Mindfulness can make you a nicer person

Mindfulness can lead people to display more prosocial behaviour towards others, and that these effects were mediated by increased perspective taking and empathy, according to new research. Laura Noval reports

Over the past decade, we have witnessed an explosion in the popularity of corporate mindfulness training programmes. All over the world, organisations are offering these courses, and encouraging their employees to use mindfulness techniques.

A UK survey in 2019, undertaken by Fidelity Investments and the National Business Group on Health, found that around 60% of organisations in the United States offer yoga and meditation courses to their colleagues. At Google alone, thousands of employees sign up every year to take part in one of a dozen mindfulness programmes offered by the organisation, with the most popular course – the ‘Search Inside Yourself’ programme – having an average waiting list of around six months.

Rooted in Buddhism, mindfulness is defined in Western psychology as a non-judgmental awareness of the present moment. While it can arise organically, many work to cultivate mindfulness through engaging in meditation. The use of mindfulness practises in Western culture is far removed from its traditional Buddhist origins, emphasising stress reduction and emotional regulation.

Mindfulness fosters positive interpersonal behaviour

Many of those who advocate its use suggest that mindfulness fosters positive interpersonal behaviour. Similarly, there is a growing belief that the long-term use of mindfulness practices can increase an individual’s empathy and compassion. Corporate executives often view mindfulness practices as interventions for improving employees’ own mood, focus or performance rather than a means to improve employees’ interpersonal relationships.

It’s crucial that we understand if and how mindfulness can affect workplace behaviour, and if it can foster more positive interpersonal interactions. Today’s workplace requires continual interaction with colleagues, customers, employers and other stakeholders. Prosocial behaviour – behaviour that is positive, helpful, and intended to promote mutual trust – is a fundamental component in effective interpersonal relationships in the workplace. With most research into the effects of mindfulness being focussed on intrapersonal relationships, we’re only beginning to understand the impact of mindfulness practises on interpersonal relations. It’s because of this that I, along with a number of other academics, undertook research into whether mindfulness increased prosocial behaviour in the workplace, or work-related contexts.

Increasing prosocial behaviour

In undertaking this research, we hypothesised that mindfulness does in fact increase prosocial behaviour. Alongside this, we also suggested that positive emotions, as well as empathy, mediate the encouraging effect of mindfulness on prosocial behaviour. In other words – mindfulness increases our positive emotions and empathy, which subsequently shapes our prosocial behaviour. Pre-existing literature suggests that mindfulness influences people’s natural connection with others by moving them away from their innate, or default, bias towards self-interest. This is because, when taking part in mindfulness exercises, people becomes focused on the present, which can increase their mental awareness, rendering them less concerned about past or future worries, and making them in turn more attuned to the immediate needs or feelings of others.  

Our research was broken down into five studies, which took place across different sectors, and across differing geographical regions. Within each study, the agreeing participants were split into two groups, with one group taking part in mindfulness exercises while listening to an accompanying eight-minute recording, while the other group did not take part in mindfulness exercises, and instead listened to alternative recording.

Within the first study, we asked 62 colleagues from a US insurance company call centre to undertake mindfulness breathing exercises for a few minutes every day for a five-day period. They were then asked to take part in a survey at the end of each day to assess their prosocial behaviour. We found that the colleagues who took part in the mindfulness exercises recorded themselves as being more helpful to others, and were also more likely to describe their helpful behaviour as a workday event that stood out to them. Consequently, we found support for our hypothesis on this first study.

We followed this up with a second study on the impact of mindfulness on prosocial behaviour, using employees from an IT consultancy in India. This time, however, the test was a one-day field experiment, and instead of asking the participants to assess their own prosocial behaviour, their colleagues were asked to rate their performance. This was done by asking each colleague to list the names of up to four other members of their team, and then rate each of those co-workers on how helpful they were to others throughout the day. Once again, we found support for our hypothesis, with the behaviour of the colleagues who had taken part in the mindfulness test being acknowledged as more helpful than those who hadn’t taken part in mindfulness exercises. Using the results we gathered from both studies, we found substantial evidence to support the view that mindfulness does increase prosocial behaviour, making colleagues more helpful than those who hadn’t taken part in mindfulness exercises earlier that day.

Within the third study, we were keen to understand the impacts of mindfulness on people’s prosocial tendencies involving financial resources. This study was conducted with participants who were full time employees recruited through the alumni mailing list of a South Asian business school. Participants were asked to imagine that they had been given a $1,000 bonus, and were told that they could allocate the bonus between two accounts – their own personal account, or that of a colleague in financial distress. We found that those who had taken part in mindfulness meditation before this task were more prepared to donate to a colleague in need than those who hadn’t done the mindfulness exercise.  

As a follow-up to this study, we conducted a laboratory experiment in Austria, in which participants were asked the same question, only this time applying real stakes– the ‘hypothetical’ bonus was now a genuine bonus of $120. This time, we did not mention the other participant having any financial distress. Yet, we still found that those who had taken part in mindfulness exercises donated more than those who hadn’t taken part in such practices.

Finally, a fifth study compared the effect of a general mindfulness intervention with one specifically dedicated to raise empathy and compassion (loving kindness meditation), finding they both lead people to display more prosocial behaviour towards others, and that these effects were mediated by increased perspective taking and empathy.

Regulating and improving relationships

Through our research, we found that mindfulness increases different types of prosocial behaviour, which supports our view that mindfulness not only serves to regulate one’s internal moods but can also have a positive effect in regulating and improving one’s relationships. This research adds to pre-existing literature on mindfulness, and provides much-needed insights into the value of its use in the workplace, and similar contexts.

The working environment doesn’t naturally encourage prosocial behaviour, but rather it provides many hindrances to it: from time-constraints, which place employees under greater pressure to focus on themselves, to workplace competition between colleagues – these factors all present barriers to effective interpersonal relationships, and have often been found to promote selfish as opposed to prosocial acts. I hope that this research can provide insights into how mindfulness can be used to counteract the barriers that naturally occur, leading to better interpersonal relationships and much needed prosocial acts within the workplace.

Laura J Noval is an Assistant Professor of Organisational Behaviour at Imperial College Business School.

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