Increase Altruism with Mindfulness
By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.
“mindfulness can boost the intention to help others, even at a cost to oneself.” – Hooria Jazaieri
Homo Sapiens is a very successful species. In part its success has been due to it being a very social species. Members of the species form groups beyond the family unit and work together for the common good. Members also take care of one another. Individuals will sometimes sacrifice their own well-being and safety to help another. This is termed altruistic behavior. The fact that it sometimes actually reduces the likelihood of the individual’s survival appears to be a contradiction to the ideas of evolution that emphasize individual survival.
Altruistic behavior, however, is not rare. It is, in fact, often the rule and not the exception. Doctors and nurses risking infection, rush into Covid-19 riddled ICUs. This is an extreme example but altruistic behavior occurs in many simple ways on a daily basis. We routinely give to charities which benefit people on the other side of the world. We donate our time as volunteers to build houses for the disadvantaged. We roll down our car windows and hand money to a homeless person on a street corner. Mindfulness has been shown to increase altruistic behavior. But it is unclear how much practice is sufficient to activate altruism.
In today’s Research News article “Mindfulness Meditation Activates Altruism.” (See summary below or view the full text of the study at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7162971/), Iwamoto and colleagues recruited adults online and had them watch a 10 minute video either on breathing meditation or on drawing. After answering questions to verify that they actually watched the video they were told that their compensation was either $1, $2, or $3, They were then asked if they wanted to make a charitable contribution to the United Way.
They found that the participants who watched the breathing meditation video contributed 11% of their compensation while those that watched the drawing video contributed 6%. They also found that the mindfulness meditation video produced greater charitable contributions from younger participants (under 25 years of age), those with lower levels of education (Never attended College), from Hispanic participants, and from participants from India..
This study is fairly artificial and the ability to generalize the results are limited. In addition, they did not determine if watching the breathing meditation video actually increased mindfulness. So, it cannot be determined if increased mindfulness increased giving. It is also possible that watching a drawing video actually suppresses giving. Nevertheless, the results are interesting and corroborate previous findings that mindfulness can increase altruistic behavior.
So, increase altruism with mindfulness.
“In my experience, the calmer you are, the more you think about and practice altruism and other good things, the more you benefit. . . . A compassionate attitude and a sense of caring are good not only for your peace of mind but also very good for your health… It is very important to utilize our existence for constructive purposes.” – Dalai Lama
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies
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Iwamoto, S. K., Alexander, M., Torres, M., Irwin, M. R., Christakis, N. A., & Nishi, A. (2020). Mindfulness Meditation Activates Altruism. Scientific reports, 10(1), 6511. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-62652-1
Clinical evidence suggests that mindfulness meditation reduces anxiety, depression, and stress, and improves emotion regulation due to modulation of activity in neural substrates linked to the regulation of emotions and social preferences. However, less was known about whether mindfulness meditation might alter pro-social behavior. Here we examined whether mindfulness meditation activates human altruism, a component of social cooperation. Using a simple donation game, which is a real-world version of the Dictator’s Game, we randomly assigned 326 subjects to a mindfulness meditation online session or control and measured their willingness to donate a portion of their payment for participation as a charitable donation. Subjects who underwent the meditation treatment donated at a 2.61 times higher rate than the control (p = 0.005), after controlling for socio-demographics. We also found a larger treatment effect of meditation among those who did not go to college (p < 0.001) and those who were under 25 years of age (p < 0.001), with both subject groups contributing virtually nothing in the control condition. Our results imply high context modularity of human altruism and the development of intervention approaches including mindfulness meditation to increase social cooperation, especially among subjects with low baseline willingness to contribute.