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Meditation Doesn't Make You a Better Person

A new review finds meditation does not improve empathy or decrease aggression.

WAYHOME studio/Shutterstock
Source: WAYHOME studio/Shutterstock

Many people think of meditation as a magic bullet that can improve our health, sharpen our focus, and make us better people overall.

In reality, the evidence on meditation is mixed. According to reviews by the Cochrane Collaboration, there is little evidence that mindfulness can help improve health problems such as fibromyalgia, anxiety, depression, and neck pain. There are some credible data demonstrating that meditation can improve risk factors for cardiovascular disease. And research on brain function shows that meditation can reduce feelings of pain.

A new review published this month in Scientific Reports looks at whether mindfulness affects how we treat other people. Scientists from England, New Zealand, and the Netherlands reviewed 22 studies that examined how meditation affected behaviors including compassion, empathy, aggression, prejudice, and social connectedness.

The studies in the review used secular meditation techniques, such as mindfulness and loving-kindness meditation, but did not include more active practices like Tai-Chi or yoga. In addition, the analysis only included randomized controlled studies that compared people who meditated to people performing other activities.

Researchers found that people who meditated felt moderately more compassionate or empathic, compared to those who had not done a new, emotionally engaging activity. However, the studies available had methodological weaknesses and biases that may skew the results.

They found that meditation did not reduce aggression or prejudice or improve a person’s social connectedness.

“The popularization of meditation techniques, like mindfulness, despite being taught without religious beliefs, still seem to offer the hope of a better self and a better world to many,” said Miguel Farias, the study’s lead author and a professor at Coventry University’s Center for Advances in Behavioral Science.

“Despite the high hopes of practitioners and past studies, our research found that methodological shortcomings greatly influenced the results we found,” he said. “Most of the initial positive results disappeared when the meditation groups were compared to other groups that engaged in tasks unrelated to meditation.

“None of this, of course, invalidates Buddhism or other religions’ claims about the moral value and eventually life-changing potential of its beliefs and practices,” he said. “But our research findings are a far cry from many popular claims made by meditators and some psychologists.”

The take-home message

While meditation can yield some positive effects, there is no credible evidence that it improves the way that people treat others.

To understand the true impact of meditation on people’s feelings and behavior, we first need to address the methodological weaknesses we uncovered — starting with the high expectations that researchers might have about the power of meditation.

The Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research expands, strengthens, and speeds the connections between research, policy, and practice to enhance human development and well-being.