Does Mindfulness Meditation Actually Work? Probably for Some Things
If you’re reading this, you have probably already gotten the paradoxical advice to consider sitting still and doing nothing in order to solve your problems. This is such strange advice, particularly in the 21st century United States where we love (and reward) getting things done. The well-intentioned suggestion, “Why don’t you try meditation?” could be coming from pretty much anyone in your life—your primary care doctor, your mom, your college professor, your kid’s kindergarten teacher, even your friendly ABC News anchor Dan Harris. Having learned your lesson from getting caught up in previous fads (how about all those devilishly cute Beanie Babies we collected in the 90s), you may be naturally skeptical about the supposed—but likely overblown—benefits of meditation.
A Mountain of Research Exists
You’ll be relieved to know that, as meditation has been gaining speed in the popular media, it has also become a wildly popular area of scientific research. While there are many forms of meditation, mindfulness meditation has been the most researched. (Look into Jon Kabat-Zinn’s work if you want to know more about where secular mindfulness came from. Spoiler alert, it comes out of Asian contemplative traditions.) And, parallel to the popular media, there are lots of strong scientific opinions about whether mindfulness is helpful or not. There are whole books written on the topic of mindfulness meditation, but to define it in a few words—mindfulness involves paying attention to our moment-to-moment experience without judgment. Mindfulness interventions are designed to support development of this capacity—through repeated meditation practice, often coupled with didactic instruction and a supportive group context.
Thankfully, scientists have tools that allow carefully wading through (or climbing up) the mountains of data on mindfulness meditation that have accumulated. In our research, we wanted to know what the data—yes, all the data—says about the effectiveness of mindfulness. We looked across not just lots of primary studies, but across lots of different summaries of studies. In the end, we summarized results from 336 studies that had proper control groups (the gold standard for establishing the effects of something in psychology and the health sciences), and over 30,000 participants.
As you can imagine, there are many ways we could slice up this mountain of data. And we did slice it up many ways, looking at how mindfulness fared across different populations (children, older adults, students), different types of mindfulness trainings, different outcomes (physical health, mental health, sleep), and different comparisons (versus nothing, versus other therapies).
Almost All Good News
Our first big finding was that mindfulness trainings often produce better outcomes than no treatment, in terms of psychological symptoms (like depression and anxiety) and even some physical health symptoms (like pain). The benefits seem to last, too, with a similar pattern when people are followed up at a later date. Mindfulness didn’t always help much, though. Effects for children and for reducing substance use were not so impressive.
Having seen that mindfulness is often, but not always, better than nothing, we upped the stakes—we looked at how mindfulness fared when it was compared with other therapies, including top-of-the-line treatments like cognitive behavioral therapy or medications. On the whole, mindfulness interventions held their ground, often showing benefits similar to these other therapies if not slightly better (as it was for stress reduction). Evidence for mindfulness-based cognitive therapy—a mindfulness approach designed to prevent the recurrence of depression—was particularly strong, with this treatment actually outperforming other treatments (including antidepressant medications).
We took this as support for some of the enthusiasm surrounding meditation, but there are important parts of the picture that still remain fuzzy. One area that has largely been ignored is how often and for whom meditation training may be unhelpful, or even harmful. Even though mindfulness may provide benefits on average, there can still be many people who do not benefit or may even get worse from trying a mindfulness routine. These meditation-related side effects are a key area for future study.
So, should you give meditation a try (if you haven’t already) or get back on your meditation cushion (if you’ve fallen out of practice)? We suggest: why not? If you do, it may be helpful to connect with other meditators and find ways to get quality instruction (like through established online meditation groups), particularly if you are finding the practice to be difficult or distressing. There are also many high quality apps available, including a free app developed at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
Or, maybe meditation just isn’t your thing. If this is so, the good news is there are lots of ways to support well-being, like exercise and spending time with friends and family. But, if you are curious to see if meditation could benefit you, why not do some exploring and see for yourself?
For Further Reading
Goldberg, S. B., Riordan, K., Sun, S., & Davidson, R. J. (2021). The empirical status of mindfulness-based interventions: A systematic review of 44 meta-analyses of randomized controlled trials. Perspectives on Psychological Science. doi: 10.1177/1745691620968771
Van Dam, N. T., van Vugt, M. K., Vago, D. R., Schmalzl, L., Saron, C. D., Olendzki, A., ... & Meyer, D. E. (2018). Mind the hype: A critical evaluation and prescriptive agenda for research on mindfulness and meditation. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 13(1), 36-61. doi: 10.1177/1745691617709589
Simon Goldberg is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Counseling Psychology and Affiliate Faculty at the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. He studies psychotherapy, meditation, and whether technology can be used to make us happier and healthier.