Last updated on 5th January 2009
What are some implications for using forms of mind training for ourselves and for teaching others? Reading this research study leads me to think about optimum amount of time spent practising these methods, the importance of encouraging application during daily life. I discuss these issues in this blog posting. It would also be fascinating and helpful to look at the challenge of maintaining the practices over time, and to consider how different forms of mind training can be directed at different targets - for example, easing symptoms, encouraging particular positive emotions (e.g. compassion, gratitude & contentment), targeting specific key wellbeing needs (e.g. self-determination theory's autonomy, competence & relatedness), and helping people live their personal values.
So what is an optimum amount of time to spend meditating, or relaxing, or practising similar techniques? Most mind training approaches have recommendations about this, but the recommendations are typically based on tradition rather than any serious assessment of differing responses to differing doses. This Fredrickson et al study encouraged participants to listen to a CD of a "loving-kindness" meditation for 20 minutes at least 5 days weekly. The text of the guided meditations and weekly group session content outlines can be obtained by emailing the meditation trainer Sandra Finkel - see details on page 1049 of the research paper. People practising the loving-kindness meditation reported spending an average of about 80 minutes per week on "meditative activity" during the course. This dropped to about 60 minutes per week quite quickly after the training ended.
Remember though that this is personally reported practice time which, in a couple of other research studies, has been found to produce time estimates that may be twice the duration measured in more objective ways (Hoelscher, Lichstein et al. 1984; Hoelscher, Lichstein et al. 1986). This Fredrickson study interestingly found that subjects who reported spending more time meditating also reported greater increases in positive emotions (note that we are talking about an average estimate of four 20 minutes practices per week). Also interestingly they found that the amount of increase in positive emotion associated with a given amount of reported meditation practice increased across the six weeks of the study - subjects seemed to get more "bangs for their buck". They became more able to produce beneficial changes in positive emotions as they became more experienced in the method (remember we are talking about the very early weeks of learning the meditation).
There are interesting parallels here with the study by James Carson and colleagues teaching loving-kindness meditation to chronic pain sufferers (Carson, Keefe et al. 2005). The intervention was more intensive than Fredrickson's. It involved eight 90 minute classes for small groups of 4 to 8 people. The researchers wrote "Post and follow-up analyses showed significant improvements in pain and psychological distress in the loving-kindness group, but no changes in the usual care group. Multilevel analyses of daily data showed that more loving-kindness practice on a given day was related to lower pain that day and lower anger the next day." Participants reported an average of about 20 minutes meditation practice seven days weekly. Fascinatingly there was a clear stepwise increase in benefit as reported practice length for any individual day increased from 10 to 15 to 20 to 25 minutes. It was unclear from the research whether even longer practice per day would have been even more beneficial - or whether extending to more than one practice session per day would have been helpful.
This kind of dose-response data is very rare for meditation or other mind training practice. It makes me think too about the possible importance of encouraging trainees to apply the skills/attitudes learned during formal practice to their experience the rest of the day. Fredrickson's work shows that a significant proportion of the benefits produced by these kinds of techniques may be mediated through small increases in daily experience of positive emotions. Carson's research looks at changes in the "negative states" of pain, anger and tension during each day. It makes good sense that people actively trying to apply the meditation skills/attitudes during the day might benefit more than others who practised similar durations of formal meditation but then did not focus so much on application during the rest of the 24 hours. Sure enough, a study on mindfulness training (Brown and Ryan 2003) found that experienced Zen meditators scored higher on a mindfulness questionnaire than an meditation naïve comparison group did. More years of practice was correlated with higher scores. Interestingly in this study "The amount of time currently practicing meditation was not related to the scale score" but the researchers reported that "Within the active Zen sample, the MAAS (the mindfulness questionnaire score) was correlated with the extent to which individuals perceived that their meditative practice was carried over into daily life."
So many important questions. Hard data is scarce, but it is emerging gradually. These studies often only involve small numbers of participants and their results need to be taken cautiously. It's not that traditional wisdom and teaching advice are unimportant. It's that good research can both learn from traditional teaching and, in turn, enrich that teaching. For me the aim is the same, whether we come from traditional or more scientific backgrounds. The aim is to relieve suffering and enhance wellbeing.
Brown, K. W. and R. M. Ryan (2003). "The benefits of being present: mindfulness and its role in psychological well-being." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 84(4): 822-848. [Free Full Text]
Carson, J. W., F. J. Keefe, et al. (2005). "Loving-kindness meditation for chronic low back pain: results from a pilot trial." J Holist Nurs 23(3): 287-304. [PubMed]
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]
Hoelscher, T. J., K. L. Lichstein, et al. (1984). "Objective vs subjective assessment of relaxation compliance among anxious individuals." Behav Res Ther 22(2): 187-93. [Abstract/Full Text]
Hoelscher, T. J., K. L. Lichstein, et al. (1986). "Home relaxation practice in hypertension treatment: objective assessment and compliance induction." J Consult Clin Psychol 54(2): 217-21. [Abstract/Full Text]