More Benefits from Mindfulness

Meditation not only helps employees focus, it makes them more generous and compassionate.
More Benefits from Mindfulness

MORE BUSINESSES ARE offering mindfulness programs designed to help employees alleviate anxiety, reduce stress, regulate their emotions, and improve their focus. But a new study suggests that mindfulness also helps make people more generous, helpful, and compassionate.

Those are some of the findings in a new paper by Andrew Hafenbrack of the University of Washington Foster School of Business in Seattle; Lindsey D. Cameron of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia; Gretchen M. Spreitzer of the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor; Chen Zhang of the School of Economics and Management at Tsinghua University in Beijing; Laura J. Noval of the Imperial College Business School in London; and Samah Shaffakat of the Liverpool Business School at Liverpool John Moores University in the United Kingdom.

A large body of research already suggests that meditation improves a person’s psychological state in ways that could enhance productivity. But the new study indicates that even a single, brief session of mindfulness meditation— which people usually embark upon for their own welfare—enhances prosocial behaviors, which can improve the lives of their co-workers and customers.

The researchers conducted experiments across a variety of workplaces and laboratories in North America, Europe, and Asia. In each case, some participants were randomly selected to participate in an eight- or 15-minute directed meditation session. Others were placed in a control group that either did no meditation, listened to the news, or engaged in a directed mind-wandering technique of the same duration. These experiments all confirmed that those participating in even a single brief session of focused-breathing meditation, a common mindfulness exercise, were more likely than non-meditators to provide help to others or share a financial windfall with others in need.

Another study compared the effects of the focused-breathing exercise with an activity called the loving-kindness meditation. This meditation directs participants to visualize sending positive energy to themselves, then those close to them, then to enemies, then to the world. After both forms of meditation, participants were asked to imagine they were managers who had to give a negative performance critique to an employee who was going through a tough time. The responses were coded for compassion. Those in the focused-breathing group and the loving-kindness group exhibited equal amounts of compassion— and considerably more than those who had not meditated at all.

The authors found that the boost in compassion comes from how focused- breathing meditation inspires people to see the world through others’ eyes, and how loving-kindness meditation inspires empathy. “There’s a cognitive pathway for focused-breathing and an emotional pathway for lovingkindness,” says Hafenbrack. “They had the same effect on prosocial behavior.”

Hafenbrack cautions that mindfulness is not a panacea for all the ills of an organization—and its benefits are likely to dissipate if employees feel obligated to participate. Companies that offer mindfulness programs should make participation optional, he suggests.

“Helping People by Being in the Present: Mindfulness Increases Prosocial Behavior” is forthcoming in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.