Wellness technique actually makes us selfish, say researchers

Mindfulness has been the new black for much of the past decade. It’s a buzzword bandied about to promote self-awareness, self-healing and positive mental health habits.

It’s also big business. An obsession with wellness and self-care has led to a booming business in meditation and mindfulness apps. As of February 2020, there were more than 2500 mindfulness apps available for download. The top 10 of those pulled in $252 million in 2019 alone.

The whole point of mindfulness and meditation is to help you tune into yourself, to help you become aware of your body and mind and reduce stress, anxiety, increase emotional wellbeing and sometimes to promote clear thinking.

There’s much research that supports the benefits of mindfulness. But new research shows that it may only be you who benefits.

Read more: Using apps to practice mindfulness

A study conducted at University of Buffalo investigated the social effects of mindfulness and the effects on prosocial behaviours – or how it may help or benefit people other than the practitioner.

The researchers found surprising downsides of mindfulness.

“Mindfulness can make you selfish,” says lead author and associate professor Michael Poulin. “It’s a qualified fact, but it’s also accurate.

“Mindfulness increased prosocial actions for people who tend to view themselves as more interdependent. However, for people who tend to view themselves as more independent, mindfulness actually decreased prosocial behaviour.”

The results paint a picture of mindfulness that opposes the common pop culture perception of mindfulness as an unequivocal positive mental state.

And while the scientists poke a big hole in the mindfulness mantra, they also identified ways to make mindfulness practice more beneficial for everyone.

Assoc. Prof. Poulin says: “Research suggests that mindfulness works, but this study shows that it’s a tool, not a prescription, which requires more than a plug-and-play approach if practitioners are to avoid its potential pitfalls.”

He says a practitioner’s mindset makes all the difference, as some people think of themselves in singular or independent terms or “I do this”, while others think of themselves in plural or interdependent terms, or “we do this”.

Read more: What anxiety can do to the body and how to handle it

It seems mindfulness works better in East Asian countries than in the West, as people in East Asian countries think of others – or consider themselves interdependent – while Western citizens tend to think of themselves as ‘independent’.

Assoc. Prof. Poulin speculates that mindfulness may be more clearly prosocial in the countries where mindfulness originated, whereas mindfulness practice in Western countries removes that context.

“Despite these individual and cultural differences, there is also variability within each person, and any individual at different points in time can think of themselves either way, in singular or plural terms,” he says.

To learn how this works, researchers first measured 366 participants’ characteristic levels of independence versus interdependence, then gave them mindfulness instruction or a mind wandering exercise to the control group.

Read more: What are meditation walks and why should we be doing them?

Then, prior to leaving, they were all asked if they would help out stuffing envelopes for a charitable organisation.

Those who tended to think of themselves as independent shirked the opportunity to help.

In the second experiment, 325 participants were encouraged to ‘choose a side’ in a simple but effective exercise that reveals whether people think of themselves in independent or interdependent terms.

Participants were then asked if they would sign up to chat online with potential donors to help raise money for a charitable organisation.

Those primed for independence were 33 per cent less likely to volunteer, while those primed for interdependence were 40 more likely to volunteer to the same cause.

The results suggest mindfulness training that encourages people think of themselves in terms of their relationships and communities may allow them to see both positive personal and social outcomes.

“We have to think about how to get the most out of mindfulness,” says Assoc. Prof. Poulin. “We have to know how to use the tool.”

Are you surprised by these findings? Do you practise mindfulness? Will this change the way you do it from now on?

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Written by Leon Della Bosca

Leon Della Bosca has worked in publishing and media in one form or another for around 25 years. He's a voracious reader, word spinner and art, writing, design, painting, drawing, travel and photography enthusiast. You'll often find him roaming through galleries or exploring the streets of his beloved Melbourne and surrounding suburbs, sketchpad or notebook in hand, smiling.
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