Are the health benefits of mindfulness backed up by scientific research?
Yes, there is a substantial body of research showing that mindfulness practice can be beneficial to mental and physical health. The following is taken form an article in Psychology Today, dated April 22nd 2015, titled "10 Ways Mindfulness and Meditation Promote Well-Being" by Christopher Bergland
Research into the Health Benefits of Mindfulness Practice for Individuals
Enhances Brain Performance Research from Norway and Australia in 2014 showed the enhanced effect of non-directive meditation on memory retrieval.
Promotes Creative Thinking A study from Holland in 2014 showed meditation can increase creative thinking even for those new to meditation.
Alleviates Stress A 2012 study from Massachusetts found that participating in an 8-week meditation training program had positive effects on how the amygdala responded to stress—even when someone is not actively meditating.
Increases Compassion A 2013 study from America found that meditation made people more willing to act compassionately even when doing so went against peer pressure.
Minimises Chronic Pain A 2015 study by the American Pain Society found that meditation can be an effective treatment for reducing chronic neck pain and concluded that meditation has unique benefits for producing pain relief and for pain coping.
Lowers Risk of Heart Attack or Stroke In 2012 the American Heart Association reported that people who practiced meditation regularly were less likely to have a heart attack or stroke, lowered their blood pressure and reported less anger and stress.
Helps Cancer Recovery A 2011 study found that breast cancer survivors' health improved after they learned Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). A 2014 study with teenagers found that mindfulness-based meditation reduced symptoms associated with cancer and was helpful in improving mood and sleep.
*Article in Psychology Today, dated April 22nd 2015, titled "10 Ways Mindfulness and Meditation Promote Well-Being" by Christopher Bergland
Impacts of Mindfulness on Children and Young People
Amongst adults there is reasonably strong evidence for the positive impact of mindfulness on a wide range of mental and physical health conditions, on social and emotional skills and wellbeing, and on learning and cognition. There is also good evidence from neuroscience and brain imaging that mindfulness meditation reliably and profoundly alters the structure and function of the brain to improve the quality of both thought and feeling.
Research with children and young people is not yet as extensive as with adults, and the studies carried out so far have some methodological limitations, most notably small numbers, and limited use of control groups or randomisation. Conclusions must therefore be tentative. Nevertheless, work is growing rapidly and the results are promising which suggests that mindfulness in schools is well worth doing.
Two recent systematic reviews and twenty individual studies of mindfulness interventions with school aged children, all with reasonable numbers of participants, have been published in reputable peer reviewed scientific journals. The interventions involved all age ranges, both volunteers and ‘conscripts’, children without problems and children with a range of mental and physical health problems, and took place in school, clinical and community contexts. The weight of evidence from these studies concludes that:
Mindfulness for young people is easy to carry out, fits into a wide range of contexts, is enjoyed by both students and teachers, and does no harm.
Well conducted mindfulness interventions can improve the mental, emotional, social and physical health and wellbeing of young people who take part. It has been shown to reduce stress, anxiety, reactivity and bad behaviour, improve sleep and self-esteem, and bring about greater calmness, relaxation, the ability to manage behaviour and emotions, self-awareness and empathy.
Mindfulness can contribute directly to the development of cognitive and performance skills and executive function. It can help young people pay greater attention, be more focused, think in more innovative ways, use existing knowledge more effectively, improve working memory, and enhance planning, problem solving, and reasoning skills.
The studies also show that adolescents who are mindful, either through their character or through learning, tend to experience greater well-being, and that being more mindful tends to accompany more positive emotion, greater popularity and having more friends, and less negative emotion and anxiety.
Mindfulness is therefore likely to have beneficial effects on the emotional wellbeing, mental health, ability to learn and the physical health of school students. Such interventions are relatively cheap to introduce, have an impact fairly quickly, can fit into a wide range of contexts and are enjoyable and civilising, for pupils and staff.
Impacts on the well-being and performance of school staff
Mindfulness involves learning to direct our attention to our experience as it is unfolding, moment by moment, with open-minded curiosity and acceptance. It is a skill that can be learned by practices, akin to meditations, that focus on immediate felt experience in the breath, body and mind.
Interventions which teach mindfulness are proliferating in all sectors, including most recently in education for students and staff. Conclusions here about the benefits of mindfulness for school staff are based on solid evidence of the impact of mindfulness on adults, and a growing and promising evidence base on the impact on children and young people. Randomised control trials (RCTs) with adults and young people have shown moderate impacts on mental and physical health, social and emotional competences, and performance of various kinds, and on many indicators of quality of life and wellbeing. MRI (brain scan) studies suggest that mindfulness meditation reliably and profoundly alters the structure and function of the brain to improve the quality of both thought and feeling.
Specific mindfulness interventions for school staff are now developing, some connected to existing school based programmes, others within teacher education. There are currently 13 studies published in peer reviewed journals of mindfulness with school staff. They include 5 RCTs, 7 control studies, 3 before and after, and one qualitative study. They mostly use self-report methodology, but increasingly include tests of real world performance. Their findings echo the wider adult and workplace literature on the impacts of mindfulness, and show:
reductions in stress, burnout and anxiety, including a reduction in days off work and feelings of task and time pressure, improved ability to manage thoughts and behaviour, an increase in coping skills, motivation, planning and problem solving, and taking more time to relax.
better mental health including less distress, negative emotion, depression and anxiety.
greater wellbeing, including life satisfaction, self-confidence, self-efficacy, self- compassion and sense of personal growth.
increased kindness and compassion to others, including greater empathy, tolerance, forgiveness and patience, and less anger and hostility.
better physical health, including lower blood pressure, declines in cortisol (a stress hormone) and fewer reported physical health problems.
increased cognitive performance, including the ability to pay attention and focus, make decisions and respond flexibly to challenges.
enhanced job performance, including better classroom management and organisation, greater ability to prioritise, to see the whole picture, to be more self- motivated and autonomous, to show greater attunement to students’ needs, and achieve more supportive relationships with them.
This evidence base comes from well designed and implemented programmes, taught by skilled and well educated trainers with a personal practice of mindfulness. School staff need to themselves experience sufficient high quality education in mindfulness from well-educated trainers, and have a regular personal practice, in order to become skilled and authentic teachers of mindfulness and avoid doing harm.
Mindfulness at Work
The following is a selection of publications collated by Theo Winter, client services manager, writer, and researcher for TTI Success Insights Australia.
Evidence for Mindfulness: A research summary for the corporate sceptic (excerpts)
There's No Price Tag on a Clear Mind: Intel to Launch Mindfulness Program
Publication: The Guardian /Author: Kristine A. Wong / Date: April 2014
Awake@Intel is a mindfulness program that Intel plans to make available to over 100,000 employees in 63 countries. To date, 1,500 employees have taken part, having completed 19 sessions. The results so far: “On average, participants responding to pre- and post- self-evaluation questionnaires report a 2-point decrease (on a 10-point scale) in experiencing stress and feeling overwhelmed, a 3-point increase in overall happiness and wellbeing, and a 2-point increase in having new ideas and insights, mental clarity, creativity, the ability to focus, the quality of relationships at work and the level of engagement in meetings, projects and collaboration efforts.”
Mindfulness Can Literally Change Your Brain
Publication: Harvard Business Review / Author: Congleton, Hölzel, and Lazar/ Date: January 2015
“This year , a team of scientists from the University of British Columbia and the Chemnitz University of Technology were able to pool data from more than 20 studies to determine which areas of the brain are consistently affected [by mindfulness training]. They identified at least 8 different regions… Neuroscientists have also shown that practicing mindfulness affects brain areas related to perception, body awareness, pain tolerance, emotion regulation, introspection, complex thinking, and sense of self. While more research is needed to document these changes over time and to understand underlying mechanisms, the converging evidence is compelling.”
Why Mindfulness Works Wonders
Publication: L&D Professional / Author: John Hilton / Date: February 2016
Herbert Smith Freehills (HSF), a global law firm with around 5,000 employees, was the first company to launch a mindfulness program in the Australian legal industry. Approximately 200 employees have gone through the 6week HSF mindfulness program in the last 14 months. Some of the results from the 6-week program include: "a 12 percent increase in employee focus; a 10 percent increase in employee performance; a 10 percent increase in employee efficiency; a 17 percent increase in employee work/life balance; an 11 percent increase in employee communication skills; a 14 percent decrease in employee multitasking."
The Mind Business Publication:
The Financial Times / Author: David Gelles / Date: August 2012
The multinational manufacturer, General Mills, has had over 500 employees attend their Mindful Leadership program, created by General Mills’ deputy general counsel, Janice Marturano. According to the company's self report data: "After one of Marturano’s seven-week courses, 83 percent of participants said they were 'taking time each day to optimise my personal productivity' – up from 23 percent before the course. 82 percent said they now make time to eliminate tasks with limited productivity value – up from 32 percent before the course. And among senior executives who took the course, 80 percent reported a positive change in their ability to make better decisions, while 89 percent said they became better listeners.
Contemplating Mindfulness at Work - An Integrative Review
Mindfulness research activity is surging within organisational science. Emerging evidence across multiple fields suggests that mindfulness is fundamentally connected to many aspects of workplace functioning, but this knowledge base has not been systematically integrated to date. This review coalesces the burgeoning body of mindfulness scholarship into a framework to guide mainstream management research investigating a broad range of constructs. The framework identifies how mindfulness influences attention, with downstream effects on functional domains of cognition, emotion, behavior, and physiology. Ultimately, these domains impact key workplace outcomes, including performance, relationships, and well-being. Consideration of the evidence on mindfulness at work stimulates important questions and challenges key assumptions within management science, generating an agenda for future research.
Children and Young People and Staff
The following includes two summaries of research into the impacts of mindfulness on children and young people and also on staff. These have been prepared by Katherine Weare, Emeritus Professor at the Universities of Exeter and Southampton. More details of research into mindfulness in schools can be found on the Evidence Base pages of the MiSP website: