We hear a lot about the great things mindfulness purportedly does for a person’s mental health and wellbeing – but does it make us more selfish or generous?
It’s not a question with limited relevance to lifestyle gurus and flakes.
Over the last decade, mindfulness – the practise of focusing your attention on the present moment and accepting it without judgement – has been increasingly deployed in schools and the workplace as a tool to boost productivity and reduce stress.
The global growth rate of the mindfulness meditation market is a galloping 10.4 per cent – and it’s the fastest growing health trend in the United States.
Why so big?
The Australia Centre for Meditation and Mindfulness (ACMM) has put together an infographic that shows how the trend is taking off. ACMM laments that “the other side to the tremendous economic growth that is depicted, is a story of decline”.
Stress and anxiety are “at an all-time high, and we are suffering more and more from stress-related diseases”, ACMM says.
Mindfulness is essentially standing in as a do-it-yourself mental health fix in which practitioners are able to emotionally distance themselves from any unpleasantness seen in news reports, or trouble at home.
That’s a big issue we’ll explore another day.
The question here is: What are the social effects of mindfulness rather than inward personal effects?
As researchers from the University of Buffalo put it: How does mindfulness affect the range of human behaviours known as ‘prosocial behaviours’ that can potentially help or benefit other people?
It comes down to ‘me’ or ‘we’
The researchers found that we can swing either way.
It depends on whether you’re fundamentally an independent person (who talks about “me”) or interdependent (who talks about “we”).
A couple of experiments revealed that an independent person will become more selfish if they’ve received mindfulness instruction. They were found to be 33 per cent less likely to volunteer for a charity than a control group receiving no mindfulness instruction.
Meanwhile, interdependent people given mindfulness instruction were more generous (40 per cent more willing to volunteer) than a control group.
“Mindfulness increased prosocial actions for people who tend to view themselves as more interdependent,” said Michael Poulin, an associate professor of psychology in the UB College of Arts and Sciences and the paper’s lead author.
“However, for people who tend to view themselves as more independent, mindfulness actually decreased prosocial behaviour,” Dr Poulin said.
In other words: mindfulness can make you selfish.
Western countries ‘remove the context’
In fact, in a Western setting, we may be more predisposed to the selfish downside of mindfulness
Dr Poulin said people in Western nations most often think of themselves as independent, whereas people in East Asian countries, where mindfulness practices originated, more often think of themselves as interdependent.
In East Asian countries “mindfulness may be more clearly prosocial in those contexts”, he said.
Practicing mindfulness in Western countries “removes that context”.
What to do?
The researchers concluded that learning mindfulness would deliver better personal and social outcomes if it were to be combined “with instructions explaining how to make people think of themselves in terms of their relationships and communities”.
What this really mean is that mindfulness teaching, as a matter of course, should be underpinned by a commitment to social responsibility and caring for others.
“Research suggests that mindfulness works,” said Dr Poulin.
“But this study shows that it’s a tool, not a prescription, which requires more than a plug-and-play approach if practitioners are to avoid its potential pitfalls.”
These concerns aren’t new
In 2018, Dr Alison Gray, chair of a special interest group at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, was quoted on Twitter saying:
“If you’re not paying attention to the ethical and social consciousness part of mindfulness (originally from the Buddhist tradition), there is the risk of becoming too inward looking, leading to selfishness in some cases.”