Last updated on 1st December 2010
I've just been reading the recent paper by Barbara Fredrickson and colleagues "Open hearts build lives: Positive emotions, induced through loving kindness meditation, build consequential personal resources" (Fredrickson, Cohn et al. 2008). It's quite a long read - 16 closely printed A4 pages - and it's fascinating in a whole series of ways. One very interesting aspect is the alternative view it gives on how Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) and meditation practices in general might be producing their benefits. In a similar way the paper shows how encouraging self-compassion may ease depression by a variety of other pathways in addition to any benefits from Compassionate Mind Training's (CMT's) reduction of self-criticism. Also, because the paper puts the processes and effects of a meditation intervention under the microscope so carefully, it adds importantly to the literature that any research-respectful meditation, relaxation or self-hypnosis trainer should think about paying attention to.
So what did the study propose, how did it go about testing the proposal, and what did it find? Fredrickson's (1998, 2001) broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions "asserts that people's daily experience of positive emotions compound over time to build a variety of consequential personal resources ... (e.g. increased mindfulness, purpose in life, social support, decreased illness symptoms)." This study proposed that teaching people to practise a regular loving-kindness meditation would result in increased life satisfaction and decreased feelings of depression. The hypothesis was that these benefits would be produced through a pathway where: 1.) meditation increased daily positive emotions. 2.) increases in positive emotions led to improved personal resources. 3.) improved personal resources resulted in greater life satisfaction and less depression. The authors wrote "These resources can be cognitive, like the ability to mindfully attend to the present moment; psychological, like the ability to maintain a sense of mastery over environmental challenges; social, like the ability to give and receive social support; or physical, like the ability to ward off the common cold. People with these resources are more likely to effectively meets life's challenges and take advantages of its opportunities, becoming successful, healthy, and happy in the months and years to come. Thus, the personal resources accrued, often unintentionally, through frequent experiences of positive emotions are posited to be keys to later increases in well-being. Put simply, the broaden-and-build theory states that positive emotions widen people's outlooks in ways that, little by little, reshape who they are."
The bottom line was that this is pretty much what the study found. Practising loving-kindness meditation did result in small increases in daily measures of nine positive emotions assessed - amusement, awe, contentment, gratitude, hope, joy, interest, love and pride. Interestingly effects on the compassion measure ("In the past 24 hours, what is the most sympathy, concern or compassion you have felt?") weren't significant. Possibly the form of the question orientated people towards specific experiences of compassion in response to the suffering of others - and this might not have been relevant to many participants on a daily basis. It's a pity the researchers didn't include before and after assessment of a measure like Kristin Neff's "Self-compassion scale" (see below). Analysis of the data showed that increases in positive emotions led to improvements in a number of personal resource measures - cognitive (mindfulness, savouring the future, pathways-thinking - the belief that there are multiple ways to achieve one's goals, including "There are lots of ways around any problem"), psychological (environmental mastery, self-acceptance, purpose in life), social (positive relations with others) and physical (reduction in illness symptoms). In turn these increases in personal resources led to greater life satisfaction and decreased depression. Interestingly the direct pathway between positive emotions and life satisfaction added nothing to the model for predicting life satisfaction, but did show an additive effect (over and above the pathway through increased personal resources) for depression. Overall effects on assessed daily negative emotions - anger, contempt, disgust, embarrassment, guilt, sadness, shame, fear, and surprise - were not significant. For both Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) and Compassionate Mind Training (CMT) it would be very interesting to assess whether some of their benefits might be mediated through a similar positive-emotion-boosting, personal-resource-enhancing pathway. Brown and Ryan, for example, reported in an experience sampling study (Brown and Ryan 2003) that mindfulness predicts "self-regulated behavior and positive emotional states."
There is much else useful that emerges from reading this Fredrickson loving-kindness training research, and I'll blog again about it in a few days' time.
Brown, K. W. and R. M. Ryan (2003). "The benefits of being present: mindfulness and its role in psychological well-being." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 84(4): 822-848. [Free Full Text]
Fredrickson, B. L. (1998). "What good are positive emotions?" Review of General Psychology 2(3): 300-319. [Free Full Text]
Fredrickson, B. L. (2001). "The role of positive emotions in positive psychology. The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions." Am Psychol 56(3): 218-26. [Free Full Text]
Fredrickson, B. L., M. A. Cohn, et al. (2008). "Open hearts build lives: positive emotions, induced through loving-kindness meditation, build consequential personal resources." J Pers Soc Psychol 95(5): 1045-62. [Free Full Text]
Neff, K. (2008) "Self-compassion" website at http://www.self-compassion.org/index.html accessed December 8.