There’s no doubt that mindfulness can and has helped millions of people. New research is showing there can also be a downside.

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From helping reduce anxiety and stress to being more focused, mindfluness has many benefits and has even been incorporated into prison programs in the U.S. and Canadian systems. New research from the University at Buffalo however, suggests that mindfulness can make us more selfish and impact our social behaviours. The research looked at a rang of what are called prosocial behaviours, or the range of behaviours we have when we’re around other people. From how we interact with others to the actions we may take in certain settings.

In the research, Dr. Michael Poulin, an assistant professor of psychology looked at how people view themselves and their place in society. In Asian countries, people tend to see their relationships with others as interdependent versus in countries like Canada, the USA and Europe trend towards being more independent minded. Mindfulness it seems, can exacerbate this even more in Western culture. And mindfulness it seems, has a lot to do with cultures.

Says Dr. Poulin, “Mindfulness can make you selfish, It’s a qualified fact, but it’s also accurate.

Mindfulness increased prosocial actions for people who tend to view themselves as more interdependent. However, for people who tend to view themselves as more independent, mindfulness actually decreased prosocial behavior.”

It is in Asian countries, also home to Buddhism, that mindfulness came to flourish. Poulin speculates that mindfulness may be more prosocial in the context of these cultures, whereas that is removed in Western countries.

Poulin conducted the study with 366 students at the university. What he found was that the effects of meditation depended a lot on people’s existing attitudes. Those that were more interdependent already were willing to spend more time on a charitable task than those who felt more independent. He had the students stuff envelopes for a supposed charity to help homeless people. Those who were interdependent stuffed 17% more envelopes than those who were more independent minded, who stuffed 15% less.

“Despite these individual and cultural differences, there is also variability within each person, and any individual at different points in time can think of themselves either way, in singular or plural terms,” says Poulin.

Largely, psychologists remain optimistic about mindfulness and its overall benefits, but there are some who are more skeptical. Dr. Thoma Joiner, professor of psychology at Florida State University, who wrote the book “Mindfulness: The Corruption of Mindfulness in a Culture of Narcissism” believes the Westernised practise of Buddhism have been “perverted” into a “self-focused, self-glorification mechanism.” He says, “I think it makes my case that when you take genuine mindfulness and drop it into a certain context, a monstrosity can result.” 

Yes, mindfulness can be of great benefit, but we also know, based on research, that meditation and mindfulness can also increase anxiety levels for some people and even trigger panic attacks. For many, it is about balance and not becoming too self-involved. What we need is more research and to take a more balanced approach with greater transparency overall as this article also suggests.

If you’ve been practising mindfulness for some time, perhaps step back and examine your prosocial relationships and do some deeper research. If you’re just starting the journey of mindfulness, perhaps too, do some deeper research and be aware of the influence of Western culture on the practice and examine where you are in your life journey. And who’s teaching you. 

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