Meditating

Meditation is one of those things like exercise that’s often brought up as a practical task anyone can make a habit of to improve their mental health. And just like there are different forms of exercise, there are also different kinds of meditation to choose from.

For example, mindfulness meditation emphasizes, as the name suggests, honing the ability to be aware and in the present moment. Loving-kindness meditation, on the other hand, is about practicing compassion.

A recent study tracked 339 adults who learned either mindfulness or loving-kindness meditation over the course of six weeks. The study found that people practicing both kinds of meditation tended to experience a rise in positive emotions over time. And the more people practiced meditation, the more their moods tended to improve over time.

But which kind of meditation was better? This is a competition!

Well, loving-kindness meditation appeared to have an edge in one regard: the more people put in, the more they got out of it. This was true to some extent of both types of meditation, but in loving-kindness meditation especially, meditation more was associated with a greater increase in positive emotions. Still, both kinds of meditation were broadly similar in that they improved mental health over time, so this may be more of an individual preference.

A different study compared three types of meditation asking another question: which ones are the most work, and which are most enjoyable? In this case, the three kinds of meditation were loving-kindness meditation, breathing meditation and meditation centered on observing one’s thoughts.

It turned out that when people were practicing loving-kindness meditation and thought-observing meditation, as compared to breathing meditation, they tended to have higher heart rates and to perceive meditation as requiring more effort.

This finding led the researchers to raise the question “is meditation always relaxing?” Going by heart rate and perceived effort, at least, it appears that some kinds of meditation are more relaxing than others.

The researchers also found evidence that as people practiced meditation over time, they got better at it and started to enjoy it more. In particular, people’s heart rate variability and difficulty ratings decreased over time, while their likability ratings of meditation increased. This payoff from practice was especially high for loving-kindness and thought-observing meditation.

So which kind of meditation is best for mental health? The research doesn’t give a clear answer on that. However, it does suggest that different kinds of meditation have distinct advantages and that, depending on what your goals are, you might find some types of meditation more appropriate than others.

For example, breathing meditation appears to be the most relaxing and the easiest to get into while loving-kindness meditation has benefits that grow with time. In the end, it’s probably good that there’s no clear winner because we don’t need to make meditation into a competition!

Image: Flickr/Isaac Leedom