Willpower doesn’t grow on trees.
How many times have you stepped onto a crowded train, tired after a long day of work, only to find there are no seats? How grateful would you be if, at that moment, someone offered you their seat? What if you saw someone on crutches walk into a waiting room and you had taken the last remaining seat, would you give it up for them?
It turns out, mindfulness meditation might make you more prone to performing such a kind act.
The effects of mindfulness meditation on cognitive performance, stress, anxiety, and depression have long been established. It is only in recent years, though, that the effects of meditation on compassion and prosocial behaviors have become a scientific interest.
The science behind giving up your seat for a stranger was untangled in a fairly simple study. To understand whether mindfulness meditation enhances compassion, individuals were assigned to either three weeks of mindfulness meditation or to a control group completing a web-based cognitive skills training program. (Those cognitive sessions focused on memory, attention, speed, flexibility and problem-solving.) After the training was completed, participants were invited to a lab for “post-training session” and were told their cognitive abilities would be measured. What they didn’t know was that their compassion was, in fact, the thing being examined.
At the lab, participants were faced with a very familiar everyday situation. They entered a waiting area, one by one, with just one unoccupied seat remaining and sat down comfortably waiting for their turn. A few moments later, a woman on crutches, in apparent discomfort, entered the room. Since there were no more seats, it was up to the participants to decide if they would give up their seat for the stranger.
As expected, those who practiced mindfulness meditation for the three weeks prior were more likely to give their seat up for a stranger in pain, compared to the control group. These findings suggest that mindfulness meditation enhances compassionate behavior. It was also found that this increase in compassionate behavior was not the result of improved empathic accuracy—the ability to recognize when someone is in pain—which is what had been previously argued. These findings further add to the field of mindfulness and help us understand its far-reaching benefits.
The notion that just 10 minutes of mindfulness meditation a day for three weeks can make you more compassionate is quite comforting as studies have found that people help others more often if they have been helped before. This means that mindfulness meditation is a step toward building a more compassionate world for everyone.
Some, however, may wonder, what’s in it for me? Why should I be compassionate and give up my seat? Well, there is actually a lot to be gained from being compassionate.
For starters, compassionate behaviors have been found to result in higher levels of happiness with oneself, while prosocial behaviors have been linked to increase in positive mood and decrease in negative affect.
If you are single (and ready to mingle), this next finding might be of interest to you, too. In a speed-dating study, where participants rated relationship interest following each date, qualities related to compassion such as warmth in interaction were related to higher relationship interest. This has further been backed from an evolutionary perspective; being more attracted to a compassionate partner makes sense because that means that they are more likely to provide care and support when needed, and are more likely to remain monogamous.
While you may not meet the love of your life by offering a stranger a seat, there is nothing to lose by being compassionate (other than your seat.) So, if you are feeling a bit lower on your compassion capacity, maybe give meditation a try and see where you end up.