Can Meditation Promote Altruism?

A recent study explores whether mindfulness can boost the intention to help others, even at a cost to oneself.

Mindfulness, or the moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, emotions, and environment, has been associated with a host of benefits, including reduced stress, greater positive emotions, and a healthier body image. Recently, however, research has begun to explore how practicing mindfulness might improve the ways we treat other people.

A recent study, published in the journal Mindfulness, zeroes in on the question of whether mindfulness can boost compassion or altruism, the intention to increase the welfare of another, even at a cost to oneself.

In the experiment, researchers in Sweden randomly assigned 42 adults to one of two groups: One attended nine 75-minute mindfulness meditation training sessions over an eight-week period; the other group sat on a wait list for those eight weeks.

Before and after the eight weeks, all participants completed surveys assessing their levels of empathy, stress, mindfulness, self-compassion, and, of primary interest to the authors, “altruistic orientation”—the ability to feel empathic concern rather than personal distress when faced with the suffering of others.

The training involved weekly meditations on topics ranging from mindfulness of one’s breath to self-compassion to empathic joy and equanimity. The course also included lectures, mindful…