Mindfulness training often results in mood benefits given that practitioners learn to experience discomfort without reactivity and cultivate positive emotions. However, little is known how mindfulness training affects shifts in daily positive and negative emotions.
People differ in how much their emotions vary over the course of a day (affect variability), how easily their emotions are aroused (affect instability), and how persistent emotions are once they are once aroused (affect inertia). Higher levels of negative emotional variability, instability, and inertia are observed in people with various mental health disorders. By contrast, people who are more mindful generally experience less negative affect variability, instability, and inertia.
Keng et al. [Mindfulness] tested the effect of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) on daily emotional shifts in a randomized study compared to an active control.
The researchers randomly assigned a non-clinical sample of 158 adult ethnic Chinese Singaporeans (average age=29 years; 59% female) to either MBSR or a music therapy-based stress reduction program. MBSR was delivered using the standard 8-week group protocol that included a half-day meditation retreat.
The music therapy control was matched to MBSR in terms of time duration and retreat, structure, and social support. Music therapy included supportive music and imagery, performance, receptive listening, composition, and improvisation.
Participants reported on their emotions 12 times daily for 3 days prior to and 3 days after the interventions in response to smartphone-delivered prompts. Prompts were issued an average of every half-hour between 9AM and 5PM. At each prompt, participants rated their experience of 17 different emotions.
Affect variability was measured using the standard deviation of ratings, inertia by rating intercorrelations between time points, and instability by the average squared differences between successive time points. Participants also completed a questionnaire of self-reported emotional regulation difficulties before and after the intervention.
The results showed that the MBSR group significantly decreased the variability and instability of negative emotions with a small-to-medium effect size, and significantly decreased emotional regulation difficulties relative to the music therapy group. MBSR showed significantly greater decreases in variability for anger, fear, guilt/shame, and sadness, and significantly greater decreases in instability for anger, fear guilt/shame, sadness, worry, frustration, and disgust.
MBSR participants were significantly less likely than those in music therapy to experience any increases in negative emotion larger than two standard deviations in magnitude. There were no differences by group on the average intensity of negative emotions, negative affect inertia, or any of the positive emotion variables.
The study shows MBSR, relative to music therapy, reduces the volatility of daily negative emotions and improves self-report of emotional regulation without necessarily changing the intensity of participants’ average daily positive or negative moods.
These findings are in accord with the common training principle that mindfulness does not necessarily stamp out negative emotions, but helps one experience them with diminished reactivity.
Keng, S.-L., Tong, E. M. W., Yan, E. T. L., Ebstein, R. P., & Lai, P.-S. (2021). Effects of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction on Affect Dynamics: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Mindfulness.
Link to study