The problem is a rather inconvenient one: mindfulness could make you a selfish prick. That’s the finding of research out of the University of Buffalo, delivering the first blow to the practice’s hitherto saintly reputation and one that may have far-reaching consequences for the multibillion-dollar global wellness industry of which it is a core pillar.
"Mindfulness can make you selfish," confirms Dr Michael Poulin, an associate professor of psychology in the UB College of Arts and Sciences and the study’s lead author. "It's a qualified fact, but it's also accurate.”
Before you dump your Headspace app or cancel that wellness retreat in the Byron Bay hinterland, some context.
No one is disputing mindfulness and meditation’s proven ability to help reduce stress and anxiety. Instead, this research focused on the practice’s impact on prosocial behaviours, like giving and volunteering. The key factor, the researchers found, is whether you, as an individual, are independent – you think of yourself as singular, “I do this” - or interdependent “we do this”. Most people in Western society identify as the former and Poulin speculates that mindfulness may be more clearly prosocial in an East Asian context. Practising mindfulness in Western countries, he says, removes that context.
"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,” Poulin says.
In the study, mindfulness made participants primed for independence 33 per cent less likely to volunteer to a charitable organisation. But among those primed for interdependence it led to a 40 per cent increase in the likelihood of volunteering.
The findings perhaps confirm the stereotype of the Silicon Valley, live-to-180, optimised-life types who use mindfulness purely as a tool for self-improvement. For the rest of us, the researchers suggest pairing mindfulness with instructions explaining how to make you think of yourself in terms of your relationships and your community. That way, you may see both positive personal and broader social outcomes. Amen, sorry Om, to that.