Random acts of kindness tend to take us by surprise.
For some reason, it’s easy to take the indifference of others as a given, a feeling that’s exacerbated if you’ve ever spent time living in the strangely isolating environment of a big city.
It seems that people who do kind things are the exception, a special sort of breed of human that’s just much nicer than the rest of us.
But should this be the case? Every person you pass on the street has the potential to do lovely things that brighten your day, as you have the potential to do so for others, and it turns out that this kind of kindness can be cultivated.
A study by Northeastern and Harvard University found that 8 weeks of group meditation had an astonishing effect on the behaviour of the people involved.
The study took around three dozen people and had half of them meditate for 8 weeks, while the others were placed on a waiting list. The group that wasn’t placed on the waiting list all took part in meditation sessions, but one half discussed Buddhist ideas around compassion, while the others didn’t.
After 8 weeks of meditation, the groups returned to lab having been told that they were going to undergo some cognitive testing, when in fact they were being studied while they were in the waiting room. Actors occupied two of the three available seats, the third of which was taken by the study participant.
At this point another actor, on crutches and looking as if he was in pain, entered the room. The other two actors ignored the man in order to encourage a “bystander effect” in the participants, where people copy the behavior of those around them, even if it isn’t necessarily moral or ethical.
Interestingly, only 15% of the participants who been placed on the waiting list and hadn’t meditated at all offered their seat, but around 50% of those who had gave up theirs.
The results were the same for both meditating groups, whether they had discussed compassion or not, which indicates that it was meditation itself that increased the compassion of the participants.
The personal advantages of meditation, like feeling less stressed and performing better at work, have been enough to convince a lot of people (even huge corporations like Google, who have employed a head of mindfulness, which is a pretty snazzy job title) that it’s worth taking up the practice. This apparent bolstering of people’s compassion means that the increasing mainstream acceptance of meditation could have an impact on the wider world, as people carry this amplified kindness throughout their lives.
Google’s head of mindfulness, Chade-Meng Tan, states that
“goodness is good for business”,
…which is a big motivator for corporations.
Outside of profit margins, however, the effect of encouraging people to have the sort of mentality that allows them to give up their seat in a waiting room may well make the world a better place, even if it’s indirectly.
It could be that the thing that turns most people to meditation in the first place, which is more often than not a desire to become calmer and less stressed, that contributes most to the increase in kindness. Being stressed out is not very conducive to being nice to the people around you, especially when you get that petulant, frustrated feeling that convinces you that snapping and stomping around is a perfectly justifiable behavior.
It’s probably best to try to avoid being a nightmare to be around however stressed out you feel, but if you are looking for ways to have compassion come naturally to you, meditation could be one way to start.