A new study out of Brown University found that mindfulness meditation, in which practitioners focus on attending to the present moment without judgment, may have greater benefits for women, at least in a college course setting.
The study looked at 77 undergraduate students taking a 12-week course on mindfulness that featured 30 minutes of meditation three times per week. Compared with men, women showed greater decreases in negative affect (including emotions like guilt or irritability) and greater increases in mindfulness and self-compassion. Moreover, for women, decreases in negative affect were significantly correlated with improvements in mindfulness and self-compassion.
In contrast, men’s improvements in mindfulness and self-compassion did not correlate with improvements in negative affect, on average (to the extent that negative affect did improve for men, changes were correlated with the ability to identify, describe, and differentiate one’s emotions). But that doesn’t mean mindfulness meditation isn’t beneficial for men, says co-lead author Rahil Rojiani, a Brown graduate and now a medical student at Yale.
“Too much data (both anecdotal and empirical) still show how useful and helpful meditation is for men, so our study needs to be seen within a larger context,” he tells YJ. “While men’s average negative affect may not have improved, there were still plenty of men who did improve (and women who did not!). Looking just at averages lets us ignore individual differences.”
What May Explain the Gender Difference
However, Rojiani does think it makes sense that mindfulness meditation, an internally focused practice to become more aware of one’s emotions and thoughts without judgment, might be more beneficial for most women.
“Lots of research has shown that women tend to ruminate and fixate in response to stress, and men tend to distract. This shows up in mental illness, with women having higher rates of anxiety and depression, while men have higher rates of conduct disorder and substance use disorder,” he says, noting that gender is not binary and this likely has to do with socialized masculinity versus socialized femininity (e.g., boys are told to play outside or play video games to cope with stress, while girls are instructed to write in a diary or vent to a friend). “In our study, women’s improvement in negative affect was correlated to skills of non-judgment, non-reactivity, and self-compassion. One interpretation of this: mindfulness might help women decrease negative emotions because it allows them to avoid fixating on or overreacting to negative feelings; instead they can be less critical and more compassionate toward themselves, which prevents negative feelings from being blown out of proportion."
Rather than focusing too much on whether mindfulness meditation is “better” for women, Rojiani thinks a key finding of the study is the importance of tailoring interventions for different populations. For example, for anyone who identifies more with masculinity and prefers more active methods of processing stress, a more active mindful activity like Tai Chi or yoga might be more beneficial than meditation, he suggests.
“I think the main takeaway from our study is how much diversity matters; individual differences impact our response to interventions, and we need to better understand this to provide the best care to folks of all genders, identities, and backgrounds,” he says.