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.

Tracker Pixel for Entry

Greater Good wants to know:
Do you think this article will influence your opinions or behavior?

  • Very Likely

  • Likely

  • Unlikely

  • Very Unlikely

  • Not sure

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.


Like this article?

Here's what you can do:

blog comments powered by Disqus



Greater Good Events

The Greater Good Science Center Summer Institute for Educators 2017
Clark Kerr Campus, UC-Berkeley
Sunday, June 25 - Friday, June 30, 2017 OR Sunday, July 16 - Friday, July 21, 2017

The Greater Good Science Center Summer Institute for Educators 2017

The GGSC’s six-day Summer Institute equips education professionals with prosocial learning strategies, tools and processes that benefit both students and teachers.


Take a Greater Good Quiz!

How compassionate are you? How generous, grateful, or forgiving? Find out!


Watch Greater Good Videos

Jon Kabat-Zinn

Talks by inspiring speakers like Jon Kabat-Zinn, Dacher Keltner, and Barbara Fredrickson.


Greater Good Resources


Book of the Week

Roots of Empathy By Mary Gordon Mary Gordon explains how best to nurture empathy and social emotional literacy in all children—and thereby reduce aggression, antisocial behavior, and bullying.

Is she flirting with you? Take the quiz and find out.
"It is a great good and a great gift, this Greater Good. I bow to you for your efforts to bring these uplifting and illuminating expressions of humanity, grounded in good science, to the attention of us all."  
Jon Kabat-Zinn

Best-selling author and founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program

thnx advertisement