Why the effect of mindfulness changes as we move from Asia to America

According to a research, the effects of mindfulness differ as per the behaviours or mindsets of the people

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Mindfulness is an old practice that originated in the Buddhist culture. From a culture point of view, the behaviours and characteristics of people in the West and in the Asian part of the world are very different from each other. The Western, that is, the American way of thinking is very independent, where ‘I’ is at the centre — It is all about ‘Who I am’, ‘What I want’ or ‘How I live’. Asians, on the other hand, think differently, interdependently. For them, ‘We’ is always the focus — ‘How are we going to do this?’ ‘How do we see ourselves?’ or ‘What about us’? As per a study conducted at the University at Buffalo, the State University of New York, the effects of mindfulness are different on independent-minded people and interdependent-minded people.

As per the study, mindfulness makes independent-minded people more selfish or reduces their willingness to offer help. On the other hand, interdependent-minded people become more generous and helpful after a mindfulness or a meditation session.

“If findings of this study are accurate, anxiety, frustration, strained interpersonal relations and resentment will become common at workplaces”

Amit Das, director – HR & CHRO, Bennett Coleman & Company

Hard to digest, but true! The study suggests that in Buddhism, mindfulness is a practice connected to Buddhist teachings and spirituality. In America, however, it is practised in a more secular way. It is merely seen as a tool, which can increase concentration and reduce anxiety and stress, which most studies in the world confirm. However, nobody has really studied how it can impact different behaviours which are more connected to the culture one comes from.

Michael J Poulin, the researcher, feels that the prosocial effect of mindfulness is influenced by different cultures, and that is why, the practice of mindfulness which originated from the Eastern and Asian parts of the world makes more sense to them. However, Poulin also says that within cultures as well, each individual can think differently at times. In a media statement, Poulin does mention that there is also variability within each person or individual at any given point of time. He/she can think either way, either in a singular or plural fashion.

“I believe that there are different kinds of people in every culture and society, whether we talk about the Western world or the Asians,” says Mahipal Nair, CHRO, Nielsen IQ.

There are thousands of practitioners and studies in the world promoting the benefits of mindfulness. Practising mindfulness leads to less stress, improves wellbeing of the self, and develops a sense of hope and optimism. However, do we know how it impacts our pro-social behaviour? How does it really impact our behaviour in terms of extending a helping hand to others?

In today’s times, the emphasis on employee wellbeing and mental health is on the rise. In fact, companies have been trying to outdo each other in terms of their employee-wellbeing initiatives and programmes, especially focussed on the mental well-being of the staff.

In the last six to seven months, there has been a surge in organisations introducing policies pertaining to the mental wellbeing of their employees. One-day offs, extended holidays, hourly breaks and so on at the workplace have become common offerings now. This shows that mental stress amongst employees really exists and employers are acknowledging it. With staff working overtime, without any boundaries between work and home, many companies are also encouraging employees to practise mindfulness. Meditation and mindfulness practices have become really popular amongst people.

For HR leaders, understanding the outcomes of this research can be really beneficial as it would make them understand the effects of mindfulness practices at the workplace.

“I believe that there are different kinds of people in every culture and society, whether we talk about the Western world or the Asians”

Mahipal Nair, CHRO, Nielsen IQ

As per Ravi Kumar, people leader, Roche Diabetes Care, India, Middle East and Africa, if this research is accurate, it will impact the employee behaviour at the workplace, but the changes may not be seen immediately. “It takes time to master the practice of mindfulness. Therefore, the behavioural change may not be rapid. It will take time,” says Kumar.

In fact, “We will have to create a balance as per the job roles, in terms of who needs mindfulness. There are job roles which require collaboration and teamwork, and if people start thinking selfishly, it will impact the team itself. On the other hand, there are roles where immense attention and concentration are required,” adds Kumar.

Kumar points out that in such a situation, where mindfulness starts impacting employee behaviour drastically, the culture will get impacted.

Amit Das, director – HR & CHRO, Bennett Coleman & Company, describes what such cultures may look like.

“Workplaces centred around ‘I’ or ‘ME’ are generally characterised by cultures that are high on fear and low on trust. Employees don’t feel or believe they can speak with candour or contribute ideas and opinions freely. In such workplaces, employees feel the need to protect their turf. Leaders are perceived as autocratic and self-protection is the dominant feeling,” explains Das.

In fact, if findings of this study are accurate, the interpersonal relationship will be destroyed, and “Anxiety, frustration, strained interpersonal relations and resentment will become common at workplaces,” mentions Das.

This research at the New York State University had two parts to it. One was an older study, which was conducted in pre-COVID times and another was done recently. Both the studies examined how mindfulness impacted people with independent behaviours as well as interdependent behaviours.

In the first part of the study, the pre-study stage, there were 366 participants who were characterised in terms of who possessed an independent way of thinking about themselves and who possessed an interdependent way of thinking about themselves. Then, all 366 participants were called to a lab, where they engaged in both kinds of activities.

First was the practice of mindfulness, where participants were instructed to focus and concentrate on their breathing pattern. The participants were then engaged in the mind-wandering activity where they were asked to think freely, of whatever came to their minds, and let their minds wander across multiple areas. Post that, the participants were asked to help prepare envelopes containing mailers requesting donations, which were supposed to be sent to potential donors for charity purposes in the name of the university.

When the results were analysed, it was observed that people who were interdependent minded were more generous and helpful after going through the mindfulness session. They were able to prepare and seal more envelopes — 17 per cent more envelopes in a mindful state as opposed to a mind-wandering state.

“We will have to create a balance as per the job roles, in terms of who needs mindfulness. There are job roles which require collaboration and teamwork, and if people start thinking selfishly, it will impact the team itself. On the other hand, there are roles where immense attention and concentration are required”

Ravi Kumar, people leader, Roche Diabetes Care, India, Middle East and Africa

Consequently, it was observed that the independent-minded individuals became less generous and willing to help after a mindfulness session as compared to when they were in a mind-wandering state. They readied 15 per cent less envelopes in a mindful state than in a mind-wandering state.

The study did establish that mindfulness impacts different-minded people differently, but it also gave a solution to fixing this issue. The second part of the study took place during the COVID-19 pandemic. An earlier research, by Marilynn Brewer and Wendi Gardner, had discovered that the behavioural pattern of people can be influenced; that a shift can be brought about in the way they think about themselves. It involves a simple practice, where the individuals are made to read a passage, altered to include several instances of ‘I’ and ‘me’ or ‘we’ and ‘us’ and then asked to identify the pronouns.

So, in the second part of the study, the researching team first conducted the pronouns identification exercise and later asked the participants to volunteer for a charity. The results were quite striking. People who identified ‘I/Me’ words were 33 per cent less willing to volunteer after engaging in a short mindfulness session. On the other hand, people who identified ‘We/Us’ words were 40 per cent more generous to volunteer in the charity activity.

This clearly indicates that mindfulness will have different effects in case of a small momentary shift in the way people think and perceive the world.

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