Sunday, 19 January 2014

A surprisingly evidence-based thing you can do to be much happier

If there were one single thing I’d recommend to make you a happier person, I’d say meditate. But wait - this is an evidence-based blog. Isn’t meditation the definition of New Age woo? I used to think this until I started researching the best way to become happier.

Going in, I thought it was definitely going to be something like exercise. However, after looking at meta-analyses, I found that exercise, while decent for depression (effect size of 0.721), it had a pretty small effect on normal people (effect size of 0.22).

I’m not depressed - I want to go from pretty good to amazing. What works well for that? The answer kept popping up in all the literature - meditation.


A meta-analysis found that meditation had a 0.5 effect size on stress reduction3. This is a huge effect in social sciences and is double the effect of exercise. And you don’t even have to get off your butt. Literally!

It has also has dozens of randomized-controlled trials on nearly every effect under the sun finding positive results, including:

  • Reduced stress4
  • Reduced anger4
  • Self-compassion4
  • Being nicer to others4
  • Increased forgiveness4
  • Increased relationship satisfaction4
  • Health4
  • And the mother of all metrics, life satisfaction and quality4

What About the Placebo Effect?

You might wonder whether it’s a placebo effect and a big problem with many of the trials is that their controls often just didn’t do anything. However, if you look at studies comparing it to somatic relaxation techniques, it decreases distress 50% more and increases positive moods nearly three times more.5 It has also compared favorably to cognitive behavioral therapy, the most evidence-based psychology intervention.

How To Meditate

It’s a big topic and I’m no expert, so I recommend checking out:

  • Happiness, by Matthieu Ricard, a Western neuroscientist and Buddhist monk. Some meditation resources can become a bit New Agey for my tastes, but he explains it in a way that makes sense and is more palatable for the scientifically minded.
  • The Greater Good Science Center: a great free online source about meditation and all sorts of other evidence-based ways to flourish in life.


One of the top scientific values is to change your mind based on the evidence, and the evidence is strong - meditation is a scientifically backed path to a happier life.


1- Craft LL  Landers DM The effect of exercise on clinical depression and depression resulting from mental illness: A meta analysis J. Sport Exercise Psychol. 1998; 20(4): 339–57.
2- Arent, S. M., Landers, D. M., & Etnier, J. L. ( 2000). The effects of exercise on mood in older adults: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Aging and Physical Activity, 8, 407– 430.
3 - Paul Grossman, Ludger Niemann, Stefan Schmidt, Harald Walach (2004). Mindfulness-based stress reduction and health benefits: A meta-analysis. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, Volume 57, Issue 1, July 2004, Pages 35–43

1 comment:

Denise Melchin said...

Thanks for writing this up!
I think I'll try meditation then. :)