Brain Buster

Is Mindfulness Always Such a Good Thing?

A University of Washington researcher's recent findings raise questions about when to apply the popular form of meditation.

By Benjamin Cassidy April 20, 2022

Seattle wants to be mindful. With a very anxious populace, zen surrounds, and a desire, however aspirational, to be generally aware of things, the city practically invites this form of meditation. The secular gospel of mindfulness is embedded in local health centers and dating app descriptions and corporate wellness programs. Starbucks has offered its workers Headspace subscriptions, and Microsoft even embedded the unicorn app’s focused breathing exercises into one of its workflow products.

But mindfulness—or a heightened, nonjudgmental awareness of the present moment—may not always be such a good thing, according to research recently published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. A team that included lead author Andrew Hafenbrack, an assistant professor in the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business, found that the kinds of inhale-exhale sessions prescribed by clinicians and companies can lead to less guilt and, in turn, less desire to make amends. Not exactly a recipe for resolving conflicts.

To be clear, Hafenbrack and company didn’t aim to dispel the well-established benefits of a practice that, in its Western form, has evolved from its ancient Buddhist roots. Many studies have shown mindfulness can reduce negative emotions, increase empathy, and improve our physical health. But its application to specific situations—like after getting in an argument at work—merit more scrutiny. “I think it's just useful to step back from using meditation or mindfulness as this knee-jerk, default way of reacting to or managing our stressors or stressful situations,” says Hafenbrack.

In the first study, some participants were asked to recall a situation that made them feel guilty and write about it; others just reflected on the previous day. Then one cohort listened to an eight-minute focused breathing meditation, while a control group heard a recording that encouraged them to let their minds wander. Afterward, those who went through the mindfulness session reported less guilt.

Subsequent studies showed that subjects in this state of mindfulness were less likely to engage in “reparative behaviors”—think apologies and donations. Conversely, the researchers found that practicing loving kindness meditation, which encourages well wishes for others rather than inward retreats, led to more of these acts.

The research, which involved more than 1,400 participants across eight experiments, has its limitations—many of these subjects had minimal experience with mindfulness, and the guilt condition would be better measured in real time, not retrospectively—but Hafenbrack hopes it provides a foundation for future inquiries.

The UW scholar’s own experiences with mindfulness inform his research interest. Years ago, he realized that he’d practiced meditation in situations where a different approach might have been better.

One time, a former mentor gave him the cold shoulder at a party. Hafenbrack wondered if he’d made some missteps in his work. It sent him into a “shame spiral.” A quick mindfulness breathing exercise made him feel better “immediately,” but he never connected with that person again. He thinks it would have been better for both parties if he’d faced the situation head-on, rather than withdrawing inward. “Because mindfulness is thought to be a good thing, it gives us an excuse to avoid a situation but feel like we’re doing self-care.” Or, for companies, an excuse to feel like they’re addressing mental health concerns without considering its relevance to particular problems.

Hafenbrack’s not saying to delete Headspace or Calm. The benefits far outweigh the drawbacks, he says. But he’d just like to see more of a case-by-case approach to tackling negative emotions, in the workplace or otherwise. “Sometimes mindfulness is gonna help that, and sometimes it’s not.”

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