Running for president is thought to be among the hardest, most stressful, and emotionally exhausting experiences one can imagine. As a psychiatrist, my natural instinct is to try to understand what advice would be most helpful to give to the winning candidate. If asked, I would quote Victor Hugo, who said: “Meditate. All is full of light, even the night.”
Meditation is becoming increasingly popular as millions of people discover its benefits. There are several different types of meditation. The one I know best is Transcendental Meditation, which I practice regularly and recommend to numerous patients.
Here are seven reasons why I would tell the next president to meditate (should she or he ask!)
1. Slow down the mind.
Hillary Clinton is on record saying she meditates to slow things down and cool the mind. A recent survey that my colleagues and I conducted on over 600 Transcendental Meditation (TM) practitioners supports this benefit. Most respondents (92%) said that, since starting to meditate, they felt a sense of stillness in the presence of activity. Here’s how storied hedge fund owner Ray Dalio, a decades-long TM practitioner, describes how this benefits his negotiations:
When things come at you – challenges, stresses, disruptive events – you can be calm, like a Ninja sees things coming at him in slow motion, so that he’s obviously in control.
How useful that would be for our next president to display such calm under fire should that call come in at 3 AM (or any other time).
2. Increase resiliency
When you are the leader of a nation, adversity is bound to happen, and it is how you respond to that adversity that separates a great leader like Winston Churchill from an ordinary one. In our survey, 95% of respondents reported improved ability to rebound from unpleasant events since starting to meditate. Research shows that the fight-or-flight response settles down more promptly in regular meditation practitioners than in control subjects.
3. Improve relationships with others
Regardless of the merits of a president’s policies, he or she will need to collaborate with many other people – such as Congress and outside stakeholders – in order to implement them. In our survey, a large majority (almost nine out of ten) reported improved relationships with others since starting to meditate.
4. Cultivate better health and well-being
The high-stress job of commander-in-chief requires the president to be in excellent physical condition. TM has been shown to lessen the response to ordinary stresses and reduce high blood pressure. In fact, the American Heart Association recently endorsed TM as a complementary or alternative treatment for hypertension. Meditators at risk for cardiovascular disease have also been shown to have better outcomes than non-meditators. In addition, most of our survey respondents (85 percent) reported that since starting to meditate, they had made healthier choices in their daily habits.
5. Balance engagement and detachment
Leaders need to show that they are emotionally engaged with others if they are to inspire, energize, and succeed in carrying out their agenda. Throughout his presidency, Ronald Reagan was masterful at making people feel as though he cared. Likewise, President Bill Clinton famously used to say, “I feel your pain,” and many felt that he really did.
On the other hand, it is important for leaders not to get over-attached to both minor details and important matters. For example, President Carter caught flak for getting involved with scheduling the White House tennis courts. More seriously, in crises leaders need to be sufficiently engaged without letting preoccupation hamper their effectiveness.
In our TM survey, respondents paradoxically reported that since starting to meditate, they had experienced increased engagement in their lives (91%) but less over-attachment (88 percent).
6. Be your authentic self
When asked whether they felt more empowered to be “your authentic self,” most survey respondents (90%) said yes. Authenticity – or perceived authenticity – is a highly valued trait in a leader.
Actor, singer, and dancer Hugh Jackman, a decades-long TM practitioner, says that authenticity is one of the greatest gifts he has received from his regular TM practice. As he puts it: "Through meditation on a daily basis, I get to strip away the masks that we build – that I build for myself, small and large – to reach more a feeling of my true self."
Even though he recognizes that as an actor he is often “putting on other masks,” Jackman adds that, “for the actor the real power is finding authenticity no matter what character you’re playing – and being.”
I would suggest that developing authenticity would be useful for our next president as well.
7. Stay in the zone
According to our survey, more than 4 out of 5 respondents said that since starting to meditate, their work had improved, it was easier to get things done, and they were more productive, creative and “in the zone.”
Whoever our next president turns out to be, I hope she or he will manifest the seven desirable traits mentioned above.
If any of the candidates should feel that these qualities could use some fine-tuning, may I be so bold as to suggest that an ancient solution is at hand?
Norman E. Rosenthal, M.D. is a psychiatrist and scientist who in the 1980s first described winter depression or seasonal affective disorder (SAD), and pioneered the use of light therapy for its treatment. He is the author of several books. His latest is "Super Mind: How to Boost Performance and Live a Richer and Happier Life Through Transcendental Meditation" (TarcherPerigee, May 17, 2016).