Is meditation the key to fixing political polarization?

STOCKHOLM, Sweden — Meditation could help combat the stress and strain of political polarization around the world, a new study suggests.

An international team says mind therapy that helps focus on forgiveness and warmth reduces feelings of polarization in the wake of major political events such as Brexit.

The findings come from a study of 501 people in favor of the U.K. remaining in European Union (remainers) and 433 leavers. Study authors randomly assigned the participants to listen to one of two 10-minute audio-guided recordings. One instructed listeners to bring friendship and kindness to themselves and to others. The other featured educational information about meditation.

The researchers then assessed “affective polarization,” the divide between positive feelings toward one’s own political group and negative feelings toward the other.

“Statistical analysis of the results found lower levels for people who listened to the meditation versus those who listened to the informational recording,” says lead author Dr. Otto Simonsson from the Karolinska Institute in a statement. “Additional questions answered by the participants suggested the underlying psychological mechanism for this effect may involve an increase in perceived commonality between sides for those who listened to the meditation.”

Politics can have a major impact on mental health

Brexit’s victory pierced that nation’s psyche. Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union affected some people’s mental health, causing anxiety and depression.

“The European Union Brexit referendum has divided the British electorate with high levels of animosity between those who affiliate with the Remain and Leave side of the debate,” adds Dr. Simonsson.

Following the 2016 vote, the use of antidepressants rose by 13 percent.

“These findings suggest an audio-guided befriending meditation could help boost perceived commonality between opposing political groups, and thereby reduce affective polarization,” Simonsson continues. “Such a strategy could be employed in public campaigns in the UK to address polarization between remainers and leavers.”

The study in PLOS ONE follows recent research in the U.S. that found the technique helped heal wounds between Democrats and Republicans. Dr. Simonsson and colleagues suggest various areas for future research. It may open the door to meditation-based smartphone apps that impact affective polarization.

“The results in this study build on previous findings and provide additional support for the potential benefits of meditation in political contexts,” the researchers say.

South West News Service writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.

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