Why Is Mindful Meditation So Good For Me, and How Can I Practice It?

The science is in: meditation makes us calmer and happier. Here’s how to make space for it in your life.

The modern world can be a tough place for our brains. Bombarded with information and images from our screens, stretched thin by work and school schedules and (in pandemic times) by constant change and adaptation, it’s no wonder so many of us report being stressed out, depressed, and anxious. It’s a complex problem, but fortunately, there’s a surprisingly no-frills means to cope: mindful meditation. Simply put, practicing mindful meditation on a regular basis trains our brain to be in the present without judging thoughts or feelings that arise.

It’s an exercise in learning how to remain in the here and now – not an easy task for our brains in a world of constant distraction.

“There are a lot of different definitions, but I like to define mindfulness as a self-management tool,” says Michelle Fortier, a physical activity psychologist and professor at the School of Human Kinetics and Academy for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies at the University of Ottawa[SM1] . “Contrary to other things, like medication or therapy, meditation is something people can practise regularly to improve their mental health,” she says.

By training your brain to stay focussed in the present moment, explains Fortier, meditation can help you avoid negative ruminations over the past that lead to depression and stress, as well as negative anticipations about the future that can lead to anxiety. Living in the here and now also allows us to process less information at a time, which helps reduce mental overload, release inner tensions and increase feelings of control.

While Fortier notes that medication and therapy are necessary for many people, mindful meditation can be a useful addition to anyone’s wellness tool kit. The science agrees: according to a 2019 meta-analysis of 41 randomized controlled trials of university students, mindful meditation was shown to significantly decrease students’ depression and anxiety symptoms regardless of the duration of each session.

In a course she teaches on the science of happiness, Fortier explores the benefits of mindful meditation with her students, while highlighting the science that supports it as a useful tool for combating stress, anxiety and depression. Here are some of her most important pieces of advice for getting started.

Sit, breathe, repeat

Perhaps the best thing about mindful meditation is how simple it is to practice. Simply find a quiet, comfortable place to sit, close your eyes, and you’re most of the way there. “You’re trying to go inward,” says Fortier. “Just focusing on your breath or the feel of the chair on your body.” Focusing on your breathing or your connection to the ground, Fortier says, is useful to help anchor your mind and give yourself a place to return when your attention inevitably wanders. This is the other key component of mindfulness: learning to acknowledge thoughts and feelings as they arise, and then letting go of them. “Instead of beating yourself up for having a thought, you remove judgement from what you’re doing,” Fortier says. “We’re always judging ourselves, but mindful meditation teaches you to accept these thoughts and emotions and let them float by.” With time and practice, your mind becomes trained to focus on your breath and your body, and you’ll be interrupted less by wandering thoughts. “It’s really liberating,” says Fortier.

Two minutes a day

While you may imagine yourself reaching zen after an hour-long mindful meditation session, that’s not realistic for beginners, nor is it necessary to feel tangible results. Fortier advises starting with short sessions of two minutes every day or so, and slowly building up to 10-minute sessions. “Like everything else, we need to keep at it to get better at it,” she says. “You’re going to start feeling so much better, and those gains after a couple of weeks will motivate you to keep making it a priority.”

Quick tip: If you’re just getting started, a great introduction to practicing mindful meditation is by picking an activity you’re already doing on autopilot – like washing the dishes or eating an apple and bringing mindfulness to it. While engaging in these activities, make a conscious effort to remain focused on what you are seeing, smelling, touching, hearing and tasting. Embrace the moment and engage your senses fully. Start with small amounts of time and gradually increase as you master this new skill.

Pick a time and stick to it

Making meditation part of your routine, Fortier says, is a helpful way to make the habit stick. “I’m a big fan of morning routines, personally,” she says. “We’re busy and we have a lot to do, and our self-care activities often get bumped by things that come up in the day.” In addition to being easier to schedule, she says, a 10-minute meditation in the morning will leave you refreshed and ready for the day.

A versatile tool

Starting a mindfulness practice can be intimidating, but there are all kinds of ways to get into the habit. “Meditation is the tool and mindfulness is the state,” Fortier says. “And you can get into a mindful state in other ways – by walking in the forest, or going for a bike ride, or even brushing your teeth – so if there’s something you’re trying and not liking, just try something else, because the health benefits are immense.” Yoga, which combines movement, mindfulness, breathing and spirituality, is a great example of an alternative with the powerful potential to improve mental health outcomes, she says. Similarly, the practice of “awe-walking,” in which you stroll with the sole purpose of appreciating the many wonders big and small you find around you, is an even easier method.

The bottom line is, if you can find a path to mindfulness that you enjoy and make it a habit, you will be rewarded for your effort.


Michelle Fortier

Michelle Fortier is a physical activity psychologist and professor at the School of Human Kinetics at the University of Ottawa. A member of the Academy for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies, her research interests include mindfulness and happiness, positive psychology and exercise psychology.