As a mental health practitioner, I often get the question: “How much meditation will work?” Many times, the question stems from an all-or-nothing mindset where the individual falls into the pattern of thinking that you have to do something at 100% or not do it all. Sometimes it comes right when the topic is introduced and other times it comes when people have tried meditation a few times and indicate that it “didn’t work.”
Regardless of the reason for the question, people often have a fear that they need to be meditating for long periods of time in order to see benefits of their meditation practice. They are worried about fitting yet another thing into their already busy lives. This fear then gets in their way of being able to form and sustain a regular meditation practice. So, what does the research say on how much meditation is “enough” meditation?
The difficulty with this type of research is that no studies directly answer this question. We have to rely on studies that examine the impacts of a meditation training program on a specific outcome of interest (like memory, mood, or well-being, for example). Also, there are many different styles of meditation (mindfulness meditation, loving kindness meditation, focused attention meditation, etc.). Therefore, we can make general recommendations based on the duration of meditation within each of those programs, but the research is not necessarily conclusive in terms of a specific amount of time that it takes to “work.” It is also important to have a personal goal or desired outcome for the practice in mind. This will help you to stick to the practice and also help you to track when it feels like it is “working.”
Frequency of meditation practice seems to stand out as one of the more important components when it comes to meditation. Research shows that brief (~13 minutes), but regular (daily) meditation practice shows significant benefits for attention, working memory, and mood. These benefits were seen when the meditation was sustained for 8 weeks of consistent practice (Basso et al., 2019). Therefore, rather than focusing on how much time you need to devote to practice, the question becomes how long is reasonable for one to develop a consistent practice? To put this another way, I'll present a metaphor.
When one practices for something else in their life (music, sports, art, etc.), they engage in regular practice so that when they are in a time of need (during a concert, game, or exhibition) they know what to do and feel competent. If one only practiced singing an Italian aria for ten minutes prior to their concert, they would likely not perform to their optimal level. Meditation is no different. We must practice frequently and consistently in order to reap the benefits for when we are in times of need.
Amount of time
People often want to know how long each meditation session should be. Do they need to practice for a whole hour per day or is a shorter practice as beneficial?
Well, this depends on what you are using the meditation for. If you are looking for stress reduction, it will take a different amount of time to see results than if you are trying to improve concentration/focus, specific mental health benefits (i.e., depression), or working memory (as a few examples). Shorter practices at 10-20 minutes per day will certainly yield benefits to one’s levels of stress (Fan et al., 2013; Basso et al., 2019), general emotional states (reduction in negative and increase in positive emotions; Fredrickson et al., 2017), and even decrease mind-wandering and increase working memory capacity (Mrazek et al., 2013). However, if you are looking to significantly improve your concentration abilities (Shapiro & Walsh, 2003) or depression symptoms (Van Dam et al., 2014), for example, it might take both a longer practice and a longer period of time to see benefits. The outcomes that typically require support from a mental health professional (mental health or neurocognitive concerns) will likely take a bit longer and need to be practiced with support of a mental health professional.
It does seem that the more one practices meditation, the greater the benefits they will see. One study showed that people who regularly practiced for longer and closely adhered to the tenets of their style of practice would experience greater benefits to their overall well-being (Lacaille et al., 2017). However, it is important to recognize that meditation is not intended to be something that hinders your daily life. Some folks try to jump headfirst into meditation with long practices, only to find that this causes them more stress and they give up altogether. Not to mention, a 45-minute daily practice is not feasible for most people.
While the research varies, people tend to see reliable and significant benefits to their meditation practice after about 8 cumulative hours of meditation. I don’t mean you need to practice for 8 hours straight, but that if you practice 1 hour per day, you should see these results in about 8 days. If you practice for 10 minutes per day, it will take about a month and a half to fully realize the benefits. So, if you are practicing less each day, it may take longer to see results, but it is the consistent practice that will lead to results.
An additional factor: enjoyment
Outside of the factors of time and frequency of meditation, the amount of enjoyment or perceived benefit one gets from their practice impacts the likelihood that they will stick with the practice. One study found that people who enjoyed their first meditation practice (or first few) were significantly more likely to continue practicing for the next 21 days and practiced more over those 21 days than those who did not enjoy the meditation (Van Cappellen et al., 2020). Therefore, to establish the all-important consistent practice, finding what you enjoy doing for meditation may be particularly important.
So, how much should you meditate? I am aware that I didn’t exactly answer this question directly.
I most commonly recommend that folks start with short practices of just a few minutes (3-5 minutes) each day. Over time, they then build that up to a longer practice that feels beneficial and sustainable to them. This way, they don’t burn themselves out from the start and are able to get in that consistent practice. However, it is helpful to find the longest duration that you can sustain across time. Our abilities and experiences of meditation can differ from day to day just like with exercise. While discipline is important, we also must be responsive to our mental, physical, and emotional needs in any given day or moment. This might mean occasional shorter or longer practices. Some days, you may get in just a few minutes. If a longer practice of 20-30 minutes per day works for you and your life, also great!
For some other tips, I recommend finding early the types of meditation that you enjoy and that work best for your intended purpose. Of course, once you are comfortable with meditation, be sure to branch out and try different things, but knowing what you enjoy doing can help you to get in that frequent and consistent practice. It is also helpful to start out with guided practices (video/audio with the meditation prompts) to get accustomed to meditation before working your way up to practicing on your own. If you never practice on your own, that’s also okay!
How much do you practice meditation and what is realistic to fit into your busy schedule? Let us know in the comments below!
Basso, J. C., McHale, A., Ende, V., Oberlin, D. J., & Suzuki, W. A. (2019). Brief, daily meditation enhances attention, memory, mood, and emotion regulation in non-experienced meditators. Behavioral Brain Research, 356, 208-220.
Fan, Y., Tang, Y., & Posner, M. I. (2013). Cortisol level modulated by integrative meditation in a dose-dependent fashion. Stress and Health, 30(1), 65-70.
Fredrickson, B. L., Boulton, A. J., Firestone, A. M., Van Cappellen, P., Algoe, S. B., Brantley, M. M., Kim, S. L., Brantley, J., & Salzburg, S. (2017). Positive emotion correlates of meditation practice: A comparison of mindfulness meditation and loving kindness meditation. Mindfulness, 8, 1623-1633.
Lacaille, J., Sadikaj, G., Nishioka, M., Carrière, K., Flanders, J., & Knäuper, B. (2017). Daily mindful responding mediates the effect of meditation practice on stress and mood: The role of practice duration and adherence. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 74(1), 109-122.
Mrazek, M. D., Franklin, M. S., Phillips, D. T., Baird, B., & Schooler, J. W. (2013). Mindfulness training improves working memory capacity and GRE performance while reducing mind wandering. Psychological Science, 24(5), 776-781.
Shapiro, S. L., & Walsh, R. (2003). An analysis of recent meditation research and suggestions for future directions. The Humanistic Psychologist, 31(2-3), 86-114.
Van Cappellen, P., Catalino, L. I., Fredrickson, B. L. (2020). A new micro-intervention to increase enjoyment and continued practice of meditation. Emotion, 20(8), 1332-1343.
Van Dam, N. T., Hobkirk, A. L., Sheppard, S. C., Aviles-Andrews, R., & Earleywine, M. (2014). How does mindfulness reduce anxiety, depression, and stress? An exploratory examination of change processes in wait-list controlled mindfulness meditation training. Mindfulness, 5(5), 574-588.