Lovingkindness – The neuroscience of wishing well

In this blog you will learn what Lovingkindness is and how evidence-based science demonstrates the psychological benefits for your well-being.

Added bonus: Understand what’s in for you to wish people well that you don’t like that much or let’s say would not vote for.

What is Lovingkindness?

Lovingkindness is the practice of wishing well. It is typically done as a guided meditation in feelings of goodwill and benevolence. The practice uses a set of phrases (such as “may you be at peace. May you be healthy.”) that we imagine saying to ourselves, loved ones, strangers, and even people we find difficult.

As we imagine saying these sentences, the goal is to connect with the positive emotions that arise. We’re not trying to manifest any reality (we’re not going to make anyone healthy by wishing that they are), but rather seeing how it feels to say these words to another person and genuinely mean it.

Lovingkindness is the translation of the Pali word “metta.” It is one of the four Brahmaviharas in Buddhism – the others are compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity.

Academic interest in lovingkindness meditation keeps growing. Researchers are conducting experiments regarding the benefits of lovingkindness for various disorders, including depression and anxiety and everyday issues like anger and relational conflict. The studies appear promising, showing a positive effect on happiness, self-compassion, and general wellbeing.

What are the benefits?

When we practice lovingkindness consistently, we might find that our positive feelings multiply in our day-to-day life. In turn, it can serve as an antidote for difficult emotions such as anger, depression, anxiety, and self-criticism. Note that practicing lovingkindness doesn’t mean that we are trying to hide our “bad” emotions or plastering a bandaid of positivity over them. Instead, we are trying to water and nurture the seeds of love, joy, kindness, and acceptance. We learn to divert our attention to the positive and expand those emotions.

Stephen Hofmann calls lovingkindness a practice that “leads to the path of happiness.” He notes that psychology has focused on trying to reduce negative emotions rather than increasing the positive. In a literature review, he and Paul Grossman and Devon E.Hinton conclude that lovingkindness can help treat social anxiety, marital conflict, and anger.

A randomized experiment on 38 individuals high in self-criticism showed the effects of lovingkindness in practice. The participants showed increases in positive emotion and self-compassion and reduced depression and self-criticism (Shahar et al. 2015). The effects lasted three months after the intervention. 

Another study on the long-term effects of lovingkindness meditation on PTSD and depression found similar benefits. After three months, there was a significant reduction in PTSD symptoms as well as depressive symptoms (Kearney et al., 2013). Similar benefits have been found in individuals dealing with Borderline Personality Disorder.

It’s becoming apparent that lovingkindness practice can be a powerful intervention.

Lovingkindness changes the brain

Practicing lovingkindness meditation doesn’t just make us feel good. It can have significant and long-lasting impacts on the brain. 

One brain imaging study examined expert and novice meditators as they engaged in lovingkindness meditation. The researchers introduced emotional and neutral sounds during meditation and found that the expert meditators had increased activation in brain areas associated with empathy and theory of mind (Lutz, Brefcynski, Johnstone, Davidson 2008). 

A 2012 experiment by Lee et al. went further and looked at the differences in brain activity when practicing lovingkindness meditation as opposed to concentration meditation. They found that experts in lovingkindness meditation showed a distinct neural response to sad pictures that was more in line with empathy and emotional regulation. That means that when we practice lovingkindness meditation consistently, we’re training our brain to be more compassionate in the future. 

Imagine what can happen when we train our brains to react with kindness instead of judgment and fear. Implications can include less conflict with our friends, family, and partner; fewer instances of road rage; more measured responses when a coworker annoys us. We can instinctively offer better emotional support. As our self-compassion grows, we learn to make healthier choices and forgive ourselves for making mistakes. A lovingkindness presence can feel like magic.

How to practice lovingkindness in daily life? 

There are several ways to practice lovingkindness meditation. The primary way they differ is by the first object of lovingkindness. Some people start by sending lovingkindness to a loved one, then moving on to themselves, and then turning to a difficult person. Others say that we should always begin with sending lovingkindness to ourselves. 

Both types of practice start by sitting in an upright but comfortable position. You can also practice lying down if that’s more comfortable for you. You can close your eyes or leave them open. Take a few deep breaths to calm down the body. Then, let go of trying to control your breath. 

Starting With Yourself

If you want to start with yourself, imagine that you were sitting across from yourself. As you do, repeat sentences such as “may I be well. May I be safe. May I accept myself just as I am.”

There are many phrases you can use, but try not to pick too many. Keep it simple. Stay with this feeling for a while. If you find that it is too difficult, try to imagine yourself as a young child.

After a few minutes of this, you can choose to practice sending your lovingkindness feelings to a benefactor, an acquaintance, a stranger, or someone you find difficult.

Starting With a Loved One

Some people find it too challenging to start with sending lovingkindness to themselves. An excellent way to change this is to begin by imagining a good friend, benefactor or loved one. You can picture your pet or anyone else whose presence inspires feelings of warmth in you. Repeat the phrases as you imagine your loved one in front of you (“may you be at peace…”). After several minutes, try to turn the warm feelings you’ve gathered towards yourself and then towards a challenging person.

As you will see, different people practice lovingkindness differently. You might focus on one or two people at a time or try to send out lovingkindness towards the world. Some people find this to be a very emotional practice, but it’s OK if you don’t feel anything in particular. It can be helpful to use a guided recording in the beginning. You can find a 20-minute Lovingkindness meditation guided by Sharon Salzberg here.

Bonus: Turning towards the difficult – wishing your enemy well

Some people report difficulty to wish others well, whom they deem not worthy or deserving. I can very well relate to this attitude and was grappling with it for long time – even questioning my capacity for compassion. However, it became clear to me that I can find the ability to wish well to actually everyone. Here the rational:

  1. If others – liked or not liked people – live healthier, live with more peace, find ease or may be with calm, the world in total will be healthier, more at peace and more calm and at ease. I am certain of that.
  2. If others – liked or not liked people – live happier, that does not mean that I lose part of my happiness or really that I lose anything at all. It’s not a trade off. If I wish you good health, then I will not be more ill due to my wish. It’s not a give and take situation. It truly is a win-win.
  3. If you want to be skilfully wishing well, first you need consider what actually moves and motivates malice, violence and wrong doing. Then you can counter the driving energy with your tailored wish. For example: aiming at narcissism would sound a bit like this perhaps: “May you live with ease, may you find happiness, may you find confidence (in someone else), …”

Note: here we must assume that this is a question of true, genuine, authentic happiness to be found and not a shallow “happiness” that some wear in disguise.