Happiness is in your ability to love others ~ Leo Tolstoy
Have you ever wished you could meditate but just didn’t know where to start?
There’s a reason for that! When people talk about meditation, they sometimes make it sound as if there were just one type. But there isn’t, there are so many types: mantra meditations, breath meditations, sound meditations, concentration meditations, awareness meditations, visualization meditations, compassion meditations and the list goes on! Each was designed with a specific purpose. Interestingly, research is showing that different types of meditation indeed may have different impacts…
During my dissertation research at Stanford, I learned that many people don’t feel connected to others and that this low sense of connection impacts their health and well-being tremendously (here’s a post I wrote on that). Studies also show that compassion is a key ingredient to our health and well-being but that, sadly, we’re not always as kind to others as we would like to be.
Worse yet, we’re not always kind to ourselves. Self-criticism is psychologically destructive. On the other hand, self-compassion – the opposite of self-criticism and self-loathing – is incredibly healing and leads to resilience (see the benefits that I wrote up in this post).
That’s when I found out about Loving-Kindness Meditation, whose purpose is to make people feel more connected and kind to others as well as to themselves. There was very little research on loving-kindness meditation at the time we started our research. So my fabulous colleague Cendri Hutcherson and I launched a 5 year study of loving-kindness and examined its impact on well-being, happiness and the brain. 100s of participants went through our studies and we found some really interesting data!
For one, loving-kindness meditation makes you feel closer to others, even strangers. And this happens not just consciously (as in you noticing that you “feel closer to this person”) but also on a deeper level (in that you automatically react more positively to people). We also found that it increases your feelings of happiness and well-being generally. For those of you who love to dig into the science, see our academic manuscript here. In another study (publication pending), we found that loving-kindness meditation makes you less self-focused (i.e. you have less thoughts about “me, myself and I”). And that’s a good thing, folks! Self-focus is associated with anxiety and depression. Our brain imaging findings (Yes, we did have people meditate while getting their brains scanned! Publication TBA soon!) also support these findings.
So what’s the bottom line? Loving-Kindness is good for you: it makes you feel happy, less focused on yourself, more connected to others and all of those things are good for your psychological and physical health. Heck, if you want a non-scientific addendum, here’s a story from my research days at Stanford:
During one of our studies, I monitored the participants (who were in another room) on a video screen to make sure everything was going all right (for an example of when things didn’t go right – take the day that, as soon as I left the experimental room, one of our participants decided to enjoy a giant cheeseburger instead of meditating! That’s why we have to have cameras y’all, it’s not that we’re creepers!). So one day, as I am monitoring what must have been the 113th Stanford undergraduate to participate in our study, I was surprised to hear a loud “Oh yea!” from the other room. I looked up at the video screen only to see the participant meditating with the biggest and most blissful smile on his face. He was just loving it!
After reading our findings, a number of people over the years have asked me to share the version of the loving-kindness meditation we researched so that they could practice it at home. And that’s a good idea: research by Barbara Fredrickson suggests that practicing this type of meditation daily can lead to substantial boosts in your happiness and well-being! I have therefore recorded it here so you can listen to it at home. It’s short (roughly 10 minutes) so it can be done anywhere, anytime. It’s free to you, so go ahead and download it, load it on your iPod or computer and give it a shot! Or just try it out on the link above or on the youtube link.
For even more on meditation’s benefits, check out my info graphic.
I would love to know how it impacts your days and your weeks! Please share your experiences with me in the comment section below!