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How to Get Over Yourself

Meditate and Prosper

Recent research shows that mindfulness meditation makes people more altruistic—even when confronted with barriers to compassionate action.

How do we make life meaningful? That question is at the core of a growing multidisciplinary movement focused on empathy, compassion, gratitude, and how to invite them into our daily lives. At the close of 2013, a crew at Greater Good—the online magazine of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center—culled and summarized the findings of ten notable happiness studies published last year. “The Top 10 Insights from the ‘Science of a Meaningful Life’ in 2013” originally appeared at Greater Good.

In March, the Greater Good Science Center hosted a conference called “Practicing Mindfulness & Compassion,” where speakers made the case that the practice of mindfulness—the moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, and surrounding—doesn’t just improve our individual health but also makes us more compassionate toward others. Coincidentally, just weeks after the conference, two new studies bolstered this claim.

The first study, published in Psychological Science, found that people who took an eight-week mindfulness meditation course were significantly more likely than a control group to give up their waiting-room seat for a person on crutches. This was true despite the fact that other people in the waiting room (who were secretly working with the researchers) didn’t acknowledge the person in need or make any gesture to give up their own seats; prior research suggests that this kind of inaction strongly deters bystanders from helping out, but that wasn’t the case when the bystanders had received training in mindfulness.

A few weeks later, another study published in Psychological Science echoed that finding. In this second study, which was unrelated to the first, people who had practiced a mindfulness-based “compassion meditation” for a total of just seven hours over two weeks were significantly more likely than people who hadn’t received the training to give money to a stranger in need. What’s more, after completing their training, the meditation group showed noticeable changes in brain activity, including in networks linked to understanding the suffering of others.

“Our findings,” write the authors of the second study, “support the possibility that compassion and altruism can be viewed as trainable skills rather than as stable traits.”

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Image by Juhan Sonin, licensed under Creative Commons