Back in 2015, I wrote a mini-rant about meditation. I have nothing against meditation—some of my best friends are meditators! What bothers me is the evangelizing. For some people I know, meditation has become a secular religion. And when they go into preacher mode, they send a beacon to my inner prosecutor that it’s time to make a trip to court.
Before I bring you my case, let me acknowledge something I got wrong. I argued that the benefits of meditation aren’t unique—yes, it can alleviate stress, but so can a good workout. Dan Harris changed my mind. He pointed out that when you’re feeling butterflies right before you step on stage, you won’t have time for a run or a few sets of push-ups, but you can easily squeeze in some quick breathing exercises.
That said, it still bothers me when people make claims about meditation that don’t stand up to scientific scrutiny. One is that by preventing violence and promoting generosity, meditation makes the world a better place. I didn’t address this in my original rant because the evidence was too thin, but that’s changed. So ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I hereby present my case against meditation transforming you into a better person.
Exhibit A: Meditation doesn’t make you kinder. In a systematic review and meta-analysis of 16 studies, a team of researchers found no consistent evidence that meditating reduces prejudice or aggression—and at best questionable evidence that it boosts compassion. Although meditation might be good for you, it doesn’t seem to motivate you to do good for others. As psychologist Ute Kreplin concludes, “the results of our analysis suggest that meditation per se does not, alas, make the world a more compassionate place.”
Wait, I know what you’re thinking: they were doing the wrong kind of meditation. Au contraire: they did loving-kindness meditation that guided them to be compassionate toward others. And they walked away more self-absorbed! (The same was true for people who were randomly assigned to do yoga.)
At the end of the day, I’m a social scientist: I want to get to the truth about how well-being practices affect us. And sometimes the best way to do that is to present the argument that the defense doesn’t want to hear.
Mind-body practices have a place in our lives. But focusing inward on your own sensations can shift your attention away from other people. If you want to become kinder, you might be better off investing your energy in action and interaction. There’s no substitute for listening to other people’s problems and volunteering to share your time, talents, and ties with them.
People often say it’s the thought that counts, but I believe what matters most is the thoughtfulness you show. Compassion is more than a thought or a feeling; it’s an action. Kindness is not an intention that you direct toward others; it’s how you treat them.