How loving-kindness meditation makes you healthier, happier, and kinder

Meditation is a lot more than just chilling out and reflecting. It can actually rewire your brain to become a better person.

Daniel Goleman: Perhaps the most startling finding for meditation beginners comes with what’s called compassion or loving kindness meditation. This is a practice that often accompanies mindfulness the breath, for example. People will do at the end of the session, they bring to mind people that have been kind to them; they think of themselves; they think of people they love, people they know, everyone everywhere and wish them well may they be safe, happy, healthy, free from suffering. And it turns out that the repetition of those phrases is psychoactive it actually changes the brain and how you feel right from the get go. We find, for example, that people who do this meditation who’ve just started doing it actually are kinder, they’re more likely to help someone in need, they’re more generous and they’re happier. It turns out that the brain areas that help us or that make us want to help someone that we care about also connect with the circuitry for feeling good. So it feels good to be kind and all of that shows up very early in just a few hours really of total practice of loving kindness or compassion meditation.

So we feel that the brain is somehow biologically prepared to learn to love better. The brain area that become stronger in its activity is the same as a parent’s love for a child. It’s the mammalian caretaking circuitry. We share it with all other mammals. And in humans it’s extremely important for the third of three kinds of empathy. There’s empathy that allows you to understand better how someone thinks to take their perspective, lets you be a good communicator. There’s the empathy where you connect emotionally; you feel what the other person feels immediately; you sense in your own body what’s going on in the other person. This allows rapport and chemistry, it’s also very important. But the third kind of empathy is what’s called empathic concern; it’s the feeling of caring about another person wanting to help them. It’s the basis of compassion. You can have the first two and not to be particularly concerned or caring, but if you have all three then you’ve got the whole package of empathy and we find that love and kindness meditation strengthens that third, both in terms of how you behave, how you feel and what’s happening in the brain.

One of the paradoxes we found when we started looking very closely at all of the research that’s done on meditation was a kind of a disconnect between what the classic traditions from which these methods come are saying is important and what scientists are studying. One of the most important things, whether you’re looking in the Christian literature or the Buddhist literature or Jewish literature or Hindu literature, doesn’t matter, all of the meditative traditions within those classical schools of thought are saying the most important thing is that you become less focused on yourself, caring only about yourself, less selfish as it were and more open to the needs of others, more compassionate, more caring, more present to other people.

And even though the classic traditions say this is what counts, in terms of the scientific interest it was minimal. We found maybe three or four studies... remember out of 6,000... that really were tight methodologically and spoke to this, but here again the news was good. If you look at the longer-term meditators, people who have done more than say 1,000 or 2,000 hours of meditation over their entire life, and this happens naturally, let’s say you do a half hour of sit every morning before you go out for the day, well after a decade or two it does add up. And it seems that that cumulative amount does make people less selfish, less just caring about me and more open to other people around them, more caring, more able to tune in, more able to empathize. And this also shows up in a brain change, which we think is quite significant, which is that the nucleus incumbents, which is the focus of craving of I got to have that, drug addiction for example, actually become smaller in longer-term meditators. And that seems to be related to this lack of "I me mine" in how people behave and how they think in their emotional life.

And we see it most strikingly, of course, in Olympic level meditators where these are people who have done 10,000 or more... 10,000 to 62,000 hours of meditation and they are genuinely selfless people, but they’re very nourishing very enjoyable to be with because they pay attention to you, they really focus on the person they’re with and how they can be of service or what do you need now and it’s very refreshing. 

If you've ever watched someone meditating it looks like they're just sitting there with their eyes closed. But what's going on in their head is extremely interesting: metta meditation (or 'loving-kindness' meditation if that's your thing) has been proven to actually make long-term practitioners certifiably better people. You might have to do it for 1,000 hours to see discernible effects in your brainwaves, but it's still fascinating news for those in the mediation field and indeed anyone interested in brain science. Daniel Goleman's new book is Primal Leadership: Unleashing the Power of Emotional Intelligence.

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