Seems like everywhere we turn these days people are talking about the benefits of mindfulness.
But how do we know if these supposed mindfulness benefits are really legitimate or not?
While there are a lot of baseless claims about mindfulness out there, there are also some very real benefits and positive effects of mindfulness documented by scientific research.
Here are 15 genuine—and perhaps surprising—mindfulness benefits based on scientific studies:
- Control Your Temper
- Fend Off Depression
- Reduce Worry and Anxiety
- Setting Boundaries and Saying No
- Lose Weight
- Lower Daily Stress
- Fall Asleep Faster
- Increase Focus and Concentration
- Be a Better Listener
- Enjoy Sex More
- Lower Blood Pressure
- Be More Assertive
- Deepen Your Spiritual Life
- Stick with Your Goals
- Be a Better Leader
1. Control Your Temper
One of the most frequently asked questions I get as a psychologist and writer is this:
How can I have less conflict in my relationship with my husband/wife?
Unchecked anger can become problematic in almost any area of life. But one of the places it’s most troublesome is in relationships.
Maybe things start with a mildly sarcastic comment, which gets met with an irritated rebuke, which leads to defensiveness all the way around, and eventually an angry outburst, typically in the form of words or behavior we can’t take back.
These anger-based actions grind down a relationship over time and usually lead to a lot of guilt, shame, and anxiety in the aftermath.
Turns out, one of the best ways to lessen anger, control your temper, and reduce conflict in general, is to practice mindfulness.
One study found that the mindfulness of partners was associated with lower levels of reactivity and conflict in marriages. And more generally, there’s evidence that mindfulness lessens aggressive responses to provocations.
2. Fend Off Depression
We’ve known for a while now that mindfulness meditation can be helpful for depression, especially chronic recurring depression. There’s a wonderful book called The Mindful Way Through Depression that lays out how to apply mindfulness principles and practice to cope better with depression.
But more recently, some researchers are beginning to explore how exactly mindfulness exerts its beneficial effects on depression. They hope that by coming to a more refined understanding of the neural mechanics of mindfulness, they’ll be able to better apply it to a wider range of people who suffer from depression.
The case for the benefits of mindfulness in depression only seems to be growing the more we learn.
3. Reduce Worry and Anxiety
While it’s well-known that there are many mindfulness benefits regarding mental health difficulties in general—including anxiety—one researcher at Harvard Medical School has found specific mindfulness benefits for generalized anxiety and excessive worry.
Most struggles with anxiety and worry are the result of overthinking. Something initially causes a burst of worry or anxiety and we rush in to make things better by trying to think our way out of it.
Unfortunately, trying to control or fix our anxiety only makes it worse, which is where mindfulness comes in. By definition, mindfulness helps people to simply be aware of their thoughts and emotions without reacting to them. And it’s this non-reactance which appears to be so beneficial, especially for folks who struggle with chronic worry and generalized anxiety.
4. Setting Boundaries and Saying No
Saying No can be surprisingly hard for some of us.
Whether it’s taking a pass on hosting Christmas dinner for the 14th year in a row or declining an invitation to go out on Friday night in favor of curling up with a good book, letting people know where we really stand (including what we don’t want) is tough.
Which is why most of us cave in situations like this. We go with the flow and acquiesce to other people’s wants because saying no would require tolerating some pretty uncomfortable emotions, at least in the short-term.
When we’re skilled at approaching situations from a more mindful perspective, our capacity to tolerate uncomfortable emotions in favor of what’s really important to us goes up.
5. Lose Weight
Overeating is a complex phenomenon with a lot of variables and moving parts.
But for most of us, eating too much often involves a kind of mindlessness. We find ourselves eating more than we set out to or even more than we really want to.
Because eating is such a routine and regular activity, it’s easy to simply end up doing it, as if we’re on auto-pilot. Unfortunately, this automatic approach to eating makes it hard to keep our best intentions for health and weight loss in mind.
Recently, a couple of researchers from Duke and Indiana State University found that teaching basic mindfulness strategies to people who struggled with their eating habits resulted in lower rates of problematic eating as well as a better outlook on themselves and their eating behaviors.
6. Lower Daily Stress
Everybody seems to be feeling more and more stress these days.
Some of that increasing stress may be related to more macro concerns—the economy, climate change, global poverty, etc.
But much of our overall stress burden comes from more garden-variety daily stressors—our spouse forgetting to stop for milk on the way home… again!, the kids having to be at 14 different activities each week, our boss’ daily nagging about our TPS reports, etc.
Our lives are increasingly busy and full, leaving us with a kind of hard-to-get-a-breath feeling. Just getting through the day is exhausting—mentally and physically—because our days seem so crowded and cluttered.
Interestingly, a recent study found that while mindfulness may not change the actual number of stressors in your life (obviously), it can help us to respond better and more calmly to stressful events. And when we handle stressors more effectively, we tend to experience less stress itself.
7. Fall Asleep Faster
You’ve had a brutally long-stressful day, you just got all the dishes washed and kids into bed, finished responding to last-minute emails for work, and finally, you get to sink into bed.
And while you’re undoubtedly exhausted, for some reason your mind just doesn’t want to shut off and fall asleep.
As you lay in bed trying to get some rest, you mind bombards you will all manner of worries and concerns, from what time you need to be at tomorrow’s staff meeting all the way up to the possibility of nuclear fallout and the end of life on earth as we know it.
Sleep psychologists call this state Tired but Wired. You’re physically exhausted but, because of an overactive mind, your body’s natural desire to sleep gets suppressed.
Well, there’s good news from a group of researchers at USC and UCLA who found that a brief mindfulness intervention improved overall sleep quality and daytime fatigue among their study participants.
Of course, the study was done in a sample of older adults, but there’s no reason to think that these mindfulness benefits for sleep wouldn’t generalize to anyone who has trouble with their sleep. Especially if their main difficulty is quieting an overactive mind and getting to sleep initially.
8. Increased Focus and Concentration
If you find yourself easily distracted and have a difficult time staying focused and concentrating… Well, join the club.
In today’s increasingly busy and distracted (and distracting) world, it’s harder than ever to stay focused on what matters most and hold our attention there, whether it’s work, relationships, or our studies.
The ability to control and regulate our attention is as powerful a skill as any we possess. And thankfully, like many skills, it’s highly trainable. We can teach ourselves to maintain focus and concentrate for longer, to resist procrastination, and to keep our most important priorities front and center in our minds.
And mindfulness, it seems, is one of the best ways to practice and strengthen our attentional muscle. That’s what the research from a couple scientists who study the relationship between mindfulness meditation and attentional abilities suggests anyway.
They found that experienced practitioners of mindfulness meditation had significantly higher scores across a range of tests and measures of attention and cognitive flexibility.
9. Be a Better Listener
Most of us know how important effective communication is. And chances are, we know that being a good listener is a vital part of building positive relationships and communicating well with people. Especially those who play an important part in our lives—spouses, employers, children, friends, etc.
But despite the common wisdom that being a good listener is important, how to actually do it or improve in that area can be a bit of a mystery.
Interestingly, researchers at the University of Minnesota have done some preliminary work on the role of mindfulness in effective communication and listening skills.
Their research suggests some mindfulness benefits for better communication and active listening specifically via two sub-skills involved in mindfulness: describing and observing.
In other words, mindfulness helps you to be a better listener (and therefore communicator) by teaching you to get better at carefully observing what’s going on in a conversation and articulating those observations.
And while that may seem obvious on a superficial level, as someone who basically makes a living by trying to be a good listener, I can attest to how difficult it is to truly pay attention and describe what you’re hearing in a conversation.
Good to know that mindfulness may be able to help!
This book is also an excellent resource for learning how to improve your listening and communication skills (it’s written with children in mind, but it’s equally applicable to communicating with adults):
10. Enjoy Sex More
Let’s reverse engineer this one:
If you had to think of a way to minimize people’s enjoyment of sex, what would you do?
Make them really anxious and stressed-out, ideally hyper-concerned with their performance and how they were being evaluated.
You don’t have to be a sex therapist to see how stress and anxiety get in the way of enjoyment of sex (or just about anything else, for that matter).
Now if only there was a reliable way to practice staying present and in the moment rather than in our heads worrying and stressing. We’d probably enjoy sex a lot more…
Oh wait, there is—Mindfulness!
Yes, mindfulness will help you learn how to train your attention, and if you can keep your attention in the moment rather than worrying about how you’re performing or what your partner thinks of you, you’re all but guaranteed to enjoy sex (and the rest of life) a lot more.
But don’t take my word for it. Researchers at Brown University came to the same conclusion.
11. Lower Blood Pressure
High blood pressure is an important risk factor for stroke and cardiovascular disease, two of the leading causes of death in the country.
And while there are effective medications to help manage high blood pressure, lifestyle factors play a large role as well and can help improve blood pressure in addition to the beneficial effects of medication.
Over the past couple decades, a lot of research has shown a connection between the regular practice of mindfulness meditation and lower blood pressure. A recent meta-analysis looked at all this data combined and found that indeed there was a beneficial effect of mindfulness on blood pressure scores.
12. Be More Assertive
Assertiveness just may be the most underrated skill in all of mental health. The ability to directly and respectfully ask for and pursue what we really want is nearly superpower when to comes to living well, especially for people who struggle with anxiety, low self-confidence, and poor self-esteem.
Which is why I was intrigued when I came across a small study showing that mindfulness training appears to have beneficial effects both in terms of increasing assertiveness and decreasing anxiety.
As someone who works professionally with folks who struggle with anxiety and assertiveness, I’ve often suspected that there could be mindfulness benefits in this area. So it was encouraging to see at least some initial support for this idea in the scientific research.
If you want to learn more about assertiveness and how to become more assertive in your own life, I highly recommend this book:
13. Deepen Your Spiritual Life
While mindfulness meditation originated in Buddhist spiritual practices, it’s been largely secularized in today’s western society. So much so that it’s often considered to be closer to “attention training” than anything religious or spiritual in nature.
Interestingly, some preliminary research suggests that non-spiritual mindfulness meditation may have benefits for folks who struggle with or are interested in deepening their spiritual lives.
While it’s unclear exactly why mindfulness would lead to improvements in “spiritual growth,” researchers from one study suggest that it may be due to the beneficial effects of mindfulness on anxiety and emotion regulation difficulties.
14. Stick with Your Goals
One of the more interesting benefits of regular mindfulness meditation has to do with setting and sticking with personal goals.
It’s not a stretch to suggest that most of us have many personal goals we dream about but can’t seem to make much progress toward. A recent report in the International Journal of Wellbeing suggests that people who practice mindfulness regularly, have a greater sense of autonomy which in turn leads to more effective goal setting and attainment.
Mindfulness also likely affects goal attainment indirectly by lowering common obstacles to our goals such as anxiety, stress, confusion, etc.
15. Be a Better Leader
Unfortunately, there’s a lot of hype surrounding supposed mindfulness benefits. And with it, a lot of folks see the chance to make a quick buck selling it as a cure-all for just about anything, including corporate and business woes.
But some anecdotal research suggests that there are aspects of mindfulness meditation that could be quite beneficial for the development of leadership in a business context or otherwise.
A recent report in HBR explored how mindfulness tends to facilitate and expand three qualities important to leadership potential:
- Metacognition, the ability to observe and monitor your own thoughts and feelings.
- Allowing, the ability to accept what is in a balanced, realistic way.
- Curiosity, taking an enthusiastic interest in the world and people around us.
Looking for More Mindfulness Benefits?
Check out these helpful guides and articles about how to get started with mindfulness in your own life: