Loving-kindness meditation is a mental exercise that individuals can practice everyday (Salzberg, 1995). This meditative exercise has been demonstrated to enhance wellbeing, relationships, and health (Fredrickson, Cohn, Coffey, Pek, & Finkel, 2008).
To engage in this exercise, individuals sit quietly, usually with their eyes closed, and focus their attention towards their breath for several minutes. Next, they direct this attention towards their heart for a while, before forming an image of someone they love unconditionally, perhaps a child. Then, these individuals attempt to cultivate the feelings they usually experience towards this person-perhaps feelings of warmth, tenderness, and hope, for example. Next, they learn to direct these feelings and thoughts towards themselves-that is, they feel warmth, tenderness, kindness, and so forth towards themselves. Subsequently, they attempt to extend the same feelings to an increasing breadth of individuals: their friends, their acquaintances, their managers, their rivals, or even strangers. Several other variants of this practice have been applied as well (Hutcherson, Seppala, & Gross, 2008).
According to Fredrickson, Cohn, Coffey, Pek, and Finkel (2008), two key features of loving-kindness meditation underpin the benefits of this exercise. First, loving-kindness meditation, like many exercises, fosters positive emotions. For example, in the study conducted by Fredrickson, Cohn, Coffey, Pek, and Finkel (2008), participants specified the extent to which they felt positive emotions like awe, contentment, joy, gratitude, hope, interest, love, and pride. After several weeks of meditation, individuals were more likely to report these feelings.
According to the broaden and build theory, formulated by Fredrickson (1998), positive emotions themselves foster many desirable implications. Specifically, in contrast to negative emotions, which direct the attention of individuals towards potential threats and problems, positive emotions broaden the attention of individuals. For example, attention is directed towards a more extensive set of objects in the environment (Wadlinger & Isaacowitz, 2006). Similarly, individuals will consider a more extensive repertoire of possible actions in response to some event (Fredrickson & Branigan, 2005). In addition, individuals are more receptive to novel and exciting experiences (Kahn & Isen, 1993). Finally, individuals will embrace feedback and criticism (Raghunathan & Trope, 2002).
As a consequence of this breadth, individuals cultivate more resources or skills, which ultimately improve their wellbeing and progress (Fredrickson, 1998, 2001). That is, they might develop more intellectual skills, enabling these individuals to solve problems. Second, they could also cultivate psychological capacities, such as the ability to regulate their emotions. Third, they might develop more stable and trusting relationships. Finally, even their physical health tends to improve.
The second key feature of loving-kindness meditation, which may differentiate this exercise from other practices, is the variety and participation that is inherent in the images and feelings that are experienced. That is, the positive emotions that many other practices evoke, such as watching film clips, tend to diminish over time (Diener, Lucas, & Scollon, 2006). As the sense of novelty declines, the emotional experience of individuals reverts to their usual affective state.
Loving-kindness meditation--and indeed many forms of meditation--seem to circumvent this problem (Fredrickson, Cohn, Coffey, Pek, & Finkel, 2008). Because individuals are actively involved in the process, the images, thoughts, and feelings they experience are unique each time. Hence, the sense of novelty is more likely to remain, and habituation is unlikely to transpire.
Research has yet to uncover any other unique features of loving-kindness meditation. That is, whether loving-kindness meditation could be substituted with any other exercise that fosters positive feelings and entails sufficient variety has yet to be established.
Nevertheless, this exercise does diverge from other forms of meditation, such as mindfulness in which attention is directed towards the present moment. The emphasis on positive feelings towards other individuals might offer some unique benefits. In particular, this exercise might emphasize the importance of affiliation rather than power-corresponding to the left rather than right hemispheres. This pursuit of affiliation, instead of power, might alone promote many affective and behavioral benefits.
Several studies have established the benefits of loving-kindness meditation. In the study conducted by Fredrickson, Cohn, Coffey, Pek, and Finkel (2008), individuals participated in six workshops, each lasting approximately one hour, in which they learnt this practice. Initially, they learnt how to direct love and compassion towards themselves. Subsequently, they learnt how to direct these feelings towards other individuals. During each hour, 15 to 20 minutes of the session was direct to meditation, 20 minutes to discuss the progress of participants, and 20 minutes to information about meditation, such as how to integrate this practice with daily life.
Over the next 9 weeks, beginning with the first training session, participants completed daily reports, designed to assess mindfulness, hope, optimism, resilience, wellbeing, emotions, social relationships, illness, and sleep. Overall, loving-kindness meditation promoted more positive emotions-a benefit that was especially amplified after several weeks of meditation. These positive emotions were also correlated with many other benefits, including improvements in social relationships, purpose, hope, and health.
One of the drawbacks of this study, however, is that all the measures were explicit and transparent. Participants might have anticipated improvements, and these expectations might have biased their responses.
Hutcherson, Seppala, and Gross (2008), however, showed that loving-kindness meditation can also affect states, especially social connections, even when measured implicitly. In their study, some participants engaged in loving-kindness meditation, but only briefly. In particular, they were asked to close their eyes and to imagine two individuals they love unconditionally directing feelings of love and compassion towards them. After four minutes, participants were instructed to open their eyes and redirect these feelings towards a photograph of a stranger, which appeared on a computer screen. In addition, participants repeated a series of phrases, all intended to wish this stranger happiness, health, and fortune. In the control condition, participants engaged in a similar exercise, but they initially formed images of acquaintances and evoked neutral emotions.
Loving-kindness meditation did indeed improve explicit reports of mood. More importantly, however, loving-kindness meditation also evoked positive feelings towards other individuals, as assessed by an implicit measure. Specifically, participants were asked to indicate whether various words, such as loyal or cruel, are positive or negative, as rapidly as possible. Before each word, a face would occasionally appear briefly. After loving-kindness meditation, individuals could respond more rapidly to positive but not negative words that followed a face. This finding implies the face was regarded more positively after the meditation.
Cohn and Fredrickson (2010) examined whether or not the benefits of loving-kindness meditation persisted over 15 months. They uncovered some key findings. First, over 30% of the participants continued to meditate after they were first exposed to this intervention. Second, people who continued to meditate compared to people who did not continue to meditate were more likely to experience positive emotion across the 15 months. However, the extent to which positive resources, like hope, resilience, savoring, physical health, and relationships, changed over time did not differ significantly between people who continued to meditate and people who did not continue. Hence, these resources seem to endure regardless of continuation of meditation.
Meditation has indeed been shown to foster more compassion towards people who are suffering. In one study, conducted by Condon, Desbordes, Miller, and DeSteno (2013), participants either completed a meditation program, lasting eight weeks, or were assigned to a weight list control group. The meditation program included eight classes, each comprising 60 minutes of instruction, 30 minutes of practice, and 30 minutes of discussion. Participants also received guided meditation on audio and thus could meditate outside class. Afterwards, to assess compassion, each participant sat on a chair alone, awaiting another test. On two other chairs sat two people, both actually confederates. A fourth person then arrived on crutches, obviously in pain, and leant against the wall, because no empty chair was available. Whether or not participants offered their seat was the measure of compassion.
The participants who meditated were more likely to exhibit compassion. Whether meditation improves the capacity of individuals to assume the perspective of someone else, appreciate the needs of other people, or some other mechanism remains to be tested.
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Last Update: 6/20/2016