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An unintended consequence of mindfulness

Andrew C. Hafenbrack is an assistant professor of management and organisation at the University of Washington's Foster School of Business

You have had a stressful day at work, so, like millions of other people, you open up Calm or Headspace on your smartphone and do some mindful meditation — concentrating on your bodily sensations, “observing” your thoughts in the moment. Research has shown that this is likely to have benefits: mindful meditation reduces anxiety, depression and stress; more pragmatically, it can also improve sleep, decision-making, focus and self-control.

This helps to explain why so many companies have jumped on the mindfulness bandwagon, incorporating it in corporate wellness programmes — and why Calm was valued at $2 billion in 2020. But what if, in the course of your stressful day, you acted like a jerk towards a colleague at a meeting? Could all of that inward focus cause you to play down the harm you caused that person, letting it float away like a leaf on a stream?

That’s exactly what my research colleagues, Matthew LaPalme and Isabelle Solal, and I found in a series of eight studies, involving more than 1,400 participants in the United States and Portugal, slated to be published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Across a range of laboratory scenarios, we found that asking people to engage in a single session of eight or 15 minutes of mindfulness meditation — focusing their attention on the physical sensations of breathing — reduced their self-reported levels of guilt (about incidents warranting guilt). It also reduced their willingness to take prosocial steps to remedy harms they had done. The research suggests that people ought to be careful about when they use mindfulness meditation, lest the comfort they derive from it comes at the cost of their connections with other human beings.

In our laboratories, we first established that mindfulness meditation reduced feelings of guilt in a situation that did not involve reparative action. We asked 134 participants to recall a situation from their past that they felt guilty about. (We asked some of them to write about the episode for five minutes and others to write instead about the previous day, but which condition they were assigned to did not affect the results.) Some then listened to an eight-minute guided meditation, while the others listened to a recording instructing them to let their minds wander to whatever topic occurred to them. Those who mindfully meditated reported that their guilt subsided to a significant degree — which was not the case for the control group that let their minds wander. (To confirm that meditation was having its intended effect, we verified that the meditators felt more focused and more attuned to their bodies.)

Other scenarios introduced the idea of making amends to people whom our research participants had wronged. In one, involving about 160 people, we asked half the participants to envision that they had overslept a team presentation they were supposed to be a part of, letting down the rest of the team. We asked the other half to envision having successfully given the presentation. Half of each group meditated mindfully while the other half listened to the “mind wandering” recording.

Then we asked everyone to imagine that they were subsequently at a casual dinner with their presentation team and the initial amount everyone paid came up short. How much money would they pay beyond their share? Up to $9? This was an opportunity for test subjects to make it up to their team members. When people did not meditate, there was a significant difference in the amount they gave depending on whether they had missed the presentation or made it on time. Those who had overslept gave $7.50, while those who didn’t gave $5.49. When people did meditate, however, sleeping through the presentation did not lead them to give more money. (We made sure, statistically, that diminished guilt was driving the results, not other emotions that we also measured — including shame, embarrassment and anger.) A few other studies came to the same conclusion: meditation led feelings of guilt to subside, along with the desire to rectify the situation.

There are, of course, different kinds of meditation. In our final study, we compared mindfulness practice with "loving-kindness meditation" - in which people bring to mind others and mentally send love their way, along with wishes that these family members, friends and even rivals be healthy, well and happy. Once again, we asked about 100 participants in an online experiment to think of a person they had wronged and write about them for several minutes. Then we instructed half the participants to do a session of focused breathing and the other half to do loving-kindness meditation. When we asked participants how likely they would be to contact, apologise to and make amends with the person they had harmed, participants who did the loving-kindness meditation were significantly more likely to say that they would.

Mindfulness meditation is clearly effective at calming uncomfortable feelings, but some uncomfortable emotions are useful. Guilt can motivate us to apologise when we have hurt someone or to take action to undo some of the damage we’ve done. If meditation reduces that emotion, it could prevent us from doing the right thing.

Next time you encounter a stressful situation and are preparing to pause for meditation, ask yourself: is the problem that I am ruminating too much and blowing things out of proportion? In that case, mindfulness meditation can be a great tool, calming you and making it easier to keep the proper perspective. Or could it be that you have made a misstep that affected other people, and you may have some apologising to do? In that instance, a mindfulness approach can be less helpful, and loving-kindness meditation the better option.

If we use mindfulness meditation as our default way of handling stress, we could end up avoiding problems we would be better off facing, damaging our relationships in the process. So be warned: The benefits of mindfulness are real, but when used indiscriminately, the practice can relax your moral compass.

Andrew C. Hafenbrack is an assistant professor of management and organisation at the University of Washington's Foster School of Business

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Published May 20, 2022 at 7:56 am (Updated May 20, 2022 at 7:54 am)

An unintended consequence of mindfulness

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