Can Meditation Promote Altruism?

By Hooria Jazaieri | May 5, 2014 | 0 comments

A recent study explores whether mindfulness can boost the intention to help others, even at a cost to oneself.

Mindfulness, or the moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, emotions, and environment, has been associated with a host of benefits, including reduced stress, greater positive emotions, and a healthier body image. Recently, however, research has begun to explore how practicing mindfulness might improve the ways we treat other people.

Our Mindful Mondays series provides ongoing coverage of the exploding field of mindfulness research. Our Mindful Mondays series provides ongoing coverage of the exploding field of mindfulness research. Dan Archer

A recent study, published in the journal Mindfulness, zeroes in on the question of whether mindfulness can boost compassion or altruism, the intention to increase the welfare of another, even at a cost to oneself.

In the experiment, researchers in Sweden randomly assigned 42 adults to one of two groups: One attended nine 75-minute mindfulness meditation training sessions over an eight-week period; the other group sat on a wait list for those eight weeks.

Before and after the eight weeks, all participants completed surveys assessing their levels of empathy, stress, mindfulness, self-compassion, and, of primary interest to the authors, “altruistic orientation”—the ability to feel empathic concern rather than personal distress when faced with the suffering of others.

The training involved weekly meditations on topics ranging from mindfulness of one’s breath to self-compassion to empathic joy and equanimity. The course also included lectures, mindful movement exercises, Q&A discussion sessions, and weekly homework—participants were asked to use guided meditation recordings and engage in approximately 30 minutes of daily meditation practice.

When compared with the waitlist group, the meditation group showed improvements in their ability to take the perspective of other people, an aspect of empathy; they also showed gains in self-compassion and mindfulness, and a reduction in stress. After their eight-week training, the meditators’ altruistic orientation had also increased from its levels before the training; however, the waitlist group showed similar increases over the eight weeks, making it difficult to conclude that the training had a significant effect on altruistic orientation, though it did seem to be moving in the right direction.

Importantly, among the meditators, the amount of time they spent meditating outside of class was significantly associated with improvements in altruistic orientation, mindfulness, and stress—in other words, the more they meditated, the more they seemed to reap these benefits.

Although the conclusions that can be drawn from this study are limited, likely due to the small number of participants, the results add to a growing body of evidence suggesting a relationship between mindfulness meditation and altruism or compassion.

For instance, studies published last year suggest that mindfulness training can motivate people to come to the aid of someone in need and may even cause changes to the brain associated with compassion. For more on the links between mindfulness and compassion, check out the videos from the GGSC’s 2013 conference on “Practicing Mindfulness and Compassion”:

What’s more, this study adds to the mounting empirical evidence suggesting that the benefits of meditation programs are directly related to the amount of time participants spend practicing at home. When it comes to mindfulness and meditation, like in so many other areas, it seems that what you get depends on what you put in.

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About The Author

Hooria Jazaieri, LMFT, is a researcher, teacher, and psychotherapist. Her research at UC Berkeley centers on personal reputation and team chemistry. She is the recipient of graduate research fellowships from the the National Science Foundation and the Greater Good Science Science Center.


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