According to popular belief, the ancient practice of meditation makes us all happier, shinier, more compassionate human beings. Most of those things might be true – except the compassionate part, suggests new research.
"So... I'm driving, feeling really good about myself, and just like – just so much better than everyone else that's so mad. And that's what meditation's for, is to feel superior to others."
This is the set-up of a joke by one of my favorite stand-up comedians, the hilariously neurotic Jen Kirkman. After meditating for a whole 5 minutes one morning, Jen gets all contemplative in front of a green light, stops the car, and annoys the hell out of every driver behind her who's trying to get to work.
One driver starts yelling at her and calling her names, she lies and says her mother had just died, the whole thing escalates into a hilarious episode of road rage, which culminates with her standing in her seat, poking her head through the sunroof of her car and shouting at the guy: "I'm not crazy!!! I meditated, you... [insert profanity here]!!!"
"I didn't say I was a good person, I just said I meditated," Jen tells the audience, reminding us that the two are often mistakenly conflated. As her anecdote illustrates, meditation doesn't always make you a better person – in fact, according to a new study, it almost never does.
An international team of researchers examined 20 existing studies for evidence that mindfulness and loving-kindness meditation promote less aggression, more kindness, and more pro-social behavior. Contrary to the researchers' expectations, they didn't find any.
Meditation research is biased, study finds
Meditation practices, even devoid of the religious connotations, still "seem to offer the hope of a better self and a better world to many," says a co-author of the new study, Dr. Miguel Farias, from the Centre for Advances in Behavioural Science at Coventry University in the United Kingdom.
But, he continues, "Despite the high hopes of practitioners and past studies, our research found that methodological shortcomings greatly influenced the results we found."
Specifically, it turned out that the studies that reported a rise in levels of compassion among meditators were authored by the very same meditation teacher! "This reveals that the researchers might have unintentionally biased their results," says Dr. Farias.
"Most of the initial positive results disappeared when the meditation groups were compared to other groups that engaged in tasks unrelated to meditation," the co-author adds.
So what does this mean? Should we discredit meditation altogether? Not at all, the researchers say.
"None of this, of course, invalidates Buddhism or other religions' claims about the moral value and eventually life-changing potential of its beliefs and practices. But our research findings are a far cry from many popular claims made by meditators and some psychologists."
Dr. Miguel Farias
"To understand the true impact of meditation on people's feelings and behavior further we first need to address the methodological weaknesses we uncovered," Dr. Farias adds, "starting with the high expectations researchers might have about the power of meditation."
So, the new analysis certainly casts some shadow over the much-hailed benefits of meditation, and the results could be used to give the self-righteous meditators that Kirkman was parodying a good reality check.
That said, you can't help but wonder, as Kirkman herself does after the road rage episode: if all of this happened after she meditated, what would've happened if she hadn't?