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Leadership Today - Practical Tips For Leaders

Apr 16, 2021


Is becoming more mindful automatically better for us and our well-being? And does being more mindful help those around us? The research is really clear - more mindfulness is not always better. Thankfully we also know how to avoid these mindfulness downsides. 



Hello and welcome to episode 111 of the Leadership Today podcast where each week we bring research to life in your leadership. This week we explore whether it’s possible to overdose on mindfulness.

Mindfulness has seen dramatically increased popularity in recent years, particularly within Western organisations. And why not? Mindfulness has repeatedly demonstrated lots of personal benefits for individuals. As a result, mindfulness almost automatically appears in leadership development training with the typical recommendation being that people should just do more. 

But can you have too much of a good thing? Let’s take optimism and curiosity as an example. Both are generally positive. However the research shows us that you can absolutely be too optimistic and you can also be too curious. Not only can having too much optimism and curiosity have negative impacts for the individual, it can also have negative impacts on those around them. Does mindfulness demonstrate a similar pattern? And does mindfulness encourage people to help others more?

It’s important to appreciate that mindfulness is not one thing, so let’s take a look at some of the research around specific types of mindfulness. 

There’s mindful attention which focuses on mind–body awareness and perception of what is going on for us mentally and physically in the moment. The research shows that mindful attention is positive up to a point, but too much can lead to worse mental health outcomes. As the researcher Amit Bernstein highlights, this includes increased rates of depression, anxiety, dissociation, and substance abuse, along with decreased ability to tolerate pain. These negative outcomes can be somewhat decreased when the individual is being non-judgemental and non-reactive. Mindful attention works best when we are observing rather than responding. But that’s easier said than done.

Research demonstrates that mindful meditation can help increase the amount and depth of sleep up to a point. But once people get beyond around 30 minutes of mindful meditation a day, people actually demonstrated decreased quality of sleep in both depth and amount.

Then there’s mindful emotion regulation where we seek to gain greater control over our emotions, increase our emotional regulation and accept what we are experiencing. Again, this can have lots of positive impacts, but in excess research demonstrates it can lead to emotional blunting - where people experience fewer positive and fewer negative emotions. As a results life can become flat and dull.

It is better to think of mindfulness like many other things in psychology as having an inverted U relationship to well-being. Up to a point mindfulness can absolutely increase wellbeing. But as someone continues to increase the amount of mindfulness, there will be a point where well-being actually declines.

So for the individual you can have too much of a good thing. But what about the impact on others? What’s the impact of mindfulness on what us psychologists call ‘pro-social behaviour’ - effectively, doing good things for other people.

Research about to be published in the journal of Psychological Science shows that mindfulness can make some people more selfish - that is, they do fewer good things for others than they otherwise would have as a result of mindfulness. This is the case for those participants who had more of an independent outlook to start with. Increased mindfulness for those who tend to be more independent resulted in them undertaking fewer prosocial behaviours than a control group - mindfulness resulted in them becoming even more independent in their actions. However, for those who viewed themselves as interdependent, mindfulness increased prosocial behaviour. When it comes to mindfulness, it’s important to recognise where you start and the outlook you bring.

Let’s put all of this in a cultural context. Most mindfulness practices that are being used in organisational settings have been derived from East Asian and particularly Buddhist traditions. In East Asian cultures people tend to be more interdependent in their outlook - on average, people tend to focus more on others and their contribution to a broader society rather than on themselves. The recent research we just explored suggests that in these cultures mindfulness will increase this focus on others, and lead to greater prosocial behaviours. In Western countries however people tend to be more independent in their outlook. Mindfulness may increase that independent focus and reduce the amount of prosocial behaviour that otherwise would have been demonstrated. There is a risk when we rip a practice like mindfulness out of its cultural and spiritual context hoping to just get the upside impact. So in our Western business context should we abandon mindfulness altogether?

It’s true that becoming more mindful is not automatically better for individuals and those around them. It depends both how the mindfulness is set up and how self-aware and mindful the individual already is. It’s perhaps better to think of mindfulness in the way we think about exercise and sleep. Clearly exercise and sleep are both helpful and necessary for wellbeing and health. But just telling everyone to do an hour more exercise a day, or to sleep two hours longer every night is not great advice. You can end up having too much exercise and too much sleep. It all depends on what they the individual is currently doing.

The research by Poulin, Ministero, Gabriel, Morrison and Naidu that I quoted earlier shows that you can vary the outcomes of mindfulness by initially increasing people’s interest in others. When the researchers primed people for interdependence, they saw a 40% increase in the likelihood of volunteering for a not for profit organisation following mindfulness. When people were primed for independence, they were 33% less likely to volunteer after some mindfulness practice.

At work, we can help people appreciate the role they play in building an interdependent culture. As leaders, we can help our people to think of the role they and the organisation play in their community.  If we do this, practices such as mindfulness are more likely to then lead to greater individual and social outcomes.

When it comes to mindfulness, it’s important to recognise we all start from a different base. More is not always better. When we are being mindful, we need to not just focus on ourselves, but also on how we can be a benefit to others.

As always, the research I have referred to is in the show notes with a big thanks to ScienceDaily who continue to serve up great research in my email inbox each day. Have a great week as you look after yourself and others.




Michael Poulin, Lauren Ministero, Shira Gabriel, Carrie Morrison, Esha Naidu. Minding your own business? Mindfulness decreases prosocial behavior for those with independent self-construalsPsychological Science (forthcoming), 2021 DOI: 10.31234/

University at Buffalo. "Mindfulness can make you selfish: A pioneering new study examines the social effects of mindfulness." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 14 April 2021.

Willoughby B Britton Can mindfulness be too much of a good thing? The value of a middle way. Current Opinion in Psychology 2019, 28:159–165