Unintended consequences of mindfulness

The baby quail are growing up. Bird watching, especially the babies, helps me relax.

I have two mindfulness apps on my phone. They are supposed to help me with anxiety and stress. One is called Mindfulness, the other Headspace. I’m not very good about using them. I’ll go through a phase where at the end of the day, I’ll sit down and turn on the app for a five minute mindfulness session. Then the next week, I forget about them.

I saw a headline in the Washington Post that caught my eye:

An unintended consequence of mindfulness

Sometimes it pays to contemplate other people’s feelings — not merely your own by Andrew C. Hafenbrack

Here’s an excerpt:

You’ve had a stressful day at work, so, like millions of other people, you open up Calm or Headspace on your smartphone and do some mindful meditation — concentrating on your bodily sensations, “observing” your thoughts in the moment. Research has shown that this is likely to have benefits: Mindful meditation reduces anxiety, depression and stress; more pragmatically, it can also improve sleep, decision-making, focus and self-control. This helps to explain why so many companies have jumped on the mindfulness bandwagon, incorporating it in corporate wellness programs (and why Calm was valued at $2 billion in 2020). But what if, in the course of your stressful day, you acted like a jerk toward a colleague at a meeting? Could all of that inward focus cause you to downplay the harm you caused that person, letting it float away like a leaf on a stream?

That’s exactly what my research colleagues Matthew LaPalme and Isabelle Solal and I found in a series of eight studies, involving more than 1,400 participants in the United States and Portugal, slated to be published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Across a range of laboratory scenarios and online experiments, we found that asking people to engage in a single session of 8 or 15 minutes of mindfulness meditation — focusing their attention on the physical sensations of breathing — reduced their self-reported levels of guilt (about incidents warranting guilt). It also reduced their willingness to take “prosocial” steps to remedy harms they’d done. The research suggests that people ought to be careful about when they use mindfulness meditation, lest the comfort they derive from it come at the cost of their connections with other human beings.


The writer is an assistant professor at the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business. In his studies he discovered that Meditation led feelings of guilt to subside, along with the desire to rectify the situation.

So meditation is good at making us feel calm, but it may get rid of guilt when we hurt someone else’s feelings. Sometimes feeling guilty is good, especially if it’s warranted. The emotion of guilt can prompt us to do the right thing like apologize. The inward trend of mindfulness can lessen our empathy to those around us.

I had never heard this perspective before and I found it interesting.

What are your thoughts about mindfulness? Do you find it helpful? Do you think it alleviates feelings of guilt or not?

cardinal in Arizona back yard
Cardinal in my backyard.

13 thoughts on “Unintended consequences of mindfulness

  1. Hafenbrack is a half baked powder puff snowflake. Other people’s feelings are of no concern to me, because caring is counterproductive to efficiency. Everyone has their own emotions, and if you waste time caring about everybody’s, then you will be overwhelmed and create your own anxiety. We are seeing that today with social media. I am not afraid to insult when insult is needed, nor shame when shame is needed. And not to be a hypocrite, you cannot hurt my feelings because I long ago figured out how to control/eliminate them. I am VERY confident in who I am and am not looking for third party approval. Ever.

  2. I need to be mindful. I start off my mornings and evenings with some sort of journaling or questioning. However, when I think of mindful it’s not so much letting go of the bad things I’ve done, but just quieting my mind. It’s the time I consider why I was harsh to someone, and if needed it’s when I might send a note of apology to someone if I was bad. I don’t use mindfulness as a get out of jail free card. However, that’s an interesting point the article makes…I’m going to overthink that

  3. This is such a different perspective – I haven’t really found that being mindful leads to not caring about others as much, for me it helps to sort out how I can be better at connecting so kind of the opposite! Interesting food for thought..

  4. Interesting thought. I listen to Calm every morning when I walk Benny. I find it helps sometimes to center my day. Definitely helps remind me to breathe but I’m not sure it takes away guilt. If there’s something going on in the house I am more likely to try to see all sides and have actually been known to apologize for something I may have said or done to contribute to the situation.

  5. Such an interesting premise. I like taking a minute to breathe, calm, listen to my whirling thoughts. Seems like I always have an overactive social life so stepping seems beneficial? 💕C

  6. Mindfulness for me, which I experienced while walking, is usually clearing my mind, brain and body of anything having to do with the past or the future and just staying in the present.

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