Last updated on 5th January 2009
I have already written an initial blog post about Barbara Fredrickson and colleagues' interesting recent research paper (Fredrickson, Cohn et al. 2008) on the effects of teaching people loving-kindness meditation. So what are some possible implications of this research for people in general, for using forms of mind training (meditation, imagery, breathing techniques, self-hypnosis and relaxation) for ourselves, and for people who teach these approaches?
I'd like to start by pointing out a fascinating over-arching finding of this study. The researchers' hypothesis was that benefits of the mind training would be produced through a pathway where: 1.) meditation increases daily positive emotions. 2.) increases in positive emotions lead to improved personal resources. 3.) improved personal resources result in greater life satisfaction and less depression. Clearly this hypothesis is also likely to hold for any other life change that produces increases in daily positive emotions. One of the most obvious ways to improve daily emotions is to increase the frequency of positive social interactions. Exercise interventions may well also be useful, as too might encouragement to pursue personally meaningful activities, develop hobbies and interests, and increase general feelings of competence and effectiveness at work and home (Tkach and Lyubomirsky 2006). Clicking on the tag "happiness" will bring up a series of well-supported ways of increasing positive emotions explored in other blog postings. It's likely such interventions will be useful not only to increase personal resources and life satisfaction (as described in this Fredrickson study), but also to increase life expectation - positive emotions and increases in wellbeing seem to result in decreased mortality rates (Chida and Steptoe 2008).
Unsurprisingly and pleasingly, the Fredrickson et al study found an interaction between loving-kindness meditation practice and positive social interactions. So the authors wrote "Previous research has shown that, in general, people experience more intense positive emotions when interacting with others than when alone (McIntyre, Watson, Clark, & Cross, 1991). We explored whether time spent meditating ... differentially influenced participants' experiences of positive emotions, depending on whether they were interacting with others or not." Sure enough, they found that "Beyond the effects of time and hours spent in meditation ... social interactions and the interaction between time spent meditating and social interactions predicted positive emotions ... That is, more time spent meditating was associated with higher positive emotions, and this effect was stronger during social interactions." This overlaps with earlier research demonstrating that meditation practice adds a further boost to the benefits produced by more general happiness-enhancing training (Smith, Compton et al. 1995). In this Smith et al study the meditation involved working to produce a Benson style relaxation response by quietly focusing on muscle relaxation, breathing, and internal repetition of the word "Peace".
For people in general, this research adds to a growing literature underlining the potential value of mind training methods both for easing symptoms & ill-being and for increasing positive states & wellbeing. In this Fredrickson et al study, significant improvements in wellbeing were achieved with remarkably little trainer time. A single trainer gave six weekly one hour classes to groups of 20 to 30 people. This is equivalent to 12 to 18 minutes total therapist time per person. It's very probable that this isn't an optimum dose, and very probable that follow-up booster sessions could have been usefully added to the intervention. Despite these cautions, it is still an impressive example of efficient use of trainer time. For people in general, this research study emphasizes that forms of mind training can be promoted not just for stress management, or for spiritual practice (two current avenues into learning such skills), but also as ways of boosting positive emotions, physical health, personal resources, relationships, life satisfaction and wellbeing. It sounds a bit like a this-treats-everything-snake-oil, but these approaches clearly do have wide-ranging potential for improving people's lives.
I'll write a third blog posting about this research in a few days to look at one or two other implications both for personal practice of these skills and for teaching others.
Chida, Y. and A. Steptoe (2008). "Positive Psychological Well-Being and Mortality: A Quantitative Review of Prospective Observational Studies." Psychosom Med 70(7): 741-756. [Abstract/Full Text]
Fredrickson, B. L., M. A. Cohn, et al. (2008). "Open hearts build lives: positive emotions, induced through loving-kindness meditation, build consequential personal resources." J Pers Soc Psychol 95(5): 1045-62. [Free Full Text]
McIntyre, C. W., D. Watson, et al. (1991). "The effect of induced social interaction on positive and negative affect." Bulletin of the Psychonomic Society 29(1): 67-70. [Free Full Text]
Smith, W. P., W. C. Compton, et al. (1995). "Meditation as an adjunct to a happiness enhancement program." J Clin Psychol 51(2): 269-73. [PubMed]
Tkach, C. and S. Lyubomirsky (2006). "How do people pursue happiness?: Relating personality, happiness-increasing strategies, and well-being." Journal of Happiness Studies 7(2): 183-225. [Free Full Text]