There are a lot of extremely good reasons to meditate, and a few different ways to present evidence for these reasons.
The most broadly credible arguments for meditation come from scientific studies, which track the impact of meditation on things like physical health and reported psychological distress. Because these studies 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)
(We’ll be explaining these and other findings in our weekly “Improbable meditation benefit of the week,” on email and our Facebook page.)
Not science: the subjective benefits of meditation
Many of the benefits of meditation reside in the world of individual, subjective experience, which is much 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 (in our opinion) what makes meditation so special, and much more than another tool in the healthcare arsenal.
Sort of science: tracking the subjective benefits of meditation
We’re interested in the ways that subjective experiences can be made credible and intelligible—above all, to the people having them. Recording, tracking, and reviewing your own experiences is “sort of science”: you’re looking carefully at your psychological state and how it changes over time, and trying to understand how the whole thing works, just like a scientist; but the experiences are personal and internal, rather than empirical and external.
One “sort of science” tool for tracking meditation’s effects in your own life is our Meditation Portrait feature. As you take and retake pieces of the 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, we hope this will help you notice the gradual but profound changes meditation can bring.