relational turmoil, and was struggling with massive amounts of anxiety caused by feeling trapped in downward spirals of over-thinking. I felt panicked, like I could not relax or catch my breath.
Meditation helped slow everything down and observe myself from a distance. It taught me to be present, and to have discipline over my thoughts. Learning to meditate also helped me relax my body in ways I had never been able to before, and cope with the many health problems I had developed from living life so stressed for so long. For more on my journey to health, and to hear from my meditation mentor Jimmy Ohm on how to meditate, listen to Episode 2 of my new show Lucid Planet Radio.
While many like myself have taken up meditation on faith (or out of total desperation!) and continued it because of how good it makes us feel, others will remain naturally skeptical until scientific data is presented to them.
It appears that science is finally catching up to what yogis and gurus have known for thousands of years: Meditation can improve your life in many areas, including making you happier, healthier, smarter, more productive, and more socially well adjusted.
1. Increased Happiness
Happiness feels like the Holy Grail we are always chasing after in this world. Often we place ur happiness just of reach, into the future, and say things like “I’ll be happy when…. I get this new job” or “when I can go on vacation next month.” By grounding us into the present moment, meditation helps us to be happy NOW, no strings attached.
Research shows that meditation increases activity in areas of the brain that help to form positive emotions, while decreasing activity in areas of the bran that help to form negative emotions and calming the part of the brain that experiences anger. Meditation also makes you feel happy by decreasing anxiety, reducing depression, enhancing positive emotions, and decreasing stress. If you read the studies, the majority of them employ mindfulness techniques, designed to help us become fully present in the conscious direction of our awareness.
2. Improved Health & Wellness
Many of us live stressful lives, trying to become functional and well-adjusted in an intense, sometimes dysfunctional world. This struggle can take a toll on us emotionally and also physically, as the body can manifest internalized stress as sickness and disease.
Scientific research indicates that meditation makes you healthier by enhancing the functioning of the immune system and reducing cellular inflammation. Meditation can help people with somatic problems, including helping to treat sleep disorders and leading to longer, more restful sleep .Mindfulness meditation has also been used successfully to treat chronic pain, even replacing narcotic pain meditations in some cases. Transcendental meditation, which focuses on the use of mantras, has even been purported to help regulate blood sugar and lower cholesterol!
3. Enhanced Brain Functioning
Science and popular culture both seem heavily focused on how to activate and enhance certain regions of the brain, with a seemingly endless emphasis on brain enhancing foods, vitamins, supplements pills, activities or therapies. But it appears that one of the best things you can do to enhance your brain functioning is easy and FREE.
Studies have shown that over the course of meditating for thousands of hours, experienced meditators have actually been able to alter the structure and function of the brains, enhancing their neuroplasticity. Meditation is correlated with an increased volume of grey matter in the areas of the brain associated with emotional regulation and impulse control. Meditation is also associated with increased cortical thickness in areas related to attention and sensory processing. Meditation has even been shown to improve memory loss in adults with Alzheimer’s Disease. In addition, an fMRI study of people practicing non-directive meditation (where they allowed their minds to drift through spontaneous thoughts and emotions) confirmed that during this form of meditation, the brain has an enhanced ability for the retrieval of episodic memories and emotional processing.
4. Boosted Productivity & Creativity
The constant focus on deadlines, due-dates and pressure to perform can be a major source of stress in our lives. It can be really difficult to deliver amazing creative work on-demand, but meditation can help you focus to accomplish your goals.
Research shows that meditation can enhance your memory and help you multitask. A plethora of studies show that meditation can enhance your focus and attention, including that it can help control the distribution of limited brain resources and significantly improve visuo-spatial processing, working memory, and executive functioning. In terms of creative thought, meditation has been shown to enhance divergent thinking and the generation of new ideas, while reducing cognitive rigidity.
5. Improved Social Adjustment
Having good friends and a supportive social network is incredibly important to our overall well-being and life satisfaction. It might seem counter-intuitive that a solitary activity like meditation could enhance our social relationships, but when you consider the benefits it makes sense that people who meditate would be not only more connected to themselves, but also, to others.
First of all, meditation greatly enhances our compassion, including compassion for others, our ability to receive compassion, and compassion for ourselves. Loving-kindness meditation can build emotional intelligence and open up pathways for enhanced positive emotions and social support. In one study, even a few moments of loving-kindness meditation increased people’s social connection to complete strangers in a laboratory context. Perhaps this is why meditation has been shown to reduce loneliness in older adults.
With all of these benefits, are curious how to meditate or looking to pick up some new techniques? Listen to Episode 2 of Lucid Planet Radio and stay tuned for more articles from me on meditation, including my advice to beginners, and how to overcome the most pervasive meditation myths. Light and Love!
Artwork Credit: Alpha-Centauri by the amazing Visionary Artist Luke Brown
Dr. Kelly Neff is a renowned psychologist, author, founder of The Lucid Planet and the host of the hit new show, Lucid Planet Radio. She has reached millions of people with her articles on psychology, transformation, and wellness, which have been featured on websites like The Mind Unleashed, Mind Body Green, My Tiny Secrets, and now, The Lucid Planet. Before she became a full-time author, Dr. Neff spent seven years as a psychology professor where she helped thousands of students learn about health, relationships, love and sexuality, and co-authored the groundbreaking manual in her field, Teaching Psychology Online. She has a B.A. in Psychology from Georgetown University and an M.A. and Ph.D. in Social Psychology from Claremont Graduate University. Dr. Neff is an avid participant in the visionary art, music and culture scene in her home state of Colorado and beyond. You might find her traveling the globe to give workshops, speeches and do research at transformational festivals like Firefly, Sonic Bloom and Lucidity. You can find her on Facebook and Twitter. Light and Love!