15 March 2021

Emotions, mindfulness and meditation – a research review says the more you practice, the better your emotional life

Is practicing mindfulness likely to make you happier? Feel more contentment? More inner peace? Is meditation likely to improve your emotional life? Make you more comfortable with your own emotions and the emotions of others? Improve your relationships?

Intuitively, we probably all would say yes, but what about the research? This week, a review of the literature around emotions, relaxation, mindfulness and meditation, but first

       Thought for the day

I am always inclined to believe that the best way 

Of knowing [the divine] is to love a great deal. 

Love that friend, that person, that thing, whatever you like, 

You will be on the right path; 

That is what I say to myself. 

But you must love with a high, serious intimate sympathy, 

With a will, with intelligence, and you must always seek 

To know more thoroughly, better and more.

                          Vincent van Gogh

Most people these days take up meditation having been inspired by friends or colleagues. They notice them changing; becoming calmer, kinder, more capable, healing faster, seeming happier, more joyful and vibrant. They see all this with their own eyes, and upon enquiry, find out the changes coincided with taking up relaxation, mindfulness and meditation. We all want an easier, more fulfilling emotional life. Meditation makes good sense!

Yet others need the research evidence to be convinced of meditation’s benefits.

 Fair enough. 

While this is an emerging field, and not such an easy one to study, a good deal of published research is building to confirm the direct experience. 

There is a growing body of evidence to validate regular relaxation, mindfulness and meditation practice does lead to healthier, happier emotional states, and that these practices do enhance wellbeing.

So in this literature review of the impact of relaxation, mindfulness and meditation on emotional health and emotional states, key studies are brought together and grouped under major headings. Direct links to the research articles cited are provided. While not exhaustive, this review provides solid evidence that the practices of relaxation, mindfulness and meditation do improve emotional health.

Mindfulness boosts healthy emotions

While there is a growing consensus about mindfulness meditation as an effective treatment for a wide range of somatic illnesses and psychological disorders, little research attention has been paid to promoting healthy and positive outcomes, rather than just to reduce negative outcomes. 

This despite existing research indicating mindfulness is positively related to vitality, life satisfaction, and interpersonal relationship quality. 

This recent, controlled trial amongst staff in a large hospital examined mindfulness training’s effect upon positive outcomes. 

The researcher’s analysis found the intervention program was successful in boosting the existing levels of work engagement, happiness and work performance. 

Coo, C., Salanova, M. 2018. Mindfulness Can Make You Happy-and-Productive: A Mindfulness Controlled Trial and Its Effects on Happiness, Work Engagement and Performance. J Happiness Stud 19, 1691–1711.

Mindfulness Boosts Relationship Satisfaction

Several studies have found a person's ability to be mindful can help predict relationship satisfaction — the ability to respond well to relationship stress and the skill in communicating one's emotions to a partner. Empirical evidence suggests mindfulness protects against the emotionally stressful effects of relationship conflict, is positively associated with the ability to express oneself in various social situations and predicts relationship satisfaction.

Barnes et al., The role of mindfulness in romantic relationship satisfaction and responses to relationship stress. 2007, JMFT Vol33 - 4, 482-500

Brief Mindfulness Intervention Improves Processing of Emotion

Mindfulness-based interventions have previously been shown to have positive effects on psychological well-being. However, the time commitment, teacher shortage, and high cost of classic mindfulness interventions may have hindered efforts to spread the associated benefits to individuals in developing countries. Brief mindfulness meditation (BMM) has recently received attention as a way to disseminate the benefits of mindfulness-based interventions. 

This study compared BMM intervention with ERE (Emotional Regulation Education). It demonstrated that BMM may improve aspects of emotion processing such as emotion intensity, emotional memory, and emotional attention bias. Negative effects on mood state were found in the ERE group but not in the BMM group.

Wu Ran et al. Brief Mindfulness Meditation Improves Emotion Processing; Frontiers in Neuroscience, 2019, Vol 13 – 1074.

Mindfulness makes it easier to be kind to ourselves

This study investigated the role of self-compassion in relation to mindfulness. Two components of mindfulness — nonjudging and nonreacting — were strongly correlated with self-compassion, as were two dimensions of empathy — taking on others' perspectives (i.e., perspective taking) and reacting to others' affective experiences with discomfort. Self-compassion fully mediated the relationship between perspective taking and mindfulness.

Kingsbury, E. (2009). The relationship between empathy and mindfulness: Understanding the role of self-compassion. Dissertation Abstracts International: Section B: The Sciences and Engineering, 70(5-B), 3175.

Mindfulness improves empathy and emotional expression

In this study, researchers found all elements of mindfulness were positively associated with expressing oneself in various social situations. A greater tendency for mindful observation was associated with more engagement in empathy. Mindful description, acting with awareness, and non-judgemental acceptance were associated with better identification and description of feelings, more body satisfaction, less social anxiety, and less distress contagion.

Dekeyser, M et al, 2008. Mindfulness skills and interpersonal behaviour. Personality and Individual Differences, 44(5), 1235–1245.

Do short term interventions work? A meta-analysis

Over the last 10 years, there has been a dramatic increase in published randomized controlled trials (RCTs) of brief mindfulness training (from single-session inductions to multisession interventions lasting up to 2 weeks), with some preliminary indications that these training programs may improve mental health outcomes, such as negative affectivity. This meta-analysis involving 65 RCTs and 5,489 participants aimed to evaluate whether brief mindfulness training reliably reduces negative affectivity. The researchers concluded brief mindfulness training does modestly reduce negative affectivity. 

Schumer MC et al. Brief mindfulness training for negative affectivity: A systematic review and meta-analysis. J Consult Clin Psychol. 2018 Jul;86(7):569-583.

How Mindfulness and Meditation Impact on Romantic Relationships

There is increasing scientific interest in the potential association between mindfulness and romantic relationship wellbeing. This study examined the effect of either guided mindfulness exercises, or guided relaxation exercises. 

The mindfulness intervention significantly promoted relationship wellbeing, for both participants and their partners. However, these findings did not significantly differ from changes in relationship wellbeing in the relaxation condition. 

Karremans JC et al. Comparing the effects of a mindfulness versus relaxation intervention on romantic relationship wellbeing. Sci Rep. 2020 Dec 10;10(1):21696. 

Mindfulness builds gratitude

This PhD dissertation indicated just ten days of mindfulness training increased gratitude, psychological flexibility, and wellbeing. The relation between mindfulness and psychological wellbeing was fully mediated by gratitude and psychological flexibility, both before and after participants underwent training. Results suggest that mindfulness training can increase individuals’ quality of life and psychological flexibility, in part by increasing their ability to appreciate positive aspects of their lives.

Schultz, D, "Effect of Mindfulness on Gratitude and Psychological Wellbeing" (2019). Dissertations. 1704.

Mindfulness Meditation Reduces Emotional Reactivity

In this study of people who had anywhere from one month to 29 years of mindfulness meditation practice, researchers found that mindfulness meditation practice helped people disengage from emotionally upsetting pictures and enabled them to focus better on a cognitive task as compared with people who saw the pictures but did not meditate.

Ortner, C et al. (2007). Mindfulness meditation and reduced emotional interference on a cognitive task. Motivation and Emotion. 31. 271-283.

Mindfulness increases intimate relationship satisfaction

This research studied married couples and examined measures of mindful awareness, emotion skills, and marital quality. Findings suggested that emotion skills and mindfulness are both related to marital adjustment, and that skilled emotion repertoires, specifically those associated with identifying and communicating emotions, as well as the regulation of anger expression, fully mediate the association between mindfulness and marital quality. 

Wachs, K., & Cordova, J. V. (2007). Mindful relating: Exploring mindfulness and emotion repertoires in intimate relationships. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 33(4), 464–481.

Mindfulness builds compassion in health professionals

Mindfulness-based stress reduction training has been found to enhance self-compassion among health-care professionals. The literature is replete with evidence that the stress inherent in health care negatively impacts health care professionals, leading to increased depression, decreased job satisfaction, and psychological distress. 

In an attempt to address this, the current study examined the effects of a short-term stress management program, mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), on health care professionals. Results from this prospective randomized controlled pilot study suggest that an 8-week MBSR intervention may be effective for reducing stress and increasing quality of life and self-compassion in health care professionals. 

Shapiro, S. L et al. 2005, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction for Health Care Professionals: Results From a Randomized Trial. International Journal of Stress Management, 12(2), 164–176.

The rationale for mindfulness-based anger management

In this paper, the literature in relation to the theory and treatment of problematic anger is reviewed, with the aim of determining whether a rationale exists for the use of mindfulness with angry individuals. It is concluded that anger as an emotion seems particularly appropriate for the application of mindfulness-based interventions, and the potential mechanisms for its proposed effects in alleviating the cognitive, affective and behavioral manifestations of anger are discussed.

Wright, S et al (2009). Mindfulness and the treatment of anger Problems. Aggression and Violent Behavior. 14. 396-401. 10.1016

Meditation improves creativity

One form of meditation - integrative body-mind training (IBMT) - has been shown to improve attention, reduce stress and change self-reports of mood. This study found short-term (30 min per day for 7 days) IBMT improved creativity performance and yielded better emotional regulation compared to Relaxation Training (RT), suggesting that emotion-related creativity-promoting mechanism may be attributed to short-term meditation.

X. Ding et al. Improving creativity performance by short-term meditation. Behav. Brain Funct., 10 (2014), p. 9

Online programs and their benefits – a meta-analysis

The aim of this meta-analysis of 15 randomised controlled studies was to estimate the overall effects of online MBIs on mental health. Results showed that online MBIs have a small but significant beneficial impact on depression, anxiety, well-being and mindfulness. The largest effect was found for stress, with a moderate effect size. 

For stress and mindfulness, analysis demonstrated significantly higher effect sizes for guided online MBIs than for unguided online MBIs. In addition, effect sizes for stress were significantly moderated by the number of intervention sessions. 

The researchers concluded their findings indicate online MBIs have potential to contribute to improving mental health outcomes.

Spijkerman MPJ et al. Effectiveness of online mindfulness-based interventions in improving mental health: A review and meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials. Clinical Psychology Review Vol 45, 2016, 102-114  


There is a growing evidence base for relaxation, mindfulness and meditation being used to help people affected by emotional health issues to become less reactive, more expressive and to build better relationships.

Also, there is good evidence online mindfulness - based programs such as the Allevi8 App have positive benefits and these benefits are increased with the support of an on-line guide or mentor. Further, the evidence concludes that increasing the number of guided sessions increases the measured benefits.

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