Amid a global pandemic, coming together is more important than ever. Half a century ago, scientists gave this act of coming together to help one another a name: prosocial behavior. The term was developed as the antithesis to antisocial behavior and involves empathy and concern for others as well as a genuine desire to help, share, and cooperate.
Finding out what incites prosocial behavior has been a question researchers have asked for quite some time. But in April 2020, researchers published results of an experiment demonstrating that doing one simple act of meditation promoted prosocial behavior in study participants. Mindfulness meditation has the power to change the world around us.
This is great news in a difficult time where many of us rely on the kindness of others. While many Americans engage in physical distancing, some level of human connection is missing. A lack of connection can be detrimental to people’s health. In fact, prolonged loneliness increases the risk of premature death more than obesity, low physical activity, and air pollution. Those at highest risk include older adults, people with preexisting mental illness, and lower-income individuals. Especially during the coronavirus pandemic, we need to come together and help one another. We need prosocial behavior.
Testing the Mindfulness Meditation Variable
In the meditation experiment, researchers measured participants’ willingness to contribute to a charitable cause after watching either a mindfulness meditation video or a neutral video. Contributing monetarily to a charity fit the researchers’ qualifications of prosocial behavior. In the study results, those who practiced meditation donated at a 2.61 times higher rate than the control group. Imagine: a world where more meditation could mean more people are willing to help one another.
Promoting prosocial behavior is not the only benefit of meditation. Individuals who practice meditation glean several positive effects says Caroline Hexdall, Ph.D., who leads mindfulness workshops for parents, educators, and companies. “There are many benefits to mindfulness meditation such as decreased anxiety, decreased depression, increased focus, and more engagement in life with a sense of presence,” says Dr. Hexdall, who was not involved in the study. “Mindfulness is a practice that one may engage in even outside formal meditation. It is about bringing your awareness to the present moment without judgment.”
Dr. Hexdall recognizes that the pandemic has put an immense amount of stress on people but also opened an abundance of free time in people’s schedules. Meditation may be more relevant to many during the pandemic, for this reason, she says. And, according to the meditation study, we all may benefit from an increase in this practice.
Defining Cooperation And How To Influence It
One term under the umbrella of prosocial behavior is cooperation. Psychologists define cooperation as one individual paying a cost for others to receive a benefit. A separate but related term is altruism, which takes this concept one step further. Altruistic behavior is done without the expectation of returned favor. Contributing to a COVID-19 relief fund may be one example of this kind of behavior. Donating plasma to help sick patients is another.
Psychological research has defined some key traits that influence cooperation. Interacting with other cooperative people and increasing oxytocin, a hormone that is released during mother-infant bonding and cuddling with a romantic partner, are both ways to increase cooperative behavior in people. Fostering cooperation in childhood, by prompting, supporting, and encouraging it, is yet another way to increase this behavior in adults.
The norm of reciprocity governs much of what we do as humans. This means that if someone performs an act of kindness towards us, then we are more likely to perform an act of kindness ourselves. All in all, spending time with genuine people who have a desire to help others can make us better, more cooperative people.
Why Might Meditation Influence Prosocial Behavior
Meditation engages similar areas of the brain that relate to cooperation, including the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and amygdala. The ACC, which modulates fear processing in the amygdala, is engaged in reward processing, and neuroimaging has shown this area to influence cooperation. Evidence in studies like those supports the hypothesis that cooperation is inherently rewarding. In other words, we normally feel good after we help somebody else regardless of whether we receive a tangible reward.
Paul Harrison, a meditation teacher of more than two decades, agrees that meditation can make people more willing to help others. “Being focused on the present moment, instead of on thoughts, promotes the parasympathetic nervous system to create calmness,” Harrison says. “It also makes us more conscious of our actions, which is one reason why it can lead to altruistic behavior.”
The effects of meditation previously known include reducing anxiety and depression, as well as regulating pain and emotion. But these findings of altruism are yet another mark in favor of mindfulness meditation. The question of what motivates prosocial behavior is an important one. Further neuropsychological study may be done to deepen our understanding of the meditation findings and how these results can be harnessed in the real world.
Mindfulness Meditation Best Practices
Mindfulness emphasizes non-judgmental attention to experiences in the present moment. To begin making it part of your routine, Mindful magazine suggests putting meditation reminders around you at home. According to Mindful, the key to reaping the full benefit of meditation is to make it a daily habit. Practicing meditation can take many forms, including body scans, walking meditations, and loving-kindness meditations.
One of the first steps you can take to start a daily practice is to find a place to sit that feels quiet to you. If you are doing a walking meditation, then you might find a place in nature that you like to walk. Then, focus on your breath for a specific amount of time. If you are walking, observe the sensations around you — the air on your skin, the sounds of birds chirping, and your feet against the pavement or grass. Notice when your mind wanders and gently bring it back to the breath. Be kind and gentle to yourself.
When time is up, return to your surroundings slowly and with intention. You may also consider acquiring a product, such as muse’s meditation headband, to ease the process and enhance your mind-body connection. When all else fails, return to the breath. After all, better breathing can reduce stress and lead to a better, healthier life overall.
Doing this on a consistent basis can bring about marked improvement in people’s lives. Not only can it improve the realm of the individual, but research is now supporting that it can improve the experience of people around the individual, too. Meditation has several benefits, but its potential to help other people through promoting prosocial behavior changes the game. One simple act of meditation can benefit not only the individual and people close to the individual, but it can benefit people all over the world.
What This Means During the Global Pandemic
During the coronavirus pandemic, we need to support ourselves and one another. This might look different for different people. Some of us may need to look out for those who might be at risk of loneliness and associated health issues. Others may choose to donate our money or time to a COVID-19 relief cause. Still, others might try to save lives by donating plasma. Mindfulness meditation may be an easy step towards helping one another during this time. And if it makes us better people, it may just be worth our time.
Jennifer Ball is enrolled in an MA in Science Writing program at Johns Hopkins University. In her free time, she enjoys exploring the city of Chicago and practicing mindfulness meditation on a daily basis. Follow her on social media @jennifercball or visit her website.
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