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Empathy can be taught. Here’s how.

by Makenzie McNeill

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We all like to consider ourselves nice people. We like to think that when given a choice between right and wrong, compassion and indifference, we’d choose the option that’s considerate to others. Modern superheroes make the rounds in viral videos celebrating acts like paying for the stranger behind you in the drive-thru or carrying a small animal from a dangerous location.

But let’s be realistic: we’re a busy, rushed, and stressed species. When a coworker asks about something we’ve already clarified three times (and again in an email), we might snap. Getting frustrated maneuvering around a person staring at their phone in the center of the grocery aisle or continuing a brisk pace instead of helping a passerby struggling with their bags doesn’t make someone a “mean” person. But what if we could actually train ourselves to respond to these scenarios with more compassion? A study using Headspace shows that it might be possible.

Meditation is now quite widely known to have a positive impact on an individual’s mental health and happiness, further shown by Headspace’s own research. What about its impact on the people around us, though? Researchers at Northeastern University wanted to learn more about meditation’s influence on prosocial behavior—behavior that’s intended to be positive, helpful, or friendly to another person. Would someone practicing meditation be more likely to lend a helping hand to a stranger than a non-meditator?

In this experiment, a group of 56 participants was randomly assigned to one of two experimental conditions. One group was to complete a three-week mindfulness meditation training using Headspace, while the control group was to complete three weeks of a web-based “brain games” program, which was also self-guided.

After each group had successfully completed their sessions over the three week period, they were invited to the lab’s waiting area which had three chairs, two of which would already be occupied by extras told to stay in their seats. The participants would take a seat in the last remaining chair. After sitting for one minute, a third extra would enter the room, walking with crutches and a medical boot and displaying visible discomfort.

Here was the real test: would the participant offer their seat to the pained person on crutches, or do nothing? Offering the seat, of course, was considered the more compassionate response in this experiment. Participants who had completed mindfulness training with the Headspace app gave up their seats more often than those assigned to the control group—37 percent more often, exactly.

This particular study hasn’t been replicated just yet, so there are limitations to its conclusions. Regardless, it reaffirms previous findings that meditation and mindfulness can promote compassionate behavior intended to benefit others.

So, what could this mean for the rest of us? Largely, these findings paint a picture of what a more compassionate society could look like. If three weeks of 10-minute meditation exercises led to an increase in friendly and helpful behavior, it’s not difficult to imagine what mindfulness on a massive scale could mean for our communities. When we’re shown kindness from others, we’re more likely to “pay it forward”. We might be more likely to lend a hand to a stranger in need, encouraging them to spread some generosity as well. Strangers with wildly different opinions may pause to give each other the benefit of the doubt. Students could receive more empathy from their teachers, forming calmer relationships in schools. The way compassion spreads could have a serious impact on the way our days function, furthering the Headspace mission of improving the health and happiness of the world.

Artwork by KYLE BECK

Makenzie McNeill

Makenzie is a copywriter for Headspace. She’s a Michigan native currently living in Los Angeles where she likes to see comedy shows, live music, and scary movies. You can read her more manic thoughts @kenzgm.

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