Mindfulness and Prosocial Behavior

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Photo by Victoria Kubiaki

Depending upon how it’s defined, research indicates mindfulness practice can increase prosocial behavior, or actions intended to benefit others. Prosocial behavior includes sharing and cooperating with, helping and comforting others and involves empathy and concern for others’ rights, feelings, and welfare. Engaging in this type of behavior elicits pleasant feelings and contributes to the overall wellbeing of society.

Scientists speculate that prosocial behavior is hardwired in humans and many other kinds of animals because it increases chances for survival of a species. It’s also socialized through the rewarding of actions that are in alignment with social values and norms and the punishment of behavior that goes against societal expectations. It’s important to note that non-conformity can be prosocial when it’s in service of the greater good.

Disobedience becomes prosocial when it is enacted for the sake of the whole society, including all its different levels and groups. In contrast, anti-social disobedience is enacted mainly in favour of one’s own group, in order to attain individual rights. – Stefano Passini & Davide Morselli

Research indicates prosocial behavior and positive mood are correlated. We have also discovered a positive correlation with motivation and productivity in classrooms and organizations. There’s even some research indicating that people who engage in more prosocial behavior enjoy better employment opportunities and higher wages.

So how might mindfulness be related to prosocial behavior? In their studies of the Bystander Effect, researchers Latane and Darley postulated that in order for a person to take helping action they must:

  • Notice what is happening
  • Interpret the event as an emergency
  • Experience feelings of responsibility
  • Believe they have the skills to help
  • Make a conscious choice to offer assistance

All of the factors on this list require 1) awareness and directed attention, and 2) space for consideration and decision making. Mindfulness practice improves our ability to sustain and direct our attention and creates a space between stimulus and response in order to examine the data and make a choice.

In addition, research is documenting a correlation between mindfulness and compassion. People who practice mindfulness tend to be less stressed, which creates space to expand our focus beyond ourselves, soften our defenses, and connect with our deeper values. Mindfulness practitioners tend to be more empathetic and compassionate toward ourselves and others. It’s speculated that consistently investigating experience with genuine curiosity and openness helps us gain understanding of ourselves and others and insight into our interconnectedness. All of these factors increase our opportunities and likelihood for engaging in prosocial behavior, contributing to a better world.

Understanding selflessness, we learn not to take things personally. This not a pathologically detached state, disconnected from the world. Nor is it a state where we are caught in a new spiritual identity… Selflessness is always here. In any moment we can let go and experience life without calling it me or mine. This is the realization of selflessness… We have all had the experience of being with people who are selfless, who belong to life in an easy and flexible way. They don’t take things personally. They are gracious, receptive, present, yet not rigid. There is not a lot of clinging to their point of view, not a strong attachment to the way things should be, not a rigid grasping of me or mine… With selflessness there is less of us and yet presence, connectedness, and freedom all come alive. – Jack Kornfield

Resources

Donald, J. et.al (2018). Does your mindfulness benefit others? A systematic review and meta‐analysis of the link between mindfulness and prosocial behaviour. British Journal of Psychology; Volume110, Issue1, Pages 101-125.

Hafenbrack, A. et. al. (2018). Helping People by Being in the Present: Mindfulness Increases Prosocial Behavior. Academy of Management Proceedings. 2018. 12684.

Hofmann, S.G., Grossman, P., & Hinton, D.E. (2011). Loving-kindness and compassion meditation: Potential for psychological interventions. Clinical Psychology Review 31(7): 1126-1132.

Kirby, J.N., Tellegen, C.L.,& Steindl, S.R. (2017). A Meta-Analysis of Compassion-Based Interventions: Current State of Knowledge and Future Directions. Behavior Therapy 48(6): 778-792.

Kreplin, U., Farias, M., & Brazil, I.A. (2018). The limited prosocial effects of meditation: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Scientific Reports 8:2403.

Luberto, C.M., Shinday, N., Song, R. et al. (2018). A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis of the Effects of Meditation on Empathy, Compassion, and Prosocial Behaviors. Mindfulness 9: 708.

Matos, M., Duarte, C., Duarte, J. et al. (2017). Psychological and Physiological Effects of Compassionate Mind Training: a Pilot Randomised Controlled Study. Mindfulness 8: 1699.

Reddy, J. & Sisir R. (2018). The Role of One’s Motive in Meditation Practices and Prosociality. MindRxiv

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