Meditate To Cultivate Happiness: It Only Takes 15 Minutes A Day
It shouldn’t be too shocking to find out that young and working-age adults are getting more curious about mindfulness exercises and the benefits of meditation.
How Our Generation Is Redefining Success
Today, we’re taking on more in many different ways. Everything — from our personal debt and professional responsibilities to our political activism and awareness of global-level issues — is growing. So it’s no wonder why Millennials (ages 24-39 in 2020) are the most stressed-out generation in modern history — and Gen Z (ages 17-23) is quickly catching up [1, 2].
Yet, at the same time, we’re doing much better than past generations when it comes to prioritizing our happiness and health. For example, nearly two-thirds of us practice mindfulness exercises (compared to about 19% of our parents’ generation) . Likewise, we’re nearly 2x as interested in making the benefits of meditation and yoga more accessible via apps and other technological means .
In fact, for as many as 88% of us, figuring out how to find happiness is a bigger part of “success” than accumulating material wealth/possessions .
What Do All Effective Meditation & Mindfulness Exercises Have In Common
Anyone wondering how to start with meditation may feel overwhelmed by the prospect of “thinking nothing.”
Yet meditation where you just “let your mind go blank” is something of an urban legend. Rather, meditation (like all effective mindfulness exercises) is about controlling your thoughts, keeping them grounded, and focusing them on the present. Buddhists refer to this practice as “training your monkey mind” with the “monkey mind” being your inner critic or the part of you that is unsettled, confused, or restless .
Regardless of how you start with meditation, every meditation practice shares some elements, namely:
- Remove yourself from loud, chaotic, or distracting situations;
- Focus on breathing deeply and slowly;
- Notice your body and become aware of how and where you are holding tension .
What Meditation Does For Your Health & Wellbeing
As one of the most effective mindfulness exercises, meditation can have both an immediate and long-lasting impact on how a person feels, processes information, and makes decisions. Research even suggests that starting a meditation practice can have similar effects to taking a (good) vacation .
The Benefits Of Meditation:
About 15 minutes of meditation can:
- Alleviate pain and digestive discomfort .
- Help control PMS symptoms and acute pain .
- Diminish feelings of fatigue and anxiety;
- Improve visio-spacial processing (that’s the ability to tell how far away/apart things are; it’s part of problem-solving, reading, sports, etc.);
- Enhance working memory function (that’s the short-term memory-making involved in everyday behavior); and
- Promote better overall executive function (that’s the ability to plan, pay attention, remember instructions, and multi-task) .[AT1]
Moreover, many of the benefits of meditation historically associated with long-term practice — thought to be accessible only to lifelong yogis and monks — accrue faster than expected. For example, meditation can:
- Improve your attention span and learning capacity within just 4 days of learning how .
- Reduce the intensity of physical pain by as much as 40% in 5 days .
- Measurably reduce the symptoms of anxiety disorders and depression after 8 weeks of regular practice .
- Improve sleep duration and quality so much that 91% of insomniacs stop taking or reduce the dosage of pharmaceutical sleep aids after several months .
Why Does Meditation Work?
The benefits of meditation mostly come from the way it soothes stress.
Feeling stress activates the body’s autonomic nervous system. This triggers a kind of “crisis mode” response that diminishes things like executive function in the brain as well as digestion and healing processes in the body in order to prepare the fight-or-flight response .
Meditation helps the brain hit the brakes, so to speak, on this stress response. This, in turn, causes you to feel calmer, slows your heart rate, lowers your blood pressure, relieves muscle tension, and enables you to think more clearly.
How Meditation Changes The Brain:
The benefits of meditation become stronger and more ingrained over time. That’s because meditation and other mindfulness practices allow you to intentionally change your brain’s internal structure and function.
Meditation Changes The Brain’s Structure:
One of the most significant benefits of meditation is that it changes cognitive function during everyday tasks by shrinking the amygdala .
The amygdala is the part of the brain that controls your emotional responses to experiences, especially feeling fear or anger or other forms of distress. Activating the amygdala triggers the autonomic nervous system’s stress response; over time, minimizing its activity effectively raises the threshold for how significant an experience needs to be to cause distress .
Additionally, meditation enlarges the prefrontal cortex (which controls rational decision-making), thickens the hippocampus (the learning and memory center), and increases the amount of gray matter in the brain. Together, these changes give you more “processing power” when it comes to making well-informed and emotionally intelligent choices .
Meditation Changes The Brain’s Function:
That said, how meditation changes the brain is not limited to emotional regulation. Meditation also changes how different parts of the brain respond to physical or emotional pain, including the:
- Primary Somatosensory Cortex, which identifies where in the body pain is, as well as its immediate intensity;
- Anterior Insula, which determines the severity of pain;
- Anterior Cingulate Cortex, which controls your emotional response to feeling pain; and
- Prefrontal Cortex, which turns emotional responses into behavior (like crying, swearing, feeling paralyzed, etc. .
Over time, these changes allow meditation practitioners to cope with chronically painful conditions, prolonged stressful situations, and emotional trauma (from heartache to PTSD) with greater resiliency [20, 21].
How To Start With Meditation
Mindfulness meditation is pretty much exactly what you imagine (except for the “think nothing” part). For many people, it is the most accessible type of meditation. That is why most practitioners recommend that you start with meditation by taking two minutes to:
- Remove yourself from distracting situations and remove distractions from your surroundings;
- Sit or lie down comfortably;
- Become aware of your breath and your body; slow and regulate your breath; tense and release all the muscles in your body;
- When you are interrupted by an unrelated thought, gently turn your focus back to your breath and body .
Breathing meditation may be especially effective for people who have a lot of disruptive thoughts and are struggling to attain peace of mind. There are five major breathing meditation techniques (described in detail here) that each can impact your mood and energy levels differently.
How To Start With Meditation Using Breathing Exercises: try listening to (and following along) with this recording.
One of the most intimidating aspects of meditation, for many beginners, is needing to sit still for a long time while “doing nothing.” Walking meditation alleviates the pressure to keep still while still providing a structure that parallels the best mindfulness exercises. Often walking meditation not only involves breath and body awareness but also becoming more aware of your surroundings and the sensations you experience while moving through them .
Dancing meditation — like yoga, tai chi, and other forms of therapeutic movement — takes advantage of the ways that physical movement changes neurochemistry and bodily sensations. It can cause significant, immediate feelings of happiness as the gentle physical activity prompts the release of serotonin (the happy hormone) in the brain .
Guided Imagery & Visualization
Seemingly contradicting the primary focus of meditation, guided imagery and visualization practices involve envisioning a pleasant daydream. More than that, though, the greatest benefits of meditation involving guided imagery come from how it activates your senses to provoke chemical changes in your brain .
How To Start With Meditation Using Guided Visualization: For meditation involving guided imagery, check out the “Take 5” playlist created by the University of Minnesota’s Center for Spirituality & Healing. For guided visualization mindfulness exercises, try this (highly-recommended) podcast.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
Like guided imagery/visualization, progressive muscle relaxation (or PMR) is one of the best mindfulness exercises for people whose minds tend to wander easily during breath-focused meditation practices. PMR requires maintaining a strong focus on your body and bodily sensations, identifying where you are holding tension, then tensing and releasing the muscles involved.
How To Start With Meditation Using PMR: For a time-tested exploration into progressive muscle relaxation, try Dartmouth College Health Service’s audio guide. Likewise, this audio guide is highly recommended for beginners.
Body Scan Meditation
Body scan meditation is a type of PMR that compresses the process so that you don’t necessarily need to contract already-tense muscles before relaxing them. This can make body scan meditation especially helpful as a dedicated meditation for sleep.