In this section you will find information about recent research investigating the effects of various personal practices on health and well-being. The entries discuss well designed studies that have been published in peer reviewed journals from a broad range of disciplines, including neuroscience, cognitive science, health, medicine, and developmental science. It is updated regularly.
Personal Practices: Thinking & Well-Being
Various practices that calm or center the mind bring a greater subjective sense of well-being and also improve physiological measures of stress. These train the mind to be peacefully attentive. During the last fifteen years or so, neuroscientists have found surprising evidence that many practices actually alter the brain by building denser connections in areas associated with positive, less stressful responses to everyday events. Medical researchers have found significant improvements in blood pressure, vagal tone and other measures of stress. These are neurological or physiological changes. There are also cognitive changes associated with these practices, typically described as “inclining the mind” toward happier more positive thoughts.
It’s pretty obvious that whatever we’ve been paying attention to or have been working on is what we tend to think about. I thought of beginning this article by asking, “Have you ever noticed, that what is on your mind is what you think about?” But that seems like a tautology, saying the same thing twice with different words, one of those notorious faults of writing and logic. Yet it’s actually worth unraveling a bit, because it contains a rather interesting insight.
Here are some examples of what I mean. If you’re working on a business project, you tend to think about it while you’re involved in other aspects of your life. You think about the wording for a report as you drive, or think of a clever strategy while you’re cooking, or you may wake up with a brilliant idea for cultivating a new contact. If you’re concerned about a personal problem, you probably find your mind returning to it over and over, as you mull possible solutions or replay difficult interactions. If you had a loving interaction with your child or someone else, you may find yourself filled with joyous recollections of it. We think about whatever is taking up space in our mind at the moment.
The insight is this
You can use this tendency to your advantage. You can influence what your mind settles on and encourage it to hold on longer to thoughts that support your well being and help you to thrive. That’s one of the main ideas that underlies these personal practices. Here is how that works for the three main kinds of practice explored in Insights For Parents.
Gentle attention is one of the factors that underlies the supporting effect of meditation. It is something of a cognitive underpinning. While there are many forms of meditation, most center the mind, training it to be attentive. In meditation using mantras, the mind returns over and over to the mantra. Meditations using phrases, such as the lovingkindness meditation, similarly return to the repeating words, but in this case the mind also grasps the meanings of the words and is repeatedly reminded of them. In other forms of focus meditation, you gently return to your breath or some other focus of attention. In mindfulness meditation, you caringly guide your mind back to noticing what is going on in the present moment.
Gently guiding the mind in this way creates a kind of peacefulness. You stop attending so much to the ongoing narratives, worries and ruminations that make up so much of your daily thinking and in their place experience a calmness of thought and an openness of heart. Just a few minutes of meditation each day bring a noticeable effect.
Expressing gratitude is a powerful way the mind can be influenced to focus on positive things. By putting what you appreciate into your mind, you incline your mind toward positive thoughts. The more often you notice the good things going on in your life — your successes, the things that bring you happiness, the astonishing stuff that’s everywhere — the more you will find that your mind rests on or thinks about these. This is one of the reasons gratefulness practices are so potent.
Simply being aware of what you are sensing, doing or feeling in the present moment, without evaluating or judging it, is the essence of mindfulness. It is being available for what is currently happening. When you are fully engaged with what you are experiencing or doing, your mind settles and absorbs what is going on, rather than hopping around from thought to thought, busily analyzing and judging everything that passes through, or feeling anxious and overwhelmed. This kind of attention counteracts and diminishes some of our negative responses, promoting a greater sense of well being and a measurable decline in stress. Mindfulness does not mean giving up planning, imagining, envisioning, considering or other such vital thought processes. It invites us to also spend time peacefully involved with what is present and real.
The Beneficial Effects of Personal Practices
Clearly, there are ways to influence what is in our mind. Personal practices encourage the mind to center thoughts on positive ideas, such as feelings of gratitude, or on currently present things, through meditation or mindfulness, letting it rest in these rather than having it scurry from thought to thought or worry to worry. Doing so for a short time each day delivers a remarkable change that enhances our sense of well-being and moderates our physiological responses to stress.
There are a number of factors that explain this. Four important ones are these.
First, many practices bring more positive thoughts to the mind, so we tend to think of them more.
Second, these practices train the mind to be attentive, aware, and to wander less. Many studies indicate that people are happiest when they are fully engaged with what they are doing.
Third, the brain actually builds more neurological connections in response to frequency and experience, so that positive thoughts lead to the development of more neural networks and denser gray matter in areas associated with positive feelings.
Fourth, personal practices have a two pronged physiological effect: they diminish stress responses, particularly those associated with cortisol; and they increase calm responses, particularly those associated with vagal tone and the neuropeptide oxytocin.
The Take Away
When you include these kinds of personal practices in your life, you experience a calmer, more open and generally happier sense of daily living. When children live with these kinds of practices and awareness in their homes, they too experience a greater sense of well being and tend to have greater resilience, empathy, self-regulation and other healthy qualities. They are also more likely to engage in practices themselves, in ways that are appropriate for their age and stage of development. (Practices for children and families are included in Insights For Parents.)
Discussions of scientific research in this part of the site present some of the rapidly expanding evidence supporting these and other claims about the benefits of personal practices.
Just 8 weeks of mindfulness meditation produces measurable effects in the brain!
There is a growing body of evidence that long term meditation alters brain structure and improves or enhances various aspects of brain activation and connection. Fewer studies have been done investigating the effects of short term meditation, but this is beginning to change. In October of 2016 a new analysis was published in a highly respected journal, Cognition and Brain, presenting a systematic review . . .
Over the past decade, the effect of mind training practices has generated a lot of interest in psychology and neuroscience research. Mindfulness and various forms of meditation have clear and measurable effects on health, particularly stress reduction. But that is only the beginning of the story.
LovingKindness meditation has a surprisingly rapid and long-lasting effect on positive emotions such as joy, love and contentment. In turn, these positive emotions increase feelings of well-being and enable people to use their personal resources better. There is also some evidence that children’s development benefits from having a parent who expresses these qualities.
The first major study I am aware of that examined the effect of metta meditation was conducted by Barbara Fredrickson and her colleagues at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill (2008). They measured vagal tone and gathered data on emotions and social interactions, randomly assigning half of their subjects to learn lovingkindness mediation. Subjects practiced the meditation for just 10 minutes per day for two weeks. Vagal tone measures heart rate in relation to breathing. Higher vagal tone is associated with a good ratio of oxygenated blood, positive emotions and greater flexibility in physical, social and mental areas. Vagal tone is well studied in medicine and is usually thought to be a stable trait for individuals, rather like height.
One striking finding in Fredrickson’s research was that several months after the meditation workshops ended, the subjects who had meditated maintained significantly improved vagal tone. This is remarkable, for both the speed and endurance of the effect. Other studies have since confirmed and expanded these findings.
LovingKindness meditation done for just a few minutes a day brings a measurable change in vagal tone and is associated with an increase in positive emotions and feelings of well being. These effects last for many months even if the meditation practice does not continue. Keeping up with a regular LovingKindness practice, even if just once or twice a week, strengthens this effect.
Fredrickson, B., Coffey, K., Cohn, M., Finkel, S. & Pek, J. (2008). Open hearts build lives: Positive emotions, induced through loving-kindness meditation, build consequential personal resources. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95, 1045-1062.
Barbara Fredrickson is the Kenan Distinguished Professor of Psychology at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. She specializes in the study of emotions and in positive psychology.
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