Creating a Contemplative Community: The Impact of Mindfulness on Student Well-Being (2023-2024)

Background

More than 60% of college students meet criteria for at least one mental health issue. Overall, students are increasingly lonely and continue to search for meaning beyond regular academic programming.

Contemplative and mindfulness-based programs (CMBPs) provide one avenue for improving mental health, reducing loneliness and increasing meaning in students’ lives. CMBPs also promote prosocial behavior, including increased compassion and reduced prejudice. Research has begun to identify the mechanisms by which CMBPs convey their benefits, including changes in patterns of thinking (e.g., reduced mind wandering) that are reflected at the neural level. However, focus has been almost exclusively on brief CMBPs, with little attention to longer-term effects or impacts on student-specific factors (e.g., promotion of intellectual humility in a competitive academic environment).

CMBPs are available at Duke via yoga and meditation programming through student wellness, but most of these programs are relatively brief. There remains a need to examine the impacts of a longer, more involved meditation group. Such groups are inherently oriented toward curiosity and self-inquiry, making them ideal laboratories for both experiential and scientific learning. 

Project Description

This project has two major components. Team members will form a year-long contemplative group in which they can explore a range of mindfulness-based practices. In parallel, the team will gather and analyze quantitative and qualitative data regarding the impact of the Koru Mindfulness program on its participants.

Team members will conduct contemplative exercises together, drawing on a variety of religious and philosophical traditions, and share their experiences. In addition to practicing mindfulness on a regular basis, the team will also act as investigators in a research study. Using both survey (assessing quality of life measures) and brain-based data (using EEG techniques), the team will study the impact of contemplative practice on participants in Koru Mindfulness, a four-week mindfulness-based intervention developed at Duke.

Previous studies find support for linking Koru Mindfulness with reductions in perceived stress, sleep problems, rumination and anxiety and significant improvements in self-compassion and mindfulness. This team’s research aims to understand mechanisms of mind wandering, a behavior that can have both positive and negative impacts on mental health, and how they are affected by participation in Koru Mindfulness.

Anticipated Outputs

One or more publications; conference talk; three undergraduate-led posters; dissemination of concrete recommendations for development of other undergraduate-based contemplative groups in the U.S.

Student Opportunities

Ideally, this team will include 12 undergraduate students who will commit two academic semesters to attending weekly contemplative practice gatherings, as well as research meetings. This project would benefit from students of a variety of disciplines. Students with research interests in psychology and cognitive neuroscience may be helpful for the quantitative research aspects of the project. Students with a general curiosity for contemplative practice and ethical inquiry would also be strong candidates for this project team. Additional academic disciplines that would benefit the team include philosophy, anthropology and religious studies. Though the project is primarily aimed at undergraduate students, interested graduate students are also welcome to participate. 

Students in the project will practice a valuable interdisciplinary approach when studying mindfulness and contemplative practice. Team members will have the opportunity to research and experience contemplative practices derived from a wide variety of traditions, including Buddhism, Abrahamic traditions, Stoicism, American nature writing and more. They also will be exposed to techniques across multiple modes of analysis (phenomenological, qualitative, surveys and brain-based data). 

The team of 12 undergraduates will be broken into three research teams: a qualitative team, a quantitative team and a neuroscience team. Each team will include one undergraduate lead who will have the opportunity to collaborate on a manuscript. All other students will also have the opportunity to conduct data analyses and contribute to research posters. Graduate students gain mentorship experience with a dedicated group of undergraduates.

Joseph Diehl will serve as project manager.

In Fall 2023, the team will meet on Tuesdays from 5:00 to 7:00 p.m.

Timing

Fall 2023 – Summer 2024

  • Fall 2023: Finalize IRB approval; read literature on contemplative practices; hold contemplative group meetings; collect baseline data
  • Spring 2024: Continue contemplative group participation, data collection and analysis; develop student posters
  • Summer 2024 (optional): Prepare submissions for anticipated deliverables and outputs

Crediting

Academic credit available for fall and spring semesters; summer funding available.

This Team in the News

Exploring the Impact of Mindfulness—and Mind Wandering—on Student Well-Being

 

Image: Heron looks out over the Meyer (red) Bridge in summer, Asiatic gardens, Sarah P. Duke gardens, by Bill Snead/ Duke University

Heron standing by a pond with a red Japanese footbridge in background.

Team Leaders

  • Joseph Diehl, Department of Psychology and Neuroscience–Ph.D. Student
  • Moria Smoski, School of Medicine-Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences

/graduate Team Members

  • Armen Bagdasarov, Psychology-AM, Psychology-PHD
  • Carolina Daffre, Psychology-PHD
  • Jenna McClear, Theological Studies-MTS

/undergraduate Team Members

  • Noella Barron
  • Lauren Campano
  • Jack Dugoni, Mechanical Engineering (BSE)
  • Meera Gangasani, Biology (BS)
  • Pippa Lother, Computer Science (BS)
  • Madeline Poole, Neuroscience (BS)
  • Emma Pophal
  • Erica Shen

/yfaculty/staff Team Members

  • Richard Jaffe, Arts & Sciences-Religion