Why Mindfulness Works Better For Some People Than Others

by Georgina Lawton

While recent media hype has highlighted the benefits of mindfulness — the psychological practice of bringing one's attention and external experiences to the present moment, often through meditation — new research shows that mindfulness may not work for everyone. Indeed, according to a study out of Brown University, mindfulness can be effective in helping women's moods, but may not be as effective for improving men's.

Mindfulness is thought to draw its origins from many religious practices; the idea is that calm self-reflection can be used as a tool for communicating with higher powers. According to Psychology Today, being mindful and contemplative in order to speak to God is known as various things in different religions: "Recollection" in Christianity, "zikr" in Islam, "kavanah" in Judaism, and "samadhi" in Buddhism and Hinduism.

While mindfulness training has shown to have several positive effects on aiding anxiety and depression and helping with pain relief, there's been little evidence into how or why these effects can differ across genders. This new study has shown, however, that women may have more to gain from practicing the art of being present, leading the authors to advocate for more note to be taken into considering gender as a potential factor in assessing mindfulness effectiveness. This call comes after an investigation into college-based meditation training sought to examine whether it had a negative affect on men and women.

The study looked at 41 male students and 36 female students over a 12-week academic class on mindfulness traditions, which included three hour-long meditation classes a week, reports Science Daily. Researchers measured changes in affect, mindfulness, and self-compassion through questionnaires filled out at the beginning and the end of each class. Over the 12 weeks, each student had engaged on average in more than 41 hours of meditation, regardless of gender.

Harold Roth, professor of religious studies and study co-author, taught the meditation labs, which were comprised of around 30 minutes per session of contemplative practice from Buddhist or Daoist traditions. Along with his team, he found that women showed a 11.6 percent decline on the survey's score, indicating a significant positive psychological outcome; men, however, showed a 3.7 percent increase in their scores, which wasn't a significant change. As a group, the 77 students didn't leave the class demonstrating a significant difference in negative outcome, but the difference in gender percentages is worthy of note.

Of course, just this one study isn't enough for us to make broad, sweeping observations about mindfulness and gender; the study results would need to be replicated before we can even start saying anything conclusive. However, the research could spark an interesting discussion into why men and women have different responses to meditation and self-reflective techniques. Is it our genetic make-up? According to Science Daily, Willoughby Britton, assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior and of behavioral and social sciences at Brown, doesn't think so, but notes that the results may influence a new way of thinking about mindfulness.

"Mindfulness is a little bit like a drug cocktail — there are a lot of ingredients and we're not sure which ingredients are doing what," Britton said according to Science Daily. "The mechanisms are highly speculative at this point, but stereotypically, women ruminate and men distract ... so for people that tend to be willing to confront or expose themselves or turn toward the difficult, mindfulness is made for [improving] that. For people who have been largely turning their attention away from the difficult, to suddenly bring all their attention to their difficulties can be somewhat counterproductive."

So, how effective mindfulness is may have something to do with differences in how we face our problems: If you prefer to address them head on, mindfulness might work; however, if you prefer to "distract" yourself, it might not. The idea that the difference depends on problem solving strategies certainly makes more sense than assuming it's all down to biology; indeed, research that came out in 2015 dismantled the long-thought idea that men and women have variations in their brains that explains why men and women apparently excel at different tasks. It turns out we're actually very similar (surprise!).

As Britton explains, the response to mindfulness is more sociological than biological" "While facing one's difficulties and feeling one's emotions may seem to be universally beneficial, it does not take into account that there may be different cultural expectations for men and women around emotionality." So, basically women may be responding better to mindfulness because of the way we're socialized, while men are often penalized or portrayed as "weak" or "feminine" for displaying the same behavior. Yet another reason to break down those entrenched gender stereotypes, right?