The benefits of mindfulness challenged by new claims

In his latest book, Richard Layard draws attention to a potential lack of altruism in contemporary mindfulness. The implications are profound.

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If mindfulness reduces altruism could it also lower happiness?

Concerns linked to a lack of reliable evidence supporting the rapid growth of mindfulness are nothing new. Scientists have long complained about theoretical problems and the overstating of preliminary findings. But the key criticism has been that many mindfulness experiments are never replicated. This being a standard practice to establish causality in human behaviour. But new challenges about the relationship between happiness, altruism and brain training are emerging.

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A new book has highlighted a potential problem attracting the attention of the meditation community. In Can we be happier? Evidence and ethics, Baron Richard Layard proposes that altruism mediates happiness. At the same time he acknowledges that mindfulness is accused of reducing altruism when compared to traditional Buddhist meditation. If Layard’s theories are substantiated, the beneficial effects of contemporary forms of mindfulness must be reviewed. In fact, all psychological therapies that reduce altruism will have to be re-evaluated.

Can we be happier? Evidence and ethics is being criticized for a lack of scientific objectivity. Many of the claims made in the book appear to be subjective. But the failure of mindfulness to replicate the implicit nondual aspects of Buddhist meditation has been of concern for over a decade. Meditation is a complex human behaviour, the mechanisms it engages are not yet fully understood by neuroscience or cognitive psychology. Any suggestion that some secular meditation methods can reduce happiness is particularly worrying.

We know relatively little about the long term effects of the practice of mindfulness, either in children or adults. But most experienced Buddhist meditators are aware that a meditation method alone doesn’t guarantee positive results. The ethical context of the meditation and the motivation of the practitioner are crucial to its success. Layard is an economist, not a scientist, so his views on scientific matters need to be treated with caution. But in his defence, he is really only repeating claims made by members of the scientific and academic community over many years.

Mindfulness meditation and panic attacks; Dan Harris and Trevor Noah

Dan Harris suffered a very public panic attack in 2004. Trevor Noah talks to him about meditation mindfulness and how it changed him.

Mindfulness meditation and panic attacks; Dan Harris and Trevor Noah
TV anchor uses mindfulness meditation to overcome panic attack. Dan Harris and Trevor Noah

Mindfulness meditation and panic attacks; Dan Harris and Trevor Noah

Among the more interesting meditation book releases from 2018 is “Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics” written by Dan Harris, Jeff Warren with Carlye Adler. Harris is an ABC news anchor who talks in an interview on The Daily Show about a panic attack he experienced during the Good Morning America broadcast in 2004. Millions saw the attack unfold both live on TV but also as a YouTube clip. Although originally a meditation skeptic, when Harris came into contact with evidence that meditation can lower your blood pressure boost the immune system and lead to functional and structural change in the brain he started to take the idea more seriously.

Harris recounted to fellow TV personality Trevor Noah how the ability to find a secular approach had been important in his meditation journey. But he revealed that mindfulness didn’t solve all of his problems, rather it made him “less of a moron”. He described his own practice as a simple form of breathing meditation accessible to anyone, and that as little as a minute of mindfulness might be worth attempting. In the interview meditation is broadly defined as paying attention to what you are doing, whilst this is not a universally accepted explanation, it does indicate the functional approach the book is trying to promote.

Can meditation make you “less of a moron”?

It’s clear that Dan Harris is a convert to meditation, he speaks in glowing terms about the simplicity of the concept and the ability of mindfulness to deliver real world benefits. His panic attack appears to have been the catalyst to his meditation journey, it may be part of the reason why he talks about meditation in such a down-to-earth and open way. Ending the interview on a lighter note Harris strongly suspects that Donald Trump does not meditate but welcomes enquiries from the President by call or Tweet!