Not long ago meditation was considered a woo-woo activity embraced only by the hippie counterculture. Recently though, it seems like you can’t read a newsfeed without an executive or celebrity talking about how meditation has changed their life. Titles like “10% happier” and “Thrive” are best sellers, and advocates say that meditation can reduce stress, improve immune function, cure depression and even change the structure of the brain.
As meditation becomes more mainstream, companies are beginning to explore the impact that it can have on employee performance. Household names like Google, Shell Energy and Aetna have implemented formal mindfulness-based training programs. Many others, including Nike and General Mills, have dedicated meditation rooms where employees can escape during the day to clear their heads.
The results are impressive, Aetna employees participating in the program report a 28% reduction in stress levels, a 20% improvement in sleep quality, and state that they are more productive on the job; estimating a gain of roughly 60 minutes per week due to an increased ability to focus. 80% of participants in General Mills’ mindfulness program said they felt it improved their ability to make better decisions.
There also appears to be a tie between meditation and both creativity and problem solving. Steve Jobs spoke openly about his dedication to mindfulness meditation and the impact on his creativity. Mindfulness meditation, where distracting thoughts and feelings aren’t ignored, but are acknowledged, has been shown to reduce “cognitive rigidity”, helping us to identify and develop innovative ideas. It has also been shown to improve problem solving ability. In a recent study, students who performed meditation before a problem solving exercise solved significantly more problems than a control group.
Similarly, participants in a study who performed Open Monitoring meditation (observing thoughts and sensations without judging) immediately before beginning a thinking task were able to generate more ideas than those who did not meditate. Results were the same for experienced meditators and first-timers.
Building on this research, Shell Energy recently implemented a meditation program, EMPOWER, with the targeted intent of improving creativity and driving culture change related to innovation. Employees across the globe are taking courses and workshops focused on meditation and innovation learning. The initial results are promising, nearly 100% of the participants have a better understanding of their own blockers to innovation, and the role they play in driving innovation within the company.
I have recently started to pay more attention to when and how I come up with my most creative ideas. Not surprisingly, I typically have them when I’m doing anything but trying to be creative: at the end of a yoga class, immediately after waking up, or even during a walk. I’m now a couple of months into a daily meditation program by Headspace, and while I can’t say that I’ve observed a dramatic increase in creativity or problem solving skills, I do find that I am starting to crave the sense of peace and calm that I typically feel after a session. And, inspired by this research, I will be working to incorporate some contemplation and meditation into my problem solving approach. I have no doubts that freeing up some mental space can provide room for creative ideas to flourish.
How about you? If you do meditate, how do you find that it sparks creativity? Do you have a rush of creative ideas during or after meditation, or do you find that you have more inspiration throughout the day?