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Mindfulness meditation makes us more generous, helpful and compassionate

Andy Hafenbrack

Mindfulness meditation has hit the mainstream.

Countless workplaces are getting in on the trend, offering directed mindfulness programs to help their employees alleviate anxiety, reduce stress, regulate emotions and improve focus.

It turns out that those reflective sessions have a social benefit, too. Mindfulness also makes people more generous, helpful and compassionate, according to a new study co-authored by Andrew Hafenbrack of the University of Washington Foster School of Business.

The study indicates that even a single, brief session of mindfulness meditation—an exercise usually practiced for one’s internal welfare—results in more positive social behaviors.

“In today’s demanding and uncertain job environment, kindness and positive relationships are more important than ever in organizations,” says Hafenbrack, an assistant professor of management at Foster. “Our study finds that as little as one session of mindfulness practice enhances pro-social behaviors, and those behaviors are likely to improve the work lives of not only those who practice meditation, but also their colleagues and customers.”

Do you mind?

Rooted in Buddhist teaching, mindfulness is a non-judgmental awareness of the present moment, which can be engaged by meditation.

In recent years, methods of mindfulness meditation, stripped of religious or spiritual connotations, have grown in popularity. A recent study found that 14 percent of Americans engage in some form of mindfulness-enhancing practice.

And more than 60 percent of large US corporations—ranging from Google to General Mills to Aetna—offer mindfulness programs to employees.

They do so because mindfulness works. A large body of research confirms the ability of meditation to improve a person’s psychological state, which is good for the individual and their ability to be productive. “It’s a tool that I can use to change the way I feel when I’m feeling bad,” Hafenbrack says. “There’s a freedom and a sense of control in that.”

He wondered if there was more to it.

Pro-social behaviors

To find out, Hafenbrack collaborated with Lindsey Cameron of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, Gretchen Spreitzer of the University of Michigan Ross School of Business, Chen Zhang of the Tsinghua University School of Economics and Management, Laura Noval of Imperial College Business School, and Samah Shaffakat of the Liverpool Business School at Liverpool John Moores University.

This research team designed five studies across a variety of workplaces—in industries including insurance and consulting—and laboratories in North America, Europe and Asia.

Initial experiments observed the results of “focused-breathing” meditation, a common mindfulness exercise. In each case, some participants were randomly selected to participate in an eight- or 15-minute directed meditation session. Others were placed in a control group that either did no meditation, listened to the news or engaged in a directed mind-wandering technique of the same duration.

These experiments all confirmed that participating in even a single brief session of focused-breathing meditation made people more likely to provide help or share a financial windfall with co-workers or others in need than those who did no mindfulness meditation.

More compassion

A final study compared the social effect of a second form of mindfulness meditation—called “loving-kindness” meditation—with the focused-breathing meditation of the prior studies. Loving-kindness meditation directs you to visualize sending positive energy to yourself, then to those close to you, then to enemies, then to the world.

“Loving-kindness meditation is inherently pro-social,” Hafenbrack says.

After meditating or not, participants were asked to imagine they were a manager tasked with giving a negative performance critique to an employee who was going through a tough time. The responses were coded for compassion.

Those in the focused-breathing group and the loving-kindness group exhibited equal amounts of compassion—and considerably more than those who had not meditated at all.

The authors found that the boost in compassion comes from how focused-breathing meditation inspires people to see the world through others’ eyes, and how loving-kindness meditation inspires empathy.

“There’s a cognitive pathway for focused-breathing and an emotional pathway for loving-kindness,” says Hafenbrack. “They had the same effect on pro-social behavior, just for different reasons.”

Short and sweet

Organizations are, by design, a social means to a desired end. And whether to extract better work or attend to the emotional health of employees, organizations are increasingly looking to mindfulness meditation.

But Hafenbrack cautions that mindfulness has its limitations. It is not a panacea for all of an organization’s ills.

And its benefits—personal and social—are likely to dissipate if employees feel obligated to participate. “I would seriously caution organizations that offer mindfulness programs to make clear that participation is completely optional,” he says.

But when applied correctly, corporate mindfulness meditation programs can have many positive effects—in less time and frequency than you might think. Positive results can be achieved in a single session of as little as eight minutes.

And, if your employer doesn’t offer mindfulness support, you can always go it alone, applying on-the-spot mindfulness the way one might take a Tylenol to address a headache.

“The speed and efficacy in which a single short mindfulness meditation session can induce a state of mindfulness and positively shape behavior indicates that employees do not have to rely on their organization to offer formal intensive mindfulness trainings,” Hafenbrack says. “They could, instead, use short, widely available recordings on their own during breaks.”

Helping People by Being in the Present: Mindfulness Increases Prosocial Behavior” is forthcoming in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.