Incorporating Ethics Into Brief Mindfulness Practice: Effects on Well-Being and Prosocial Behavior


Mainstream mindfulness programs, as in first-generation mindfulness-based interventions, generally do not incorporate Buddhist ethics, causing some scholars to worry that they may encourage self-indulgence and have limited capacity to promote well-being. We compare the effects of practicing mindfulness with additional ethical instruction (EthicalM) or without such instruction (SecularM) on well-being and prosocial behavior. Participants (N = 621) completed 6 days of ethical or secular mindfulness exercises or active control exercises. Secular and ethical mindfulness both reduced stress (EthicalM: p = 0.011, d = − 0.25; SecularM: p = 0.005, d = − 0.28) and increased life satisfaction (EthicalM: p = 0.008, d = 0.26; SecularM: p = 0.069, d = 0.18) and self-awareness (EthicalM: p = 0.011, d = 0.25; SecularM: p = 0.051, d = 0.19). Ethical mindfulness also enhanced personal growth (p = 0.032, d = 0.21). Ethical, relative to secular, mindfulness also increased prosocial behavior—money donated to a charity (p = 0.020, d = 0.24). This effect was moderated by trait empathy: Trait empathy predicted donation amounts for participants who had completed mindfulness exercises (ethical or secular) but not controls. Furthermore, low trait empathy participants gave significantly less money following secular mindfulness practice than control exercises, whereas high trait empathy participants gave more money following ethical mindfulness practice than control exercises. Mindfulness training may thus have unintended consequences, making some people less charitable, though incorporating instruction on ethics, as in some second-generation mindfulness-based interventions, may forestall such effects.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.

Access options

Buy single article

Instant unlimited access to the full article PDF.

US$ 39.95

Price includes VAT for USA

Subscribe to journal

Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.

US$ 99

This is the net price. Taxes to be calculated in checkout.

Fig. 1


  1. Aiken, L. S., & West, S. G. (1991). Multiple regression: testing and interpreting interactions. Newbury Park: Sage.

  2. Baer, R. (2015). Ethics, values, virtues, and character strengths in mindfulness-based interventions: a psychological science perspective. Mindfulness, 6(4), 956–969.

  3. Batson, C. D. (1987). Prosocial motivation: Is it ever truly altruistic?. In advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 20, pp. 65-122). Cambridge: Academic press.

  4. Beck, A. T., Steer, R. A., & Brown, G. K. (1996). Manual for the Beck Depression Inventory (2nd ed.). San Antonio: The Psychological Corporation.

  5. Beddoe, A. E., & Murphy, S. O. (2004). Does mindfulness decrease stress and foster empathy among nursing students? Journal of Nursing Education, 43(7), 305–312.

  6. Birnie, K., Speca, M., & Carlson, L. E. (2010). Exploring self-compassion and empathy in the context of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR). Stress and Health, 26(5), 359–371.

  7. Bodhi, B. (2011). What does mindfulness really mean? A canonical perspective. Contemporary Buddhism, 12(1), 19–39.

  8. Bögels, S., Hoogstad, B., van Dun, L., de Schutter, S., & Restifo, K. (2008). Mindfulness training for adolescents with externalizing disorders and their parents. Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapy, 36(2), 193–209.

  9. Brown, K. W., & Ryan, R. M. (2003). The benefits of being present: mindfulness and its role in psychological well-being. Journal of Personality And Social Psychology, 84(4), 822–848.

  10. Carmody, J., Baer, R. A., LB Lykins, E., & Olendzki, N. (2009). An empirical study of the mechanisms of mindfulness in a mindfulness-based stress reduction program. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 65(6), 613–626.

  11. Cohen, S., Kamarck, T., & Mermelstein, R. (1983). A global measure of perceived stress. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 24(4), 386–396

  12. Condon, P., Desbordes, G., Miller, W. B., & DeSteno, D. (2013). Meditation increases compassionate responses to suffering. Psychological Science, 24(10), 2125–2127.

  13. Creswell, J. D., Pacilio, L. E., Lindsay, E. K., & Brown, K. W. (2014). Brief mindfulness meditation training alters psychological and neuroendocrine responses to social evaluative stress. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 44, 1–12.

  14. Crocker, J., & Canevello, A. (2008). Creating and undermining social support in communal relationships: the role of compassionate and self-image goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95, 555–575.

  15. Davis, M. H. (1983). Measuring individual differences in empathy: evidence for a multidimensional approach. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 44(1), 113–126.

  16. DeVoe, S. E., & Pfeffer, J. (2007). When time is money: the effect of hourly payment on the evaluation of time. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 104(1), 1–13.

  17. Diener, E. D., Emmons, R. A., Larsen, R. J., & Griffin, S. (1985). The satisfaction with life scale. Journal of Personality Assessment, 49(1), 71–75.

  18. Galantino, M. L., Baime, M., Maguire, M., Szapary, P. O., & Farrar, J. T. (2005). Association of psychological and physiological measures of stress in health-care professionals during an 8-week mindfulness meditation program: mindfulness in practice. Stress and Health, 21(4), 255–261.

  19. Good, D. J., Lyddy, C. J., Glomb, T. M., Bono, J. E., Brown, K. W., Duffy, M. K., Baer, R. A., Brewer, J. A., & Lazar, S. W. (2016). Contemplating mindfulness at work: an integrative review. Journal of Management, 42(1), 114–142.

  20. Greenberg, M., & Mitra, J. (2015). From mindfulness to right mindfulness: the intersection of awareness and ethics. Mindfulness, 6(1), 74–78.

  21. Haidt, J., & Graham, J. (2007). When morality opposes justice: conservatives have moral intuitions that liberals may not recognize. Social Justice Research, 20(1), 98–116.

  22. Harvey, P. (2000). An introduction to Buddhist ethics: foundations, values and issues. New York: Cambridge University Press.

  23. Headspace (2017). Retrived from: Accessed 24 Feb 2018.

  24. Hutcherson, C. A., Seppala, E. M., & Gross, J. J. (2008). Loving-kindness meditation increases social connectedness. Emotion, 8(5), 720–724.

  25. Kabat-Zinn, J. (1990). Full catastrophe living: the program of the stress reduction clinic at the University of Massachusetts medical center. New York: Delta.

  26. Kabat-Zinn, J. (2005). Coming to our senses: healing ourselves and the world through mindfulness. New York: Hyperion Books.

  27. Kristeller, J. L., & Johnson, T. (2005). Cultivating loving kindness: a two-stage model of the effects of meditation on empathy, compassion, and altruism. Zygon: Journal of Religion & Science, 40, 391–407.

  28. Lau, M. A., Bishop, S. R., Segal, Z. V., Buis, T., Anderson, N. D., Carlson, L., et al. (2006). The Toronto mindfulness scale: development and validation. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 62(12), 1445–1467.

  29. Leary, M. R., Tate, E. B., Adams, C. E., Batts Allen, A., & Hancock, J. (2007). Self-compassion and reactions to unpleasant self-relevant events: The implications of treating oneself kindly. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(5), 887.

  30. Lim, D., Condon, P., & DeSteno, D. (2015). Mindfulness and compassion: an examination of mechanism and scalability. PLoS One, 10(2), 1–8.

  31. Lyubomirsky, S., & Lepper, H. S. (1999). A measure of subjective happiness: preliminary reliability and construct validation. Social Indicators Research, 46(2), 137–155

  32. Meade, A. W., & Craig, S. B. (2012). Identifying careless responses in survey data. Psychological Methods, 17(3), 1–17.

  33. Mischel, W. (1968). Personality and assessment. New York: Wiley.

  34. Monteiro, L. M., Musten, R., & Compson, J. (2015). Traditional and contemporary mindfulness: finding the middle path in the tangle of concerns. Mindfulness, 6(1), 1–13.

  35. Myers, N., Lewis, S., & Dutton, M. A. (2015). Open mind, open heart: An anthropological study of the therapeutics of meditation practice in the US. Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry, 39(3), 487–504.

  36. Neff, K. D., & Germer, C. K. (2013). A pilot study and randomized controlled trial of the mindful selfcompassion program. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 69(1), 28–44.

  37. Paulhus, D. L., & Trapnell, P. D. (2008). Self-presentation of personality. Handbook of Personality Psychology, 19, 492–517.

  38. Purser, R. (2015). Clearing the muddled path between traditional and contemporary mindfulness: a response to Monteiro, Musten and Compton. Mindfulness, 6(1), 23–45.

  39. Purser, R. E., & Milillo, J. (2015). Mindfulness revisited: a Buddhist-based conceptualization. Journal of Management Inquiry, 24, 3–24.

  40. Reed, A., Kay, A., Finnel, S., Aquino, K., & Levy, E. (2016). I don't want the money, I just want your time: how moral identity overcomes the aversion to giving time to prosocial causes. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 110(3), 435–457.

  41. Ridderinkhof, A., de Bruin, E. I., Brummelman, E., & Bögels, S. M. (2017). Does mindfulness meditation increase empathy? An experiment. Self and Identity, 1(19), 251–269.

  42. Ryff, C. D. (1989). Happiness is everything, or is it? Explorations on the meaning of psychological well being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 57(6), 1069–1081.

  43. Salzberg, S. (1995). Loving-kindness: The revolutionary art of happiness. Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications.

  44. Segal, Z. V., Teasdale, J. D., Williams, J. M., & Gemar, M. C. (2002). The mindfulness-based cognitive therapy adherence scale: Inter-rater reliability, adherence to protocol and treatment distinctiveness. Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy, 9(2), 131–138.

  45. Shapiro, S. L., Schwartz, G. E., & Bonner, G. (1998). Effects of mindfulness-based stress reduction on medical and premedical students. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 21(6), 581–599.

  46. Shapiro, S. L., Jazaieri, H., & Goldin, P. R. (2012). Mindfulness-based stress reduction effects on moral reasoning and decision making. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 7(6), 504–515.

  47. Sheldon, K. M., Ryan, R. M., & Reis, H. T. (1996). What makes for a good day? Competence and autonomy in the day and in the person. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 22(12), 1270–1279.

  48. Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2014). Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Meditation Awareness Training (MAT) for the treatment of co-occurring schizophrenia with pathological gambling: a case study. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 12, 181–196.

  49. Singh, N. N., Lancioni, G. E., Winton, A. S. W., Singh, J., Curtis, W. J., Wahler, R. G., & McAleavey, K. M. (2007). Mindful parenting decreases aggression and increases social behavior in children with developmental disabilities. Behavior Modification, 31, 749–771.

  50. Singh, N. N., Lancioni, G. E., Winton, A. S. W., Karazia, B. T., Singh, A. D. A., Singh, A. N. A., & Singh, J. (2013). A mindfulness-based smoking cessation program for individuals with mild intellectual disability. Mindfulness, 4(2), 148–157.

  51. Singh, N. N., Lancioni, G. E., Winton, A. S. W., Karazsia, B. T., & Singh, J. (2014). Mindfulness-based positive behavior support (MBPBS) for mothers of adolescents with autism spectrum disorders: effects on adolescents’ behavior and parental stress. Mindfulness, 5(6), 646–657.

  52. Singh, N. N., Lancioni, G. E., Karazsia, B. T., & Myers, R. E. (2016a). Caregiver training in mindfulness-based positive behavior supports (MBPBS): effects on caregivers and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Frontiers in Psychology, 7, 98.

  53. Singh, N. N., Lancioni, G. E., Karazsia, B. T., Chan, J., & Winton, A. S. W. (2016b). Effectiveness of caregiver training in mindfulness-based positive behavior support (MBPBS) vs. training-as-usual (TAU): a randomized controlled trial. Frontiers in Psychology, 7, 1549.

  54. Smith, J. D., & Shaffer, D. R. (1986). Self-consciousness, self-reported altruism, and helping behaviour. Social Behavior and Personality: An International Journal, 14(2), 215–220.

  55. Tan, C. M. (2012). Search inside yourself. New York City: Harper Collins Publishers.

  56. Van Gordon, W., Shonin, E., Griffiths, M. D., & Singh, N. N. (2015a). There is only one mindfulness: why science and Buddhism need to work together. Mindfulness, 6(1), 49–56.

  57. Van Gordon, W., Shonin, E., & Griffiths, M. D. (2015b). Towards a second generation of mindfulness-based interventions. Australia and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 49, 591591.

  58. Van Gordon, W., Shonin, E., Dunn, T., Garcia-Campayo, J., Demarzo, M., & Griffiths, M. D. (2017). Meditation Awareness Training for the treatment of workaholism: a non-randomised controlled trial. Journal of Behavioral Addiction, 6, 212–220.

  59. Vohs, K. D., Mead, N. L., & Goode, M. R. (2008). Merely activating the concept of money changes personal and interpersonal behavior. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 17(3), 208–212.

Download references


We thank Victoria Parker, Leah Parent, Emma Smith, Amanda Montagliani, Hannah Rivard, and Sydney Goldberg for the help in collecting the data.


This research was funded by a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Insight Grant (435-2014-1182) to C.H. Jordan.

Author information

SC collaboratively designed the study, executed the study, analyzed the data, wrote the first draft, and collaboratively revised further drafts of the paper. CHJ collaboratively designed the study, consulted on data analyses, and collaboratively revised drafts of the paper.

Correspondence to Siyin Chen.

Ethics declarations

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical Approval

All procedures in this study were conducted in accordance with the ethical standards of the Research Ethics Board of Wilfrid Laurier University and the Tri-Council Policy Statement on Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments.

Informed Consent

Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.

Electronic Supplementary Material


(DOC 440 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Chen, S., Jordan, C.H. Incorporating Ethics Into Brief Mindfulness Practice: Effects on Well-Being and Prosocial Behavior. Mindfulness 11, 18–29 (2020).

Download citation


  • Mindfulness
  • Ethics
  • Well-being
  • Prosocial behavior