August 5, 2019

At the risk of sounding self-centered, I have a number of daily rituals that center on, well...myself.

I do a quick morning stretch when I get out of bed each day. I add a note of gratitude when I jot down my to-do lists. I make tea for myself (often the night before a big day) when I need time to sip and reflect.

As much as I care about my family, friends, and strangers I pass on the street, I’d never thought to extend my daily self-care practice outward, to those around me. That is: I hadn’t until I came across research that spelled out the benefits of taking a "loving-kindness" break, aka wishing others well and nixing your own stress simultaneously.

The study, carried out by researchers at Iowa State University, instructed test subjects to walk around a building, pick a person in their line of sight, and think to themselves: “I wish for this person to be happy.”

The researchers found that students who practiced these short, 12-minute moments of loving-kindness meditation experienced notable psychological benefits: study participants reported feeling happier, more connected, empathetic and caring, and even felt less anxious than before partaking in the exercise.

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A potential reason why, according to the researchers: Focusing on someone else’s wellbeing might make you more conscious of others’ needs and sensitivities. Connecting with others emotionally might also help you to do the same IRL, strengthening your relationships. And, like a regular meditation practice, loving-kindness meditation, also known as “metta,” can lead to those same clear-headed “aha” moments.

Focusing on someone else’s wellbeing might make you more conscious of others’ needs and sensitivities.
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“I… call metta 'a sneaky wisdom practice,' because people often have enormous insight doing metta,” writes meditation teacher and metta evangelist Sharon Salzberg. “Since it is a concentration practice and you have a chosen object of meditation, you keep shepherding your attention back to that object. This means that you are letting go again and again of everything else that comes up in your awareness. That moment of letting go is very instructive, because it shows you where you are holding on.”

Want those same stress-boosting benefits? Here’s how to fit a loving-kindness break into your day.

Pick a Moment to Pause

Maybe you set a daily alarm on your phone. Or perhaps you wait until you’re feeling a little peeved, standing in a never-ending coffee line or watching a fellow passenger FaceTime loudly on the train.

Whenever you decide to take a metta moment, get intentional and set aside any distractions—that means putting down the phone, turning off music, and even shutting your eyes if you can. To replicate the study exactly, take a 12-minute walk around the building while you practice.

ID the Target of Your Loving-Kindness

Take a look around you. Pick a person in front of you: a coworker, a loved one, a stranger, or even that loud FaceTimer.

Take your subject in, and really get a feel for them as a person. We tend to notice people as they fit into our own days, and forget that they’re living their own lives, too. Take note of their personhood, then either hold your gaze or gently shut your eyes.

Wish Them Well

In your head (or in a whisper), say, “I wish for this person to be happy.”

Repeat it if needed, while watching or picturing your subject. It’s essential to actually feel it—you want to genuinely wish the best for whoever you’re sending loving kindness.

You might think of your words as a beam of light, traveling into your subject’s heart. Too hokey? Picture yourself speaking directly to the person you’re wishing well, and how their face might change as they hear your words.

Turn It Inward

In many loving-kindness practices, including Salzberg’s, practicing “metta” involves turning those same good vibes onto yourself.

Just as you wished for your neighbor to be happy, wish the same for yourself. Close your eyes or look down at your hands, then say to yourself, “May I be happy.” Salzberg follows that initial wish up with a few other mini mantras: May I be safe, healthy, and at ease.

And that's it! The meditation is that simple—and perfect to fit into any day when you're feeling extra stressed or like you want to feel more grounded. Send love, feel the love, and feel a little better as you move through your day.


Read next: 8 Ways to Care For Yourself When a Tragedy Is In the News