The science of happiness and compassion (Day 41)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

Compassion is becoming a “hot topic” in scientific research, and the good news is that compassion has been shown to be innate, and that it makes us happier, more popular, and healthier.

1. Compassion is wired into us

Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology observed two-year-olds’ reactions to seeing an adult who needed help because he or she had dropped an object and had trouble picking it up. The children’s pupil size increased — a sign of heightened concern — when they saw the adult in distress. Their concern decreased if they were allowed to help (and 10 out of 12 children chose to do so) or if they saw a second adult come to the rescue. However their signs of concern increased if they were prevented from helping and no one else did so.

Despite popular views of evolution as favoring competition and “survival of the fittest” (a phrase Darwin never used, incidentally), we humans have clearly evolved to cooperate and to be concerned for one another. As Darwin suggested, “communities which included the greatest number of the most sympathetic members would flourish best, and rear the greatest number of offspring.”

2. Compassion is spontaneous, selfishness is calculated

In a recent paper in Nature researchers detailed a study in which people had to decide how much money to contribute to a common pool. The less time people had to think about their decision, the more generous they were — giving on average 15% more than those with more time. In a second study participants either had to make the same decision in less than ten seconds or were given more time. Again, those given longer to deliberate were stingier.

These studies strongly suggest that people have an initial impulse to behave cooperatively, and that selfishness is a more deliberate and secondary phenomenon.

3. Compassion makes you cool

Psychology researcher Kristin Layous of UC Riverside and a colleague from British Columbia asked nine to eleven-year olds either to perform three acts of kindness – like sharing their lunch or giving their mom a hug when she felt stressed – or to keep track of three enjoyable places they visited each week. Both groups of students improved in well-being over the four weeks of the study, but those students who performed kind acts experienced significantly bigger increases in peer popularity than those students who went visiting.

The authors noted that “Increasing peer acceptance is a critical goal, as it is related to a variety of important academic and social outcomes, including reduced likelihood of being bullied.”

4. Compassion makes you healthy

If compassion increases your social connectedness, then it likely also boosts your health. Research by psychologists Ed Diener and Martin Seligman suggest that our levels of social connectedness predict how long we’ll live, how quickly we’ll recover from disease, how much happiness and well-being we’ll have, and how much purpose and meaning there will be in our lives.

One major study showed that a lack of social connectedness is worse for your health than smoking. You’d expect compassion, which emotionally connects us with others, boosts our immunity against ill health. And in fact a study by Thaddeus Pace of Emory University School of Medicine, and colleagues, showed that those study participants who did most compassion meditation showed the least distress when subjected to stress tests, and a reduced level of Interleukin-6, which is a chemical linked to stress, heart disease, arthritis, osteoporosis, type-2 diabetes and certain cancers.

A recent study by Barbara Frederickson, of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, investigated the effect of compassion meditation on “vagal tone,” which is a measure of the degree of healthy activity in the vagus nerve. The vagus regulates how efficiently our heart rate changes with our breathing. The greater the tone in the vagus, the higher our heart-rate variability and the less we’re at risk for heart disease. The vagus is also thought to play a role in regulating glucose levels our immune response.

5. Compassion makes you happy

Neuroscientist Jordan Grafman from the National Institutes of Health carried out a brain-imaging study which found that the brain’s “pleasure centers” which light up when we experience pleasure or experience rewards are just as active when we’re giving money to charity compared to when we’re given money.

Another study found that those who gave were actually happier than those who received. Elizabeth Dunn, of the University of British Columbia, gave money to participants in a study. Half of the participants were asked to spend the money on themselves, while the other half were asked to spend the money on others. At the end of the study, those who had spent the money on others felt significantly happier than those who had spent the money on themselves.

And again, this starts young. Another study in which Dunn was involved, along with lead author Lara Aknin, found that even before the age of two, toddlers showed greater happiness when giving treats to others than receiving treats themselves. And the more they sacrifice, the happier they become. Children who forfeit their own resources in order to benefits other kids are happier than when giving the same treat at no cost.

The bottom line

Compare the above findings to the received “wisdom” that we’re inherently selfish. Economic models are based on the assumption that we’re motivated by self-interest, and entire political ideologies are founded on that same notion. And yet clearly compassion is an inherent part of our nature, and exercising it enhances our health and enriches our emotional well-being.

What’s more the level of compassion we have is not a fixed quantity, but can be developed through practice — including meditation.

PS. You can see a complete list all the 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.

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1 Comment. Leave new

  • When I think about it it’s not that surprising that altruism makes us feel happy.
    We’re social animals and like all social animals we gain a lot of extra security by being members of a group. But we can’t expect to be accepted if we just take without giving as we would then be a burden on the group; we have to give something in order to be a useful group member and the more we give the more useful we are and the more people will be attracted to us and the more allies we will have to call upon when needed and this secure feeling will make us much happier than if we choose to live alone.
    Alright, I’m not a social scientist and this is a lot of speculation on my part, but it does sort of explain why altruism might make us happier.


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