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Science: Mindfulness Makes a Measurable Difference — a Small One

Many mindfulness practitioners don’t take it seriously enough to change their lifestyle so as to gain the available benefit

Researcher Kevin Dickinson reminds us that there is science behind mindfulness meditation but that crazes are crazes — and the nearly $9 billion dollar market for mindfulness wares is no substitute for serious, regular practice. Here’s what he found that the science tells us:

A systematic review and meta-analysis published in JAMA Internal Medicine looked at 47 randomized clinical trials with active controls (totaling 3,515 participants). It found moderate evidence of mindfulness easing anxiety, depression, and pain; low evidence for assuaged stress; insufficient evidence of reduced substance abuse and poor eating habits; and no evidence that mindfulness was better than other treatment options.

Similar results can be found across the scientific literature. Another meta-analysis found slightly larger but still moderate effect sizes. Still another — this one looking at mindfulness-based therapy — found a moderate effect size but not one larger than other therapies or pharmacological treatments. As for individual studies, these can be limited in their predictive value. That study showing mindfulness reduced racial bias, for example, had only 72 participants—all of them midwest college students. 2021)

Kevin Dickinson, “Mindfulness: New age craze or science-backed solution?” at Big Think (September 15,

It sounds as though we get out of it what we put into it, which is true of other therapies as well.

Journalist Dan Harris estimated that mindfulness practice made him 10% happier, but that was enough to make it worthwhile:

“If you can get past the cultural baggage, though, what you’ll find is that meditation is simply exercise for your brain. It’s a proven technique for preventing the voice in your head from leading you around by the nose,” Harris writes in 10% Happier. “In my experience, meditation makes you 10% happier. That’s an absurdly unscientific estimate, of course. But still, not a bad return on investment.”

Kevin Dickinson, “Mindfulness: New age craze or science-backed solution?” at Big Think (September 15, 2021)

For any benefits to be realized, serious, regular practice of mindfulness meditation should, of course, include appropriate lifestyle changes. For example, at Medium mindfulness teacher Karo Wanner offers some common-sense suggestions, including

Reduce Your Screen Time

Mindfulness is about being here right now. When you spend time on Instagram, TikTok, and even the news we beam ourselves somewhere else.

Every time we grab our phone, we say no to the present moment and yes to being manipulated watching other people’s lives.

Your attention is the product being sold to big advertisers. It is hard to control; you are pulled into your phone and bam… 2 hours of your precious life passed. Unconscious. On auto-pilot.

Karo Wanner, “7 Changes You Need to Make to Become More Mindful” at Medium (October 1, 2020)

She cites research showing that increase in screen time is correlated with greater teen unhappiness, for example. It may not be causing the unhappiness but it sure isn’t helping resolve it either.

Wanner offers some practical suggestions she has adopted for herself: Mute all notifications “so the phone does not tell me when to use it. I decide when I want to check my messages.” Also, if we are at all serious, “no phone in the bedroom or while talking to other people.”

Andrew McDiarmid, one of our regular contributors, would certainly concur. See “Take control of your tech before the metaverse hits” and “Escaping the ‘Truman Show’ of our times.

So mindfulness is in the awkward position that yes, science shows that it does make a measurable difference to our health and well-being. But that’s only in proportion to what we put into it. It’s not the magic that some, unfortunately, are still looking for.

You may also wish to read: Study: Eight-week mindfulness courses do not change the brain. Earlier studies may have been hampered by a small, self-selected, particularly needy participant base and by the fact that any intervention can succeed at first. Tibetan Buddhist monks who can control their metabolism and brain waves have spent their lives meditating. Brain changes are consistent with that fact.

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Science: Mindfulness Makes a Measurable Difference — a Small One