Mindfulness meditation reduces stress and helps you cultivate non-judgmental awareness of the present moment, often by directing attention to the physical sensations of breathing. While initially inspired by Buddhism, a secularized form of mindfulness is now popular throughout the world. More than 100 million people have downloaded the Calm smartphone app, which has been valued at $2 billion. In 2018, 52% of the 163 companies surveyed by the US National Business Group on Health (NBGH) and Fidelity Investments had provided mindfulness training to their employees in the previous year.

Most research on mindfulness finds it to be beneficial. For example, mindfulness meditation can reduce negative emotions and make people more generous towards others, because it can increase empathy and trying to see others' perspectives. Negative emotions are aversive. However, some negative emotions can be useful to maintain social relationships.

The Two Sides of Reducing Guilt

Guilt arises when people have violated their own moral standards in a way that harmed others. Feeling guilty typically leads to efforts to make amends for the harm one has caused. So what happens if people meditate when they feel guilty? Does mindfulness still make people more generous when guilt is what would have motivated their generosity?

With my colleagues Matthew LaPalme and Isabelle Solal, I sought to investigate these questions with more than 1,400 people in the United States and Portugal.

In our first study, we found that mindfulness does reduce feelings of guilt. People wrote about a past situation that made them feel guilty or, as a non-guilty comparison, they wrote about their previous day. Then they listened to an eight-minute guided mindfulness meditation that instructed them to focus on the physical sensations of breathing or an eight-minute control condition recording in which they were instructed to let their minds wander.

Those who listened to the mindfulness recording reported feeling less guilt compared to those who listened to the mind-wandering recording, and this was true whether they had written about a guilty situation or their previous day.

We then moved to the question of whether mindfulness meditation would influence people's urge to make amends. In two experiments all participants were asked to recall and write about a time they wronged someone and felt guilty, before either meditating or not. After that, they were asked to divide up a hypothetical $100 between a birthday gift for the person they had wronged, a charity for African flood victims, and themselves.

Those who had meditated allocated approximately 17 percent less money to the person they had wronged compared to those who had not meditated, with most of the savings going into their own pockets. The explanation behind these allocation differences was reduced guilt. Thus, it is indeed true that mindfulness meditation can reduce the tendency to make amends for harming others.

While focused-breathing meditation is the most popular form of meditation used in mindfulness programs, we also explored loving-kindness meditation. Loving-kindness meditation consists of imagery exercises in which one thinks of other people and mentally wishes that each is happy, well, and free from suffering. In our final experiment, people wrote about a time they wronged someone and felt guilty, before listening to either a focused-breathing mindfulness meditation recording or a loving-kindness meditation recording. Those who did loving-kindness meditation reported higher intentions to contact, apologize to, and make up with people they had harmed, compared to participants who did focused-breathing meditation. This happened because loving-kindness meditation increased a person's feelings of love and focus on others. Thus, not all kinds of meditation have the potentially harmful side effect of reducing the desire to make up for committing wrongs.

Here are a few things we can suggest  for daily life:

  • Listen to your negative emotions. Negative emotions are unpleasant, but they can help you navigate social situations. People might be tempted to use mindfulness meditation to reduce negative emotions, but you should keep in mind that some negative emotions such as guilt are necessary to support moral thoughts and behavior.
  • Mindfulness can reduce negative thoughts and emotions. Cultivating mindfulness can distract people from their own transgressions and interpersonal obligations. You should ask yourself what information a negative emotion is telling you before deciding to meditate it away. Conversely, if you are beating yourself up too much because of something you did, mindfulness can help you let it go.
  • Meditation practices differ. While some have viewed it as a panacea, mindfulness meditation is a specific practice with specific impacts. It draws attention to the present moment and away from stressful things in the past and future, reduces negative emotions, and induces calmness. If short mindfulness meditations are thought of as a tool to change the way people think and feel, it is important to consider whether their psychological effects are a good fit for the tasks and situation at hand.
  • Choose loving kindness. Loving-kindness meditation, despite its touchy-feely name, is a valuable and potentially underrated tool. It engenders the same stress-reduction benefits of mindfulness meditation without diminishing the desire to make amends, because it increases one's focus on others and feelings of love. Compared to mindfulness meditation, it not only reduces negative emotions and brings calmness, it more actively increases positive emotions. We encourage people to try loving-kindness meditation, as it will likely improve how they feel without putting their relationships at risk.

For Further Reading

Hafenbrack, A. C. (2017). Mindfulness meditation as an on-the-spot workplace intervention. Journal of Business Research, 75, 118-129. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jbusres.2017.01.017

Hafenbrack, A. C., Cameron, L. D., Spreitzer, G. M., Zhang, C., Noval, L. J., & Shaffakat, S. (2020). Helping People by Being in the Present: Mindfulness Increases Prosocial Behavior. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 159, 21-38. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.obhdp.2019.08.005

Hafenbrack, A. C., LaPalme, M. L., & Solal, I. (2022). Mindfulness meditation reduces guilt and prosocial reparation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 123(1), 28–54. https://doi.org/10.1037/pspa0000298

Andrew C. Hafenbrack is a faculty member in the Management & Organization Area at the Foster School of Business at the University of Washington in Seattle. His website is www.andyhafenbrack.com and a TED-like talk on his mindfulness research program can be viewed here: https://youtu.be/S5ddLeEVfvY