Meditation Is About More Than Inner Peace, Study Says

A study from Northeastern says it also makes us more compassionate toward others.


Meditation photo via Shutterstock

People who practice meditation often do so for individual health benefits like reduced stress and improved mental health. But new research from Northeastern University’s Social Emotions Group says meditation also has an effect on the way we treat the people around us.

David DeSteno, a psychology professor at Northeastern, set out to study the social and interpersonal benefits of meditation, specifically its impact on compassion toward others. DeSteno and his team, whose research is set to be published in the journal Psychological Science, split three dozen people into two groups: one that completed an eight-week meditation training program, and one that did not. From there, the meditation group was again divided, this time into a group that discussed and reflected on topics like compassion and one that did not.

From there, DeSteno and his team embarked on the telling part of the study: determining whether the individuals who had gone through meditation training and discussion were actually more compassionate than the other participants. The researchers placed the study subjects in a full waiting room and staged a situation in which a hired actor came into the room with crutches and a cast, acting in pain. More hired actors were told to act disinterested and unsympathetic toward the man, the goal being to see if the study participants would follow their cues or exhibit compassion toward the injured man and give up their seats for him.

A mere 15 percent of those who did not go through meditation training offered the man their seats, while 50 percent of those who did complete the training got up for him. Notably, this statistic held true for both the discussion group and the non-discussion group, suggesting that the meditation itself was the reason for the uptick, not compassion training.

A report from Northeastern outlines the team’s next steps and quotes DeSteno:

Now DeSteno’s team is pursuing research on the mechanisms behind the observed phenomenon. For instance, it could be related to a heightened awareness of one’s surroundings or an increased sense of empathy. “This is the first evidence that the practice of meditation—even for brief periods of time—increases peoples’ responsiveness and motivation to relieve the suffering of others,” DeSteno said.

While we’d be interested to see more concrete research that explains why this happened as opposed to anecdotal evidence, it’s interesting to think that meditation could make such a difference in an individual’s behavior. Combine that with the anxiety-busting effect it has on the practitioner and it may be a good idea to dust off your yoga mat and give it a try.