How Does Mindfulness Work?

A new study explores how mindfulness impacts self-compassion and meaning in life to increase mental health and wellbeing.


A new study, published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, seeks to answer the question, “why does mindfulness work?” The study explores the relationship between mindfulness meditation and positive mental health outcomes among adult populations. The researchers, led by José Ramón Yela, found that mindfulness may boost mental health by increasing self-compassion and the presence of meaning in life, and by decreasing “experiential avoidance,” the tendency to suppress or steer clear of feared thoughts, feelings, or situations. 

“Contemporary psychology is undergoing an extraordinary and perhaps unprecedented interest in the study of meditation, especially mindfulness‐based practices,” the authors write. “The training of mindfulness skills, frequently in combination with exercising benevolent attitudes and exposing oneself to inner experiences with a flexible and open attitude, has demonstrated usefulness in dealing with psychological issues, especially when depression, anxiety, negative emotions, and stress symptoms are involved.”

Photo credit: Alice Popkorn, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

While mindfulness meditation has shown impressive results such as improving and preventing mental health issues, little is known about the mechanisms at play.

“Some years ago, a previous meta‐analysis identified an open question in the field of meditation, that is, why and how meditation works,” Yela and colleagues write. “At the present time, in spite of increasing research about the relationships between meditation‐based approaches and mental health, the answer remains elusive.”

Drawing from suggestions in the literature on how the process creates change, the researchers, from the Pontifical University of Salamanca in Spain, focused on three possible explanatory variables:

  1. Self-compassion, which has been identified as a quality that has the potential to treat depression. Self-compassion can be understood as viewing challenges as human experiences and taking an attitude of kindness toward one’s self.
  2. The presence of meaning in one’s life, which is linked to better health and wellness overall.
  3. Experiential avoidance, which is a concept that explains an individual’s unwillingness to experience and accept difficult inner thoughts or feelings.

The researchers hypothesized that the outcomes of meditation are mediated by self-compassion, meaning in life, and experiential avoidance. This suggests that as one practices mindfulness meditation, they develop increased self-compassion, improved sense of meaning in life, and decrease their avoidance of experiences and that this combination leads to the positive mental health outcomes found in other studies.

Using data from over 800 adults, the researchers investigated the frequency and duration of meditation practice of each participant and assessed mental health using a health survey primarily considering symptoms of anxiety and depression. Measures were administered for each of the three hypothesized mediating factors.

Through the use of structured equation modeling (SEM), the study analyzed the total effects and indirect effects of each variable. The results of the analysis showed, as predicted by researchers, a strong positive relationship to self-compassion and meaning in life. In addition, as expected, mindfulness meditation practice was shown to decrease one’s experiential avoidance.  

“The avoidance of experiences has been highlighted as a risk factor for psychopathology and worsened well-being. For instance, higher levels of experiential avoidance are present among people with posttraumatic stress disorder, social anxiety, obsessive‐compulsive symptoms, stress perceptions, and major depressive disorder, among a variety of psychological disturbances.”

Participants that reported practicing mindfulness meditation were found to have better overall well-being. However, within the meditators group, researchers were able to distinguish between those they called “occasional meditators” from “regular meditators” (those that practice meditation casually vs. those that practice at least once a week). In summary, while mindfulness practice is associated with positive outcomes, the frequency of practice is a crucial factor in seeing positive benefits.

“The regularity of meditation practice was associated with the participants’ mental health, with regular meditators reporting better mental health than occasional meditators, and occasional meditators showing better mental health than nonmeditators.”

“Meditation may require continuity and regularity of practice so that the psychological mechanisms leading to beneficial effects may be activated or developed to some extent, that is, occasional meditators are not taking the adequate ‘dose’ to benefit from the intervention. Not for nothing, meditation‐based interventions highly emphasize the importance of continuing meditation exercises once the training ends, as the abandonment of practice is associated with relapse.”



Yela, J. R., Crego, A., Gómez‐Martínez, M. Á., & Jiménez, L. (2020). Self‐compassion, meaning in life, and experiential avoidance explain the relationship between meditation and positive mental health outcomes. Journal of Clinical Psychology. (Link)


  1. Does psychiatry believe in the practice of mindfulness?
    I am bothered by western ideology borrowing eastern practices and converting it into coin.
    The belief that we have something to treat needs it’s own treatment and is where
    mindfulness can help.
    Mindful of how simplistic other people’s assumptions are about us.
    Mindful of the buying of information, information that is about ourselves and others
    can be quite confusing, leading to a confused life.

    There is massive revenue in treatment. I could have cashed in on this and made a comfortable living.

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  2. Meditation can save us all if only we can be bothered to do it .. That is the difficulty sitting with pain fear and grief looking them in the face and somehow getting up tomorrow. That is the key.. I wish I had time to mediate half a day every day… One day perhaps❤

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  3. “The avoidance of experiences has been highlighted as a risk factor for psychopathology and worsened well-being.” So, in other words, when the psychologists and psychiatrists deny the fact that child abuse happens, because they can NOT EVER bill ANY insurance company for EVER helping ANY child abuse survivor, or their concerned parent, EVER.

    We do know with 100% psychological certainty, that those psychologists and psychiatrists who deny child abuse ever happens for their religious leaders, are psychologists and psychiatrists who are intentionally trying to do harm to their clients. Right?

    And our society now has enormous, systemic, historic and continuing, by DSM design, psychological and psychiatric, child abuse covering up problems.

    And since the “mental health” industries, which are systemically covering up child abuse on a massive societal scale for profit, are also aiding, abetting, and empowering the child molesters and child sex traffickers. We now have huge societal pedophilia and child sex trafficking problems running amok, in all of Western civilization.

    Oh, but gosh, the psychologists should now unrepentantly go off peddling “mindfulness” as a cure for their scientific fraud based DSM disorders. Rather than finally confessing to the scientific fraud of the DSM “bible,” and their historic and continuing child abuse and rape covering up crimes.

    By the way, while the psychologists have also been aiding, abetting, and empowering the psychiatrists in murdering 8 million innocent people a year, with the psychiatric neurotoxins.

    The systemic child abuse covering up crimes of both the Western psychological and psychiatric industries need to be ended, since these crimes are destroying Western civilization.

    No, pretending your industry is not criminal to the bone, and peddling “mindfulness” is not the answer, Jessica. Repentance, and changing your industry’s evil ways, is the solution. But you can’t do that, because covering up child abuse is, and has always been, the primary, actual societal function of the “mental health” industries forever.

    Thanks (sarcasm), child abuse covering up “mental health” industries, for corrupting and destroying my childhood religion.

    I’m quite certain they’ll be following you to the lake of fire, if you psychologists and psychiatrists do not repent, and change your evil ways. As well my childhood religion garnering insight into Jesus’ theology that repentance, and changing from one’s evil ways, is required for forgiveness as well.

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  4. I am experimenting with meditation for ten minutes twice or three times a day at the moment. I find myself expressing a lot of fear and anger while doing it. I think this is helping with my sleep as I was suppressing a lot of seething rage about something I will not go into here. This fits in with the idea of avoidance.

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  5. To look at the weaving soliloquy
    Of your thoughts dancing, murmurings of truth
    As far as you can see into the deep
    Blue heaven of being under the sun
    Where it’s human like the birds to have wings
    Only for us it’s imagination
    And that makes it so alright to be here
    That to forget anything else, is love

    I want to apologize that I haven’t posted for awhile, but the dragon keeps eating my home work you see. And that basket weaving class of she knows who, after I got her kicked out of teaching art class where we were not allowed to touch the models we saw doing anything and everything imaginable (even to make them comfortable or give more room for them to be finding themselves), and after you know what and you thought you knew who and the rest of what the f%$#& from the rest of the flock accused of not being able to count when you know this then that the dragon got the leader and it improves the flight…

    They all think I’m back but I’m not the dragon!

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