It’s not uncommon to hear that meditation is a good way to relieve stress, increase happiness, and even combat certain mental health issues. It’s also regularly touted as helping you become a better person. However, a new study in Scientific Reports suggests there’s no strong evidence to show that meditating makes people less aggressive, prejudiced, or more compassionate beings.
Meditation has been around for hundreds of years, practiced commonly in several religions, including Hinduism and Buddhism. It usually includes finding a quiet place where one can disengage from any distractions. However, it doesn't have to come from a religious place. It’s also used to help practitioners seek well-being, clarity, positivity, and peace. Of course, it's not a guaranteed shortcut to these things.
Researchers from Coventry University in England, Massey University in New Zealand, and Radboud University in the Netherlands carried out a meta-analysis of 22 past studies, involving 1,685 people, all of which looked at meditation and the effects of mindfulness and reflection. The researchers wanted to see how powerful these techniques were in affecting how people felt and behaved towards others.
"The popularization of meditation techniques, like mindfulness, despite being taught without religious beliefs, still seems to offer the hope of a better self and a better world to many," said Dr Miguel Farias from Coventry University in a statement.
However, they soon discovered methodological shortcomings had a part to play in the results. Farias explained that at first it looked like meditation did result in greater compassion, but when they looked more closely they realized the results didn't stand up due to flaws in the way the previous studies were run, meaning the results were inconclusive.
“Despite the high hopes of practitioners and past studies, our research found that methodological shortcomings greatly influenced the results we found,” Dr Farias admitted.
The research looked at randomized controlled studies, comparing people who meditated to those who didn't. Initially, it appeared the meditators showed more compassion and empathy, but when compared to those who were involved in tasks not related to meditation, or if the meditator had done another activity that was emotionally engaging, this disappeared.
“We also found that the beneficial effect of meditation on compassion disappeared if the meditation teacher was an author of the studies,” Farias said, suggesting that this could potentially show that the researchers may have been biased with their results, though not purposely.
The results overall showed that there wasn't enough evidence to claim meditating makes any real changes to reducing anger or prejudice behavior.
"None of this, of course, invalidates Buddhism or other religions' claims about the moral value and life-changing potential of its beliefs and practices," Dr Faria said. "But our research findings are a far cry from many popular claims made by meditators and some psychologists."