Mindfulness meditation proponents often tout it as a way to create a more compassionate society. But that claim seems a bit dubious upon first glance.
After all, meditation is an internal affair—focusing on our own experiences, emotions, and thoughts—and people generally meditate alone. What does that have to do with how we treat anyone else? While some meditation practices directly aim for increasing compassion—such as loving-kindness meditation—others focus more on creating mindful attention, a focus on one’s present experience. This seem less likely to automatically impact how we relate to others.
Yet evidence is mounting that mindfulness meditation proponents might be right. Though the science is far from conclusive, it points to the likelihood that mindfulness meditation does lead to “prosocial” (kind and caring) feelings and thoughts, and more compassionate behavior towards others. And it may do so by training people in mindful awareness.
“Almost any approach for cultivating care for others needs to start with paying attention,” says Stanford researcher Erika Rosenberg. “The beginning of cultivating compassion and concern, or doing something for the benefit of others, is first noticing what something or someone means to you.”
A gateway to caring behavior
One recent study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology took a stab at figuring out the relationship between mindfulness meditation and prosocial behavior.
Daniel Berry and his colleagues randomly assigned some participants to either a brief mindfulness training or a training in controlling their attention. The mindfulness training involved focusing on momentary inner experiences: the breath, thoughts, feelings, and body sensations; the attention training involved focusing on important goals in your life.
Then, participants played an online game called Cyberball. “Players” (represented by colored dots) tossed the ball to each other; but after a few tosses, two of the players excluded the third. Though participants were told the dots represented real people located in other rooms, the interactions were actually pre-programmed.
Initially, participants simply observed the game in action. Afterwards, they were asked to write emails to each player in the game, saying “whatever they wanted.” Their responses to the excluded victim were coded by independent raters for warmth, which served as one measure of prosocial behavior. In addition, researchers surveyed how concerned participants were for the victim and how distressed they themselves felt after the game.
Participants then played a second Cyberball game with the players they’d just observed. How often the participant threw the ball to the previously excluded victim was considered a second measure of prosocial behavior.
The findings showed that participants who had trained in mindfulness reported feeling more empathic concern for excluded players—meaning, they felt more tender, sympathetic, and compassionate toward them—but not more distress themselves, compared to simple attention training. They also expressed more warmth in their emails to victims and threw the ball more frequently to them, demonstrating that these feelings were tied to compassionate action. The results also held among a different group of people who didn’t receive any training, but reported on surveys that they were more mindful to begin with.
Berry was not surprised by these findings.
“From the philosophical and religious traditions from which mindfulness comes, it’s been long understood that practicing meditation, and cultivating mindfulness, in particular, can conduce to virtuous action,” he says.
So how did mindfulness impact prosocial action? When the mindfulness training induced higher levels of empathic concern in people, they helped the victims more—providing one potential explanation. Increased attention alone, on the other hand, didn’t seem to play a role. This means that mindfulness must be doing more than just increasing how much people notice that someone is suffering, Berry explains; it must be actually increasing their concern.
These findings fit well with Rosenberg’s views. While paying attention is the “gateway” to more caring behavior—allowing you to notice that someone is suffering or that your actions are hurting someone—it’s not enough to elicit action. “You still have to have the motivation to care,” she says.
In additional experiments, Berry and his colleagues ruled out other potential explanations for the positive effects of mindfulness. For example, they compared mindfulness training to a progressive muscle relaxation training, and found the same results favoring mindfulness. They even tried measuring whether mindfulness meditation increased outrage toward the perpetrators in the game, rather than concern for victims. But these factors didn’t change the outcome: People who received mindfulness instruction still felt more empathic concern, and in turn acted more compassionately.
“I think there’s evidence to suggest that the default state of humans is to be focused on the self,” says Berry. “Perhaps what mindfulness does is temporarily break us from that self-focus so that we can be other-oriented.” Indeed, one recent study found that more mindful people are also less concerned with goals that protect their self-image, such as getting recognition from others or avoiding showing any weakness. They care more about compassion-oriented goals—like giving only constructive comments to others or avoiding doing any harm to others.
Mindfulness meditation makes you kind
Of course, Berry’s study was done in a lab with college students, and we don’t know if these findings translate into the real world—or how long the caring feelings and behavior will last after such a short mindfulness practice. But other research seems to point in the same direction.
In her own research, Rosenberg has found that when people practice meditation over a longer period and are then exposed to videos of people suffering, they not only have increased prosocial emotions like compassion, but they have lower “rejection emotions,” like disgust and contempt. This held true even when meditators witnessed someone suffering who was more difficult to find compassion for—like American soldiers bragging about killing Iraqis.
“It’s one thing to show compassion for the victims, it’s another level—really getting it—to show compassion for the perpetrators,” she says.
In a 2015 study, students who used a meditation app for three weeks were more likely to offer a chair to a distressed student entering a waiting room on crutches—even when other students didn’t offer help—than a group who had used a brain training app. Berry points to a study that found mindfulness can decrease aggressive behavior, and to another finding that even short trainings in mindfulness can reduce implicit racial and age bias.
In recent review of research in the area, Christina Luberto and her colleagues found that mindfulness training indeed appears to make us kinder toward others. Analyzing only studies that used randomized controlled experiments, they found that meditation training had significant effects on people’s self-reported feelings of compassion and empathy, and also on objective prosocial behaviors—such as increased giving in an economics game or helping another person in distress.
Remaining issues for mindfulness research
One thing everyone seems to agree on: There is still much to be learned about the benefits of meditation, including what is most effective and for whom, especially when it comes to prosocial behavior. And while studies like Rosenberg’s and Berry’s may have been carefully constructed, some researchers criticize meditation research in general—often with good reason—for being biased or poorly designed.
Many mindfulness studies are correlational rather than experimental, which means they are less helpful in nailing down mindfulness as the cause of any observed benefits. Also, many researchers insert their own bias into the design, sometimes employing a coauthor as the mindfulness instructor. Rosenberg worries about this as well: When you work with a charismatic teacher, she says, it’s less clear if the effects of the program are due to the tools being taught or something about the teacher that makes students more committed. Issues like these and others, delineated in another recent research review by Ute Kreplin and her colleagues, can lead to overly generous interpretations.
Another problem is that much of the early research on mindfulness—and even current research, including Kreplin’s and Luberto’s reviews—uses multi-component interventions, which can make it hard to tease out the effects of mindful attention alone. For example, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction often involves a mixture of focused breathing, loving-kindness meditation, yoga, and walking meditation within an eight-week program. The program’s excellent results are promising for people who want to take it, but how can we know that mindfulness itself accounts for its effectiveness?
Still, Rosenberg says, it’s important not to go too far down this path of trying to whittle down meditation into its smallest units. After all, mindfulness meditation came to us via a long tradition of contemplative practice, and all of the practices are ultimately used to increase our attention and our ability to control our reactions to experiences. The practices were probably meant to build on one another, not be performed in isolation.
“There are many scientists, and I’m beginning to be one of them, who think that it doesn’t make any sense ecologically to separate out the components of meditation, because they’re intimately linked.”
Berry’s study avoids many of the problems outlined in Kreplin’s review. His mindfulness intervention was solely focused on mindful attention and devoid of instructions in kindness or compassion; the prosocial outcomes were objectively measurable; the intervention was done by someone other than the researchers; and the study was experimental rather than correlational, including many controls. That bodes well for its significance, though Berry is still cautious, taking Kreplin’s meta-analysis seriously.
“At this stage, this area of study is just taking off,” he says. “Some of the findings from the meta-analysis may be based on only two or three studies. If anything, it points to the need for more research and more rigorous research.”
What to make of all of this? While more research does indeed need to be done, there appears to be increasing evidence that mindfulness meditation helps people be more prosocial.
And that’s good news. As mindfulness continues being promoted as a way to boost our personal well-being, it’s refreshing to know that it may just be helping us create a more compassionate society, too.