Mindfulness Meditation Can Make Some Americans More Selfish and Less Generous

Yves here. Before some of you get riled up, I was involved with a mindfulness group that used techniques other than meditation (they focused on being mindful on an active basis, or as they liked to put it, “clear,” “awake,” “aware”). Their implicit pitch, which for most participants seemed to be true, was not that their training made you a better person, in the sense of being more ethical or generous, but that it made you more effective. They promoted it as a way to get yourself out of dead end jobs and relationships and into better ones.

By Michael J. Poulin, Associate Professor of Psychology, University at Buffalo. Originally published at The Conversation

When Japanese chef Yoshihiro Murata travels, he brings water with him from Japan. He says this is the only way to make truly authentic dashi, the flavorful broth essential to Japanese cuisine. There’s science to back him up: water in Japan is notably softer – which means it has fewer dissolved minerals – than in many other parts of the world. So when Americas enjoy Japanese food, they arguably aren’t getting quite the real thing.

This phenomenon isn’t limited to food. Taking something out of its geographic or cultural context often changes the thing itself.

Take the word “namaste.” In modern Hindi, it’s simply a respectful greeting, the equivalent of a formal “hello” appropriate for addressing one’s elders. But in the U.S., its associations with yoga have led many people to believe that it’s an inherently spiritual word.

Another cultural tradition that has changed across time and place is the practice of mindfulness. Mindfulness is a nonjudgmental expansive awareness of one’s experiences, often cultivated through meditation.

A range of studies have found mindfulness to be beneficial for the people who practice it in a number of ways.

However, very little research has examined its effects on societies, workplaces and communities. As a social psychologist at the University at Buffalo, I wondered if the growing enthusiasm for mindfulness might be overlooking something important: the way practicing it might affect others.

A Booming Market

In just the past few years, the mindfulness industry has exploded in the U.S. Current estimates put the U.S. meditation market – which includes meditation classes, studios, and apps – at approximately US$1.2 billion. It’s expected to grow to over $2 billion by 2022.

Hospitals, schools and even prisons are teaching and promoting mindfulness, while over 1 in 5 employers currently offer mindfulness training.

The enthusiasm for mindfulness makes sense: Research shows mindfulness can reduce stress, increase self-esteem and decrease symptoms of mental illness.

Given these findings, it’s easy to assume that mindfulness has few, if any, downsides. The employers and educators who promote it certainly seem to think so. Perhaps they hope that mindfulness won’t just make people feel better, but that it will also make them be better. That is, maybe mindfulness can make people more generous, cooperative or helpful – all traits that tend to be desirable in employees or students.

Mindfulness Migrates

But in reality, there’s good reason to doubt that mindfulness, as practiced in the U.S., would automatically lead to good outcomes.

In fact, it may do the opposite.

That’s because it’s been taken out of its context. Mindfulness developed as a part of Buddhism, where it’s intimately tied up with Buddhist spiritual teachings and morality. Mindfulness in the U.S., on the other hand, is often taught and practiced in purely secular terms. It’s frequently offered simply as a tool for focusing attention and improving well-being, a conception of mindfulness some critics have referred to as “McMindfulness.”

Not only that, mindfulness and Buddhism developed in Asian cultures in which the typical way in which people think about themselves differs from that in the U.S. Specifically, Americans tend to think of themselves most often in independent terms with “I” as their focus: “what I want,” “who I am.” By contrast, people in Asian cultures more often think of themselves in interdependent terms with “we” as their focus: “what we want,” “who we are.”

Cultural differences in how people think about themselves are subtle and easy to overlook – sort of like different kinds of water. But just as those different kinds of water can change flavors when you cook, I wondered if different ways of thinking about the self might alter the effects of mindfulness.

For interdependent-minded people, what if mindful attention to their own experiences might naturally include thinking about other people – and make them more helpful or generous? And if this were the case, would it then be true that, for independent-minded people, mindful attention would spur them to focus more on their individual goals and desires, and therefore cause them to become more selfish?

Testing the Social Effects

I floated these questions to my colleague at the University at Buffalo, Shira Gabriel, because she’s a recognized expert on independent versus interdependent ways of thinking about the self.

She agreed that this was an interesting question, so we worked with our students Lauren Ministero, Carrie Morrison and Esha Naidu to conduct a study in which we had 366 college students come into the lab – this was before the COVID-19 pandemic – and either engage in a brief mindfulness meditation or a control exercise that actually involved mind wandering. We also measured the extent to which people thought of themselves in independent or interdependent terms. (It’s important to note that, although cultural differences in thinking about the self are real, there is variability in this characteristic even within cultures.)

At the end of the study, we asked people if they could help solicit donations for a charity by stuffing envelopes to send to potential donors.

The results – which have been accepted for publication in the journal Psychological Science – detail how, among relatively interdependent-minded individuals, the brief mindfulness meditation caused them to become more generous. Specifically, briefly engaging in a mindfulness exercise – as opposed to mind wandering – appeared to increase how many envelopes interdependent-minded people stuffed by 17%. However, among relatively independent-minded individuals, mindfulness appeared to make them less generous with their time. This group of participants stuffed 15% fewer envelopes in the mindful condition than in the mind-wandering condition.

In other words, the effects of mindfulness can be different for people depending on the way they think about themselves. This figurative “water” can really change the recipe of mindfulness.

Of course, water can be filtered, and likewise, how people think about themselves is fluid: We’re all capable of thinking about ourselves in both independent and interdependent ways at different times.

In fact, there’s a relatively simple way to get people to shift their thinking about themselves. As the researchers Marilynn Brewer and Wendi Gardner discovered, all you have to do is have them read a passage that is altered to have either a lot of “I” and “me” statements or a lot of “we” and “us” statements, and ask people to identify all of the pronouns. Past research shows that this simple task reliably shifts people to think of themselves in more independent versus interdependent terms.

Our research team wanted to see if this simple effect could also shift the effects of mindfulness on social behavior.

With this in mind, we conducted one more study. This time, it was online due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but we used the same exercises.

First, however, we had people complete the pronoun task mentioned above. Afterwards, we asked people if they would volunteer to contact potential donors to a charity.

Our results were striking: Engaging in a brief mindfulness exercise made people who identified “I/me” words 33% less likely to volunteer, but it made those who identified “we/us” words 40% more likely to volunteer. In other words, just shifting how people thought of themselves in the moment – filtering the water of self-related thoughts, if you will – altered the effects of mindfulness on the behavior of many of the people who took part in this study.

Attention as a Tool

The take-home message? Mindfulness could lead to good social outcomes or bad ones, depending on context.

In fact, the Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard said as much when he wrote that even a sniper embodies a type of mindfulness. “Bare attention,” he added, “as consummate as it might be, is no more than a tool.” Yes, it can cause a great deal of good. But it can also “cause immense suffering.”

If practitioners strive to use mindfulness to reduce suffering, rather than increase it, it’s important to ensure that people are also mindful of themselves as existing in relation with others.

This “water” may be the key ingredient for bringing out the full flavor of mindfulness.

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  1. Rainlover

    “Mindfulness developed as a part of Buddhism, where it’s intimately tied up with Buddhist spiritual teachings and morality.”

    As a long term practicing Buddhist, I’m happy to see this statement included by the author. Many discussions of “McMindfulness” fail to point out this important fact. Mindfulness is but one branch of the Eightfold Path. And the most important piece of Buddhist practice is to eventually dismantle the ego that engages in mindfulness. Then there is no question of whether one speaks from an interdependent vs an independent perspective. The ego becomes merely another tool for interfacing with the world of form while being is grounded in formlessness where perspective no longer exists. Obviously, this state exists most often only after many years of Buddhist practice, although some of those practicing McMindfulness might be surprised to find that, as one of my teachers used to say, the Cosmic Buddha has reached down and grabbed them. May it be so.

    1. Krystyn Podgajski

      I agree. I was hardcore Theravada Buddhist for about 10 years and when I participated in local Buddhist and Mindfulness groups this is what I always talked about, the lack of deeper understanding of the Buddhist scripture and people using mindfulness as a way to escape the world and “feel better”.

      Mindfulness does not change you on its own, it just shows you who you really are. You are then supposed to check it against the scripture to end your Karmma making once and for all.

      Me nephew teaches some corporate mindfulness junk at Google and I chastised him like a debating Tibetian monk nonstop.

      1. DJG, Reality Czar

        Rainlover and KP: Isn’t “mindfulness” mainly learning to watch the Monkey Mind in its incessant (often pointless) activity and getting the mind to calm down? It seems to me that these programs may be trying to get people to calm their restless minds. But there are plenty of techniques for that–one might pray the rosary instead.

        And: that makes mindfulness (and yoga) preludes to meditation.

        I wonder, as several mention in comments below, if this is the usual attempt in the U S of A to apply religious ideas much too lightly to get some kind of self-improvement (usually not what was meant). I’m reminded that yoga, too, is religious practice–the idea that yoga is somehow purely secular if one wears groovy pantaloons is flawed.

        1. Krystyn Podgajski

          Calming the mind (Samantha) is just half the practice. The other is insight (vipassana).

          And you’re right, it was never about self improvement, it’s about realizing the truth of not-self.

        2. lordkoos

          I think of mindfulness as having increased awareness of self (and of others). Certainly the way many westerners haves practiced it is narcissistic.

    2. QuicksilverMessenger

      ‘Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism” should be required reading for all of our corporate meditators, but I think that even if read, they would easily think it does not apply to them. The ever regenerating tendency to this ‘materialism’ can be very subtle and very well hidden, even if you believe you are on guard for it.

      I very much agree with, as you say, ‘after many years of practice’. This kind of knowledge, or actually, understanding, is hard won, through certain kinds of sacrifice, through many hours and many years (and many lifetimes?) of practice. But it is a different kind of “doing”- not the ordinary doing of every day life, ie getting things done, making myself better, ‘succeeding’. It is a special kind of ‘not doing’; an approximation of doing nothing, while of course still manifesting in life. But exceedingly difficult. As is said in the Katha Upanisad, it’s “a razor’s edge’, or as Christ said, “because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it”.
      I think for our corporate meditators and strip mall mindfulness teachers, the gate is wide and broad.

    3. Jason

      Not a Buddhist, so forgive and correct me if I’m wrong. I’ve been told that there are at least three types of Buddhist meditation. Samatha mediation is meant to improve concentration. Once you’re good at calming your mind and directing focus, you move to Vipassana meditation, which cultivates mindfulness or insight. A third form, not practiced by everyone, is Metta meditation, which cultivates directing loving-kindness to others. I think all 3 together provide a solid spiritual and moral practice. But doing just the first (or arguably even the first two) can help you become a more focused, more effective bad guy!

  2. Geo

    Great piece. Living in Los Angeles I’ve been exposed to a lot of narcissism masquerading as mindfulness much in the way the most pious in my church days were the least trustworthy beyond those church walls.

    Fascinating to read the seemingly simple mechanics behind the methods. Thank you.

  3. Loran Davidson

    True enlightenment, beyond mindfulness, flies like a bird on two wings….First, deep insight into the nature of reality, in that all entities are dependent-arising; none of us have emerged independent of conditions….there is nothing to grasp, to hold onto, no self….this is WHY the Buddhist and Hindu concept of mindfulness is practiced, for us stand aside and simply observe our incessant flow of thoughts and feelings. It is not a goal in itself, only a tool.

    The second wing is great, loving compassion for all living beings….which arises in the heart, not the mind!

  4. Terry Flynn

    I was part of a group NHS-prescribed Mindfulness course (8-12 sessions). I had very mixed conclusions. After the first hour I predicted with pinpoint accuracy which 4 of the 12-16 participants would not benefit. (I was right – I ended up going out to know them socially so saw “real followup and not lies told to the facilitator”).

    The “recorded exercises” (ripped by me to MP3 and put on my phone) were very hit-and-miss. Longer ones did help with anxiety and depression but “making you just go to sleep” ain’t a viable solution for most people. My overall conclusion was this was yet another “one size fits all quick fix” that the NHS hoped would get loads of people off their waiting lists. I don’t think it is necessarily awful – but I think it must be pursued in a far more individual-centred way – in short, the psychiatrist-led care model I had followed in Sydney for 4ish years. It’s just this year’s CBT.

    1. Basil Pesto

      After the first hour I predicted with pinpoint accuracy which 4 of the 12-16 participants would not benefit.

      What led you to your conclusions?

      (fwiw, my psych thinks – and I agree – that I probably wouldn’t benefit from CBT. But I have problems with focus and undertakings and, with apologies to the Buddhist commenters, the idea of something to help with that is intriguing.)

  5. TBellT

    This reminds me of a scene from the end of the Sopranos. The lead character’s therapist ends up in a discussion with colleagues who point her to work by Yochelson-Samenow showing that therapy made criminals better at cons and justifying their actions. Feeling that she has enabled him all these years she then decides to drop him as a patient.

    1. Basil Pesto

      I rewatched the series last month! I actually looked up that test (it’s in the penultimate episode) to see if it was real (the names of the authors gave me pause – if you were going to invent a florid name for study authors that’d be world class) – it was, but the study was quite old and outmoded with plenty of criticism since attached to it, particularly with regards to methodology – the show made it seem like it was contemporary but it was actually from 1987. I wonder what Chase’s thinking was with that. It’s true that the study rattles Melfi at that moment, but I think that the audience understands that the charges made in the study and at the dinner party aren’t necessarily a perfect match for Patient Soprano. I wonder if the Y-S study was just a handy real-world hook for a decision Chase had taken early on that Melfi would ultimately stop treating Tony, or if there was more to his use of that study than that.

      I think the brilliant touch in their final scene is when she catches him selfishly ripping out the recipe from one of her waiting room magazines, which I think clarifies her feelings at that moment and makes her decision that much easier. I think Melfi’s escape from Tony’s spell is probably the true happy ending of the series, if one cares for happy endings (I thought the actual ending was perfect). The other brilliant, killer touch is Tony’s final line to her “I gotta tell ya, as a doctor, I think what you’re doing is highly unethical” which is right up there with Flaubert’s “il vient de recevoir la croix d’honneur’ for deathless literary punchlines.

      1. Michael Fiorillo

        Yes, Melfi cutting Tony loose also feeds into the reality that, whacked in the restaurant or not, Tony is doomed.

  6. ambrit

    I see one’s relationship with oneself as the most ‘vital’ and ‘defining’ of them all. To be able to “get out of” a bad relationship with one’s self is truly sublime. (If I ever manage that trick, I’ll drop you a line.)
    As a quite serious Zen Buddhist I once knew put it; “Pass me the salt, please, I am feeling quite sluggish.”

  7. David

    To be fair, mindfulness meditation in its modern guise developed out of work by psychologists like Charles Tartt and Jon Kabat-Zinn in the 1970s and 80s, as a pragmatic method of treating stress and stress-related complaints. In this it has been very successful, but by the same token it was never originally seen as a tool for personal transformation.

    From that, it’s a very long step to imagining that in “a brief mindfulness meditation” you can somehow fight against, or even much influence, the ravening individualism which is so much part of western culture. Given the nature and size of the study I’d honestly doubt whether you can draw any conclusions at all from it. I doubt, too, whether a willingness to contact donors to a charity is a proxy for anything very much, and certainly would puzzle the average Buddhist experienced in loving kindness meditations. I wonder whether the experimenters actually had any better grasp of these issues than those they (correctly) criticise for debasing Buddhist practices.

    1. ambrit

      Considering that the original followers of the Buddah fulfilled their daily needs by begging, the modern analogue of “contacting donors” does sound appropriate.
      The Buddah himself came from an upper class family of his time. Escaping the traps of wealth looks to have been his first task.

        1. David

          I have many books on Buddhism, but very few by westerners, almost none by Americans, and none at all by people who live in California.

        2. Michael C.

          It wasn’t like he left his family in poverty, and they became practitioners too. Rahula, for example, as is his wife, is mentioned many times in the canon.

  8. Mayacreed

    It is amazing that the majority of Buddhists, at least in Marin County, come from Reform Judaism. Richard Alpert, Rahm Dass, etc.

    Lots of BMWs, Mercedes and other 70K cars in the parking lots of the spiritual retreats and schools. Massive concerns for civil rights, equity and other social issues here, but certainly not in Palestine.

  9. Jason

    Notice the esotericism most meditation practitioners indulge in:

    “You have to practice for years and then you may experience what I’ve experienced and finally understand life.”

    Don’t be put off by them.

    1. QuicksilverMessenger

      Yes, there is both a ‘sudden’ aspect, as well as the ‘gradual’ practice. But what I see most is that people think they can get something for nothing; that nothing needs paying for- not one’s very life, not what has been arranged for and given to us, not for the teaching, not to make right the past. This is the more insidious attitude- entitlement.

  10. Dr. John Carpenter

    From the country that brought you Prosperity Jesus…introducing McMindfulness!

  11. Chris Smith

    I’ll echo what the others have said: doing Buddhist meditation without the Buddhism is like eating wine and crackers you bought at Wegmans and calling it ‘mass’. I’ve been practicing Buddhism for about 15 years now. The various forms of Buddhism are entire spiritual systems, of which mindfulness meditation is a small part.

    Mindfulness meditation is also supposed to be the first part of meditative training in many traditions; it’s the spiritual calisthenics if you will. It conditions you for various forms of insight meditation. So yes, it will not make you a better person, but gives you a good foundation for making yourself a better person as part of a whole package.

  12. Arizona Slim

    Meditation dropout here.

    And, believe me, I really tried. But I just couldn’t just sit there for 20 minutes and think about nothing while concentrating on my breathing. It didn’t calm me down AT ALL. If anything, I felt more agitated.

    1. Krystyn Podgajski

      Ha! You thought it was supposed to make you feel calm! This is the great lie told by McMindfulnrss!

      If you had a teacher they would have told you it was not making you affiliated, it was only uncovering the agitation that was already there. Insight comes from watching the agitation.

    2. CanCyn

      AZ – if you were taught to think about nothing then I would suggest that you had a poor teacher. mindfulness meditation is not about thinking about nothing, it is about learning not to be hi-jacked by your thoughts and worries.
      To be fair, I think the current McMindfulness phenomenon may have started out innocently enough – being able to focus on the here and now and be present is indeed helpful when trying to complete a task or stem worries and regrets. But Vipassana is far more than that and being a mere beginner, I can’t even begin to try to explain it here. Kudos to others in the thread who have made helpful attempts.
      As for mindfulness making folks more selfish, I can see how it would happen if you misconstrue the idea of focus to be inward and only on your self. Good meditation teachers I have had helped the class focus on our connectedness with each other and the world. Pretty hard to be a selfish sh*t when you feel that you are connected to everyone and everything.

      1. ambrit

        I surmise that the main reason that psychedelic substances are banned is because they facilitate one’s disassociation from the material world, and the materialist ethos.
        One of the major “events” of my “trips” was the ineffable experience of being “one with all.” A person can find it difficult to promote and practice bigotry in all it’s guises when there is that dim memory of “Onefullness” rattling around the back of one’s skull.

        1. Cancyn

          Right Ambrit! The inimitable Bill Hicks had a great bit about why coffee and cigarettes and alcohol are legal but pot and psychedelics are not … stimulants vs calming. TPTB want us hyped up and working hard to stay afloat and fighting each other for scraps, not calm and loving everyone. Who would go to war for the MIC if all us mopes loved each other and refused to fight?

  13. Rainlover

    Arizona — Like all spiritual practices, meditation is only one path and is definitely not for everyone. If I were to give advice on this, I would recommend walking meditation. More to do in a way. Check out Thich Nhat Hahn.

    Great comments, all. And I would say to Jason, there are hypocrites and holier-than-thous in every tradition. And, if you are fortunate, perhaps enlightenment comes suddenly and without much effort. Most of us have to slog it out. Too much accumulated grime on the windshield.

    1. Oh

      I find that not expecting any benefits from meditation helped me. After several months I feel that it has calmed me quite a bit and at least little bit to empathize. While meditating, many many thoughts go by and I just watch them pass by without judgment, like they say.

  14. Mikel

    My job has mindfulness/meditation seminars. No requirement to attend.
    I have no problem meditating, but I don’t want any workplace mediation of my perasonal mind space.

  15. jr

    Just like to point out there are more ways to meditate than emptying one’s mind. You can also fill your mind with exultant imagery and elevate, not immerse, your consciousness. It’s esotericism, the Yoga of the West.

  16. nothing but the truth

    namaste means “(i) bow to (the Self) in you”.

    mindfulness is translation from “samma sati”, which means right remembrance. (remembrance of the truths of impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and non-self ie impersonal nature of life).

    the foundation of mindfulness in traditional practice is morality (sila), the basis of morality is respect for one’s parents (the first teachers of any person).

    Most western yoga folk don’t know this, and i suspect they don’t want to know this. In the post modern relativistic mind, the idea of morality is almost an insult.

    (i’ve been practising this for a long time).

    anyone practicing meditation for benefits is wasting time. buddhist meditation is to rid of the fundamental problem of man, his self. but it is good for business.

  17. Michael C.

    If mindfulness meditation makes one more shellfish, then the person is not practicing Buddhist meditation, if of course that is what they think they are doing. As “nothing but the truth” says above, if you are not practicing “sila” then you are skipping the basis for what Buddhist meditation is built upon.

    I submit Western mindfulness meditation , whatever its benefits, is too often taught by skipping over the fundamental insights identified by the buddha in the Pali Canon, and to skip over the moral basis upon which in Vipassana meditation is foundational is a bowdlerized form of “self-help” poppycock if it pretends to be otherwise.

  18. Larry Y

    In the meditation and Buddhist communities I travel in, this has been a topic of discussion for years. In particular, a larger discussion was kicked off by David Loy – who pointed out that our governing systems have institutionalized greed, ill will, and delusion – when he wrote about this in 2013.

    But, people got to eat and keep a roof over their head. How I’ve come to understand it, as people get accreditation and create programs such as Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), whatever helps people suffer less is beneficial, but even more beneficial is to help them understand. So the teachers try to take pages from psychology, and also teach metta/loving-kindness (I dislike this translation…) meditation practices .

  19. Peter L.

    I quibble with “By contrast, people in Asian cultures more often think of themselves in interdependent terms with “we” as their focus: “what we want,” “who we are.””

    The terms by which we could judge this statement as accurate or insightful in some meaningful way are not all that well defined. Thus to be fair, it might not make sense to argue too much about it. However, I think we should be wary of characterizations like this: “more often people in X culture think/feel this or that.” And when it comes to Asia specifically, I’m afraid that whenever I hear about Asian culture having a different view of self/society than Western culture, I think of the Americans claiming that the Vietnamese didn’t value human life in the same way, and that they were forcing the US military to kill more of them than necessary because of their different conceptions of an individual’s worth versus that of the “horde.” I’m tempted to quote from Noam Chomsky’s discussion of Townsend Hoopes who wrote of the “Oriental indifference to death,” but it’s too depressing. I just flinch a little whenever I find people talking about the vast differences between Western and Asian conceptions of individuality.

    In any case, given the abstract of the linked paper, I’m not sure if it directly supports a claim about what happens “more often” in Asian culture. The paper seems to be discussing how powerful a “construal of the self” is, and contrasts some cultures found in Asia with American culture: “People in different cultures have strikingly different construals of the self […] As proposed herein, these construals are even more powerful than previously imagined.”

    I would guess that what is being noticed might simply be a difference between pre-capitalist and capitalist culture, anyway. The harsh, crushing feudalism of Tibet before the 1950’s might generate different conceptions of the self and an individual’s place in such a formally hierarchical society, but I wonder if this has much to do with Buddhism, as a opposed to the system of social control necessary to keep people subjugated.

    (By the way, according to Ha-Joon Chang, “a century ago, Beatrice Webb remarked that the Japanese have a ‘quite intolerable personal independence’.” That’s from his chapter “Lazy Japanese and Theiving Germans,” in his book Bad Samaritans.)

    1. Basil Pesto

      the other thing that struck me about that bit you quoted is that it apparently doesn’t take the nature of the languages themselves into account. If, in English, your conception of yourself takes the form of the first person plural, you tend to sound a bit like Gollum, at which point good meditation praxis is probably the least of your problems.

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