Enough already with the mindfulness!

Mindfulness, or the act of bringing one’s attention squarely to the present moment, seems to grow more and more popular by the day. Of course, it shouldn’t be all that surprising that an activity proven to help with stress, anxiety, and well-being has become popular over the past year. We’ve all had more worries lately, and quieting a frantic mind has never felt more difficult.

There doesn’t appear to be all that much to dislike about mindfulness on the surface, but a fascinating new study from the University at Buffalo has indeed uncovered a potential drawback associated with practicing mindfulness – at least for certain people. UB researchers say that for naturally independent-minded individuals, mindfulness can actually lead to an increase in selfishness. 

It all depends on your personality. If you’re already interdependent and highly social, mindfulness will probably only increase those tendencies. So, mindfulness won’t make everyone selfish, just the people who may have already been inclined toward selfish (or just independent) behavior.

“Mindfulness can make you selfish,” says Michael Poulin, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology in the UB College of Arts and Sciences, and the paper’s lead author. “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.”

Mindfulness is all about feeling better and more in control internally. This study is a unique take on the topic because it investigated how mindfulness influences our external actions. If mindfulness helps someone beat their anxiety and feel more relaxed on a day-to-day basis that’s great. But is it worth it if that person also becomes more self-centered and egotistical?

That’s a question that can only be answered on an individual, case-by-case basis. However, researchers are adamant that they don’t want their work to discourage anyone from trying mindfulness. Increased selfishness or not, if someone is feeling very poorly from a mental health perspective mindfulness is absolutely an approach worth at least trying. Just don’t blindly keep up the habit at the expense of your relationships.

“That would be an oversimplification,” Poulin explains. “Research suggests that mindfulness works, but this study shows that it’s a tool, not a prescription, which requires more than a plug-and-play approach if practitioners are to avoid its potential pitfalls.”

As a broad topic “interdependent versus independent” is a pillar of social psychology. Some people can’t help but always think of themselves as part of a larger group, while others always see themselves as the lone wolf. One isn’t necessarily better than the other, although extremes on either side of the spectrum are rarely healthy. We all need some social release, but time to oneself is also essential.

Moreover, besides just personality differences between people, the question of culture must be considered as well. Western culture is notorious for prioritizing “me, me, me” while Eastern ideologies are much more group-centric. Of course, mindfulness originated in the East, suggesting it is perhaps better suited for more interdependent-minded individuals.

“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,” Poulin adds.

Researchers conducted two experiments to reach these conclusions. The first featured 366 participants, and tested each person’s “characteristic levels of independence versus interdependence.” After that, subjects were separated into two groups. One was a control and taught a mind-wandering exercise, and the other was taught mindfulness. Finally, just before leaving, each subject was told about an opportunity to volunteer at a charity organization.

Sure enough, study subjects who showed independent tendencies and were taught mindfulness showed “decreased prosocial behavior.” 

The second experiment included 325 people and was set up similarly to the first assessment. This time around, practicing mindfulness made 33% of independent-minded subjects less likely to volunteer, but it also led to 40% of interdependent participants being more likely to volunteer. Clearly, the influence of mindfulness varies from person to person.

“We have to think about how to get the most out of mindfulness,” Poulin concludes. “We have to know how to use the tool.”

All in all, if you want to try mindfulness go for it, just be mindful of how it may be affecting your behavior around others.

The full study can be found here, published in Psychological Science.