Before the individual brainstorming began, one group participated in a 10-minute audio-guided mindfulness meditation, and a second group participated in a 10-minute fake meditation exercise (they were instructed to think freely by letting their minds wander). A third group started to brainstorm immediately.
Each of the three groups generated roughly the same number of ideas, and the length of the descriptions of the ideas was similar. The main difference was that meditators came up with a much wider range of ideas. The ideas of each participant in the two non-meditator groups were in at least two categories, versus four categories for the meditators. The ideas of each individual in the largest segment of non-meditators (20% of the two groups) fell into five categories (such as delivering and filming items). By comparison, the ideas of each person in the largest segment of meditators (21% of the group) were in nine categories, which included gardening (cutting trees, watering flowers) and security (extinguishing fires) and ranged from the somewhat plausible (washing windows) to the downright silly (feeding giraffes).
We looked for other reasons besides meditation that could explain the differences. In our regression analyses, we controlled for several variables that could influence idea flexibility, such as whether participants enjoyed the brainstorming task. Even discounting the results of these other factors, the meditators demonstrated a 22% wider range of ideas than the two non-meditating groups.
We also found that a short meditation, similar to physical exercise, often put people in a more positive and relaxed frame of mind. In the group that had meditated, most people felt less negative. In particular, meditation decreased participants’ feeling of restlessness (by 23%), nervousness (by 17%), and irritation (by 24%).
To further corroborate our findings, we conducted a second experiment with a group of 24 senior innovation managers at a large Dutch research organization. Similar to the exercise with the students, these executives meditated for 12 minutes and then generated ideas individually on how to create a more inclusive culture in an organization. Subsequently, they worked in groups to develop their ideas further.
Most participants reported that meditation helped them clear their minds, focus more on the task at hand, and come up with original solutions. And they did: One idea was that managers or employees would swap departments for a week (and subsequently report in a company magazine and to their own departments about what they observed) in a way that was reminiscent of a Dutch reality program where teenagers swap families. Another idea was to give in-company TED talks to highlight cool ideas and scientists across various divisions.
Better ideas, better decision making, and a better mood — all in the time it takes to drink a cup of coffee? Our study suggests that it’s all true. As Mirabai Bush, Google’s adviser for ”Search Inside Yourself,” the company’s corporate mindfulness program, puts it, “Mindfulness will make your life work better and your work life better. It’s a win-win!”
In the end, the only way to really see whether you like mindfulness meditation is to try it yourself. Download one of the many short mindfulness meditation courses available online (including meditation apps such as Headspace, Calm, or Buddhify), or just follow the instructions below:
- Find a place where you won’t be disturbed.
- Sit in a comfortable position and set a timer.
- Gently close your eyes.
- Ask yourself what you are currently experiencing, and observe your feelings, sensations, and thoughts.
- Shift your attention to your body and spend a moment or two zooming in on the sensations in places that touch the chair or floor.
- Shift attention to your belly and observe your sensations. Focus on how it extends and falls with every breath.
- Observe your breathing some more without changing it.
- At some moment, your mind will naturally wander away.
- When you realize that your mind is no longer in the present, recognize it as a moment of awareness and shift your attention back to your breathing.
- Now focus on your whole body, observing your posture and face. When you are ready — or when the timer reminds you that you should get back to work — open your eyes.