A Surprising Drawback of Meditation 


By Yvonne Milosevic

Mindful meditation is all the rage these days. Training our minds to focus on the present moment relieves stress, improves sleep, and sharpens our decision-making, among other benefits. For many professionals, mindfulness is a must-do practice that can literally change your brain. But researchers have recently found that meditation has an unexpected effect on one particular emotion: guilt.  

That discovery came from research led by Andrew Hafenbrack of UW’s Foster School of Business, research scientist Matthew LaPalme, and Isabelle Solal of ESSEC Business School. These behavioral scientists wanted to find out what happens if people meditate when they feel guilty. They also wondered whether mindfulness would make people more generous when guilt was the underlying cause of their generosity.

While this practice helps reduce negative emotions, some of those feelings benefit our social relationships. When people feel guilt, they often focus on correcting the behavior that triggered it.

“Guilt arises when people have violated their own moral standards in a way that harmed others. Feeling guilty typically leads to ‘reparative’ generosity to make amends for the harm they caused.”

Their study, highlighted on INSEAD Knowledge, involved more than 1,400 participants based in the U.S. and Portugal. Throughout eight different experiments, they discovered that mindful meditation reduced the tendency to make amends for harming others. The subjects became numb to the guilty feelings and less prone to try to make up for past actions.

It’s worth mentioning that the researchers observed different reactions from participants who engaged in loving-kindness meditation (LKM) versus focused-breathing meditation. LKM is a form of meditation that focuses on cultivating feelings of goodwill, kindness, and compassion.

“Participants who did loving-kindness meditation reported higher intentions to contact, apologise to, and make up with people they had harmed, compared to participants who did focused-breathing meditation,” they note.

Rethinking Mindful Meditation

Hafenbrack, LaPalme, and Solal think we can use their research to reevaluate our response to uncomfortable feelings. “People might be tempted to use mindfulness meditation to reduce negative emotions,” they acknowledge. “But they should keep in mind that some, such as guilt, are necessary to support moral thoughts and behaviour.”

If you’re all about mindfulness, consider heeding their sage advice. First, reflect on what that negative feeling may be telling you before you attempt to meditate it away.