What's the biggest problem facing our nation today? Worries about health care lead the polls. But from a big-picture perspective, we're arguably suffering from a deficit of love and kindness.
New research finds a link between these practical and spiritual concerns. A new study reports that cultivating kindness through the practice of meditation may slow the aging process.
In a small-scale study, a commonly used biological marker of cellular aging remained relatively steady among people who completed a course in loving-kindness meditation. Those who took a similarly structured course in mindfulness meditation did not experience the same positive results.
The study, led by Khoa Le Nguyen and Barbara Fredrickson of the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill, featured 176 participants between the ages of 35 and 64. All provided blood samples at the beginning and conclusion of the 12-week study.
The researchers used these samples to measure the length of their telomeres, the compound structures found at the ends of chromosomes. Often compared to the plastic tips of shoelaces, telomeres protect DNA against instability and degradation. Shorter telomere length has been linked to various aging-related diseases and a higher risk of mortality.
Participants were randomly placed in one of three groups. One spent six weeks (weeks three to nine of the 12-week study) learning about and practicing mindfulness meditation. Another spent that same period focusing on loving-kindness meditation, while the final third were given no training of any kind.
The goal of mindfulness meditation, the more commonly studied variety of the practice, is to keep one's attention on the present moment, and to observe one's thoughts and surroundings without judgment. Although similar in many ways, loving-kindness mediation has a different aim, which the researchers say is "to cultivate warm-hearted, positive emotions toward oneself and others."
So, while the mindfulness training focused on the body, emotions, and thoughts, the loving-kindness sessions were based in cultivating warm and friendly feelings, and directing those feelings both inward and outward. Participants in both groups were instructed to meditate daily.
"Telomeres tended to shorten across all experimental conditions—significantly so in the mindfulness meditation group and the control group," the researchers report. "However, the daily practice of loving-kindness meditation appeared to buffer against that attrition," as members of the loving-kindness group "showed no significant telomere shortening over time."
This study focused on a small group of people who were observed for a short period of time, so we can't yet draw definitive conclusions. But it's worth noting that all participants were meditation novices. And the study's results suggest the possibility that you don't have to spend years in intensive, monk-like training for meditation to have a positive effect on your health.
Besides, even if it doesn't prolong your life, isn't being kinder toward others a worthy goal in itself?