Do people who meditate feel less lonely?
Aside from anxiety, probably the thing we hear people talk about the most in our practice is loneliness. For all our technological interconnectedness, many of us feel cut off and isolated.
According to Dr J. David Creswell from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburg, loneliness in seniors is a risk factor for illness and death that is on par with smoking. “It’s a big problem,” Creswell notes. “Lots of researchers have tried to find ways, like social networks created through community centers, to reduce loneliness in older adults, but none of the approaches really works well.”
Creswell and researchers out of UCLA set out to study the impact of mindfulness meditation on a group of 40 healthy adults aged 55 to 85. Participants completed a questionnaire assessing their loneliness and provided blood samples, which revealed that a greater sense of loneliness was associated with up-regulated expression of pro-inflammatory genes (or greater inflammation in the body). They were then randomized to a mindfulness-based stress reduction program (MBSR) group or no treatment.
The study, published last month in the journal Brain, Behavior and Immunity presented some very interesting findings. According to the researchers, participating in the meditation program reduced the older adults’ perceptions of lonelinesscompared with those of members of the control group, who experienced small increases in loneliness.
Creswell’s study shows that meditation may be a powerful strategy for addressing loneliness. There is evidence to suggest that the effect was attributable to the meditation practice and not to the fellowship of a group or of going away on a retreat. The researchers cite trials that found that even when meditation is taught on an individual basis, participants experience reductions in stress symptoms and improvements in physical health markers.
Loneliness, notes Creswell, is not necessarily about our objective number of social contacts, but our subjective perception of feeling disconnected.
“It’s about the distress underlying your social relationships,” he said. “Meditation helps people not get caught up in the spiral of distress. It provides a break wherein people recognize that though they feel disconnected, the loneliness doesn’t have to define who they are.”
Can meditation increase our sense of connection and capacity for joy?
Certain concentration meditation practices are designed for us to tune in to our interconnectedness. According to author and meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg, these practices help to decrease fear and isolation and increase well-being and capacity for joy.
Salzberg was here in Vancouver this summer and spoke of how “positive emotion frees us from collapse.” Many of us feel overwhelmed and isolated by self-hatred and fear. Yet, when we deliberately cultivate caring and compassion for ourselves and others, we increase the likelihood that these positive emotions will spontaneously arise. And when we are feeling them, we feel good.
Neuroscientist and author Rick Hansen notes that even imagined companionship activates the brain’s attachment and social group circuitry. When we activate a felt sense of closeness, such as in lovingkindness or compassion meditation, we feel an increase in our sense of safety which brings ease to the body.
In next week’s grad course, Lovingkindness, Wholeness & Connection, we will practice meditations to help cultivate:
- equanimity, an unshakable balance of the mind
- sympathetic joy, delighting in the good fortune of another
- compassion, being touched by our own pain, or that of another
- lovingkindness, opening our heart to ourselves and others
These practices are not easy and it is normal for most of us to feel some degree of resistance to them! But they can be incredibly powerful. Richard Davidson’s research has shown how these practices can increase our happiness, well-being and even our immunity.
To learn more about our grad courses, please see the Course Description and Register pages!
Thanks and be well,
Marian & Brett