If You Want to Be a Better Person, You're Going to Have to Do More Than Meditate

woman meditating
Meditation has all sorts of physical and mental health benefits. Evgeny Atamanenko/Shutterstock

When someone gets on your very last nerve, do you turn inward, take a deep breath and murmur "Om?"

Some people believe meditation is the answer to all sorts of issues; they think it can change our feelings towards other people and even make us more compassionate.

But a new study say meditation likely plays a very limited role in making us better people.

Researchers at universities in the U.K., New Zealand and the Netherlands reviewed more than 20 studies that investigated the effect that several types of meditation had on positive feelings and behaviors. They reviewed the literature on mindfulness, compassion meditation, loving kindness meditation and other forms of the practice and found that overall, meditation does have a positive impact on people. But there was more to it than that.

"The popularization of meditation techniques, like mindfulness, despite being taught without religious beliefs, still seem to offer the hope of a better self and a better world to many. We wanted to investigate how powerful these techniques were in affecting one’s feelings and behaviors towards others," said Dr. Miguel Farias from Coventry University’s Centre for Advances in Behavioural Science in the U.K. said in a statement.

Meditation helps, but it can't do all the work

The researchers discovered that people who meditate say they feel moderately more empathetic or compassionate than they would have if they hadn't done an activity that engaged their emotions. But when the researchers dove deeper, they found that meditation did little to lower aggression or prejudice or assist in how well connected socially an individual was.

But the part that surprised researchers was the element of compassion. They found that in some of the studies, an individual's compassion levels were only shown to increase if the person who taught meditation also happened to be an author of the report studied.

Those results suggest that some of the mild increases in compassion reported in earlier studies might just be the result of biases reported by the authors, the researchers said.

"Despite the high hopes of practitioners and past studies, our research found that methodological shortcomings greatly influenced the results we found. Most of the initial positive results disappeared when the meditation groups were compared to other groups that engaged in tasks unrelated to meditation," Farias said. "We also found that the beneficial effect of meditation on compassion disappeared if the meditation teacher was an author in the studies. This reveals that the researchers might have unintentionally biased their results."

In their study, which was published in the journal Scientific Reports, the researchers only included randomized controlled studies in which people who meditated were compared to other people who didn't meditate.

"None of this, of course, invalidates Buddhism or other religions’ claims about the moral value and eventually life changing potential of its beliefs and practices. But our research findings are a far cry from many popular claims made by meditators and some psychologists," Farias said. "To understand the true impact of meditation on people’s feelings and behavior further, we first need to address the methodological weaknesses we uncovered — starting with the high expectations researchers might have about the power of meditation."