meditation and altruism

Can Meditation Promote Altruism? What Science Says


Research on meditation is revealing more interesting benefits of the practice as researchers keep investigating more about it. And other than the popular physical, spiritual and mental benefits it is known to bring, meditation is also showing great potential in helping us become better people to the point of selflessly giving ourselves in the service of others even at our own expense.

Here, we are going to explore this side of meditation at length and see how exactly this old practice can help us become more altruistic, what research studies say, and the meditation styles to use to enjoy this benefit.

Understanding Altruism Better

Altruism is defined as the selfless act of helping other people, both those that we know as well as those people we don’t know, which is inspired by a pure desire to give a hand to others without expecting anything in return.

When we take the initiative of helping people who are in need or in some form of trouble for the sake of helping, we are termed as altruistic.

It may mean giving food to a hungry person, giving a homeless person shelter or money to get somewhere to sleep for the night, climbing up an apartment in a risky way so as to save a child who is about to fall, holding someone and taking them safety when they are about to fall off a cliff or from any high place that would get them injured.

Basically, anything that involves helping people without minding the costs or risks involved just to see them well, expressing concern for other people’s well-being, doing anything physically or verbally with the intention of helping out someone but without wanting to be rewarded, giving out what we have even when we have little to share and letting go of the things we know can benefit us if we know they are going to negatively affect other people.

Now there are different types of altruism.

First, pure or moral altruism. This is the kind of altruism that is based on selfless acts that are not inspired by any future reward. Here, we help someone for the sake of seeing them better and not suffering or struggling. We do it despite how risky or costly it’s going to be just to see we have done our best to contribute to their peace and happiness. We just feel naturally inclined by our beliefs and personal values to help other people.

Second, genetic altruism. This type, just like the name itself hints, is where we feel compelled to be altruistic to people with whom we share the same genes, that is, our family members including parents and siblings. Here we go out of our way to see that their needs are well taken care of and we can make as many sacrifices as possible to ensure we see them through any hardships.

Third, reciprocal altruism. This is the type that is inspired by the thought and hope that one day we will get to be helped by the person we choose to help at the moment. We help others to secure future help from them when we may need it.

Fourth, group-specific altruism. This is the type of altruism where we help certain people because they are related or affiliated to a certain group of people. This may involve groups of a certain class or a group with certain beliefs that appeal to us too, or a group that has a feature or aspect that sits well with us.

Meditation is said to help promote the pure type of altruism through regular practice. Let’s take a closer look at how that happens.

How Meditation Can Promote Altruism

While we don’t really know for sure how the practice of meditation influences the brain to make us more altruistic, some studies have given some suggestions of how this might be working behind the scenes.

One of the ways meditation can help to make us more effectively altruistic is by increasing the density of the gray matter in the brain especially in the regions that are linked to emotion regulation, perspective taking, memory and learning processes, and self-referential processing. By improving the regions associated with these cognitive functions, we can see and relate to the problems we see other people going through and have that natural inclination to want to alleviate their suffering (1).

Meditation also facilitates taking up other people’s perspectives on various things, improves prosocial motivation, seeing suffering as one experience that is common across all humans, and improves our ability to relate to emotions with mindful attention as opposed to overthinking, and over-perceiving (2).

It is also suggested that with the mental clarity and awareness we gain from meditation, we can understand at a deeper level the kind of suffering we have gone through in the past and be able to relate when we see someone else going through the same suffering. And this in turn makes us want to help them because we would not want them to feel the same amount of pain we did.

We believe that future research on meditation and altruism will help us understand the exact mechanism of action and the impacts that make us more altruistic.

Scientific Research Studies on Meditation and Altruism

There have been several studies directed towards the effect of meditation on our altruistic behavior. Let’s take a look at them and their findings.

An 8-week randomized controlled pilot study was done aiming at investigating how Buddhist meditation influences us in terms of empathy, mindfulness, self-compassion, and altruistic orientation, which is the tendency to feel empathy and be concerned when we perceive someone to be in need (3)(4)(5).

In the study, 42 adult participants were assigned mindfulness meditation that lasted for 75 minutes per session, lectures, mindful breathing, empathetic joy, mindful movement exercises, weekly homework, and other resources that were spread over 8 weeks. And there was also a control group that didn’t receive any form of meditation.

Before beginning the experiment, all participants were tested to see their initial levels in terms of self-compassion, mindfulness, stress, and altruistic orientation. After the experiment, they were also assessed to see how much effect the training had on them.

Results showed that the meditation training helped the participants who received the training to boost their abilities to perceive, understand and relate to other people’s struggles. And although the control group also showed similar results, it was found that the depth of these effects varied by the amount of practice and training. That is, the more time spent meditating, the more improvement was noted on altruistic orientation.

Another study that wanted to determine how mindfulness meditation activates altruism worked with 326 participants who were walked through an online session of mindfulness meditation. The control group didn’t receive any training. After the meditation, they assessed the willingness of both groups to donate their payment to charitable organizations (6)(7).

Those participants who got the mindfulness meditation session donated 2.61 times more than the control group.

Studies have also suggested that people who engage in meditation practices such as loving-kindness meditation and compassion meditation promote altruistic behaviors by improving emotional regulation, increasing prosocial motivation, and boosting empathetic responses to other people’s distress (8).

Another study seeking to know if compassion can be trained systematically in people through investigating how short-term compassion training promotes altruistic behavior and how individual differences in altruism are linked to training-based changes in neural-based responses to suffering was carried out. Results showed that compassion can be improved through training and more altruistic behavior may be caused by more engagement of neural systems which are involved in understanding other people’s suffering, reward processing, executive and emotional control (9)(10).

How to Become Altruistic Using Meditation

To become more altruistic through meditation, we have to be committed to consistent meditation in the long term. We have to consciously decide to accommodate it in our lives and make time to practice it regularly.

In case you want a thorough walkthrough of how to go about it from step one to make it work in your life, here are some steps we encourage you to take.

Step one. Choose your preferred meditation style – Studies done on altruism have involved various meditation techniques. And these techniques which have shown potential in helping with this area are recommended for people who are looking to enjoy the same benefits. Some of these meditation techniques include mindfulness meditation, loving-kindness meditation, and compassion meditation. Feel free to research and learn more about them and consider what they promote and the exact set of benefits they offer and then decide which one you personally feel is the best for you based on your beliefs, gut instinct, and general perspective of life.

Step two. Add the practice to your daily routine – The next natural step after having picked your preferred meditation style is getting serious about it and being committed to it, and that is done by adding it to your routine. It is recommended that you find a time which you know you are free every day, for about 2 to 5 minutes, and commit that to do meditation. Knowing that it is part of your schedule and taking it as an important activity of your day will help you commit to it.

Step three. Begin with guided meditationGuided meditation is a meditation form that involves an expert walking you through your meditation sessions. They help you know what to do from when you begin your session to when you finish and they help you understand the experiences you get as you meditate. This is a good approach to meditation for beginners and we encourage you to get guided meditation audios or videos for the meditation style you chose and use them in your first few sessions until you’re comfortable enough to do it on your own.

The above steps will help you get off the ground with meditation and start making it part of your life. From there, you just have to keep doing it regularly. If you can make to do it every day the better, but if you can’t, feel free to work with your schedule. Every minute you can get to meditate will add value to your life.


In essence, meditation is a practice that carries a wide range of benefits, and beginning to work with it towards our self-improvement and development can give us a good boost in the right direction. What is needed is the right choice of the meditation style we should do to immerse ourselves into meditation, getting started with it as soon as now, and remaining committed to the practice by practicing it as regularly as possible.

Also, taking time to read books, watch lectures and videos of the meditation style we have chosen also go a long way in helping us understand the practice so that we can do it as best as we should for maximum benefits.


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