The Science of Happiness Post 4: Compassion and Kindness Are in Our Biology

Dacher Keltner defines compassion as “the feeling of concern for the welfare of others and the desire to lift them up.” In his article The Compassionate Instinct, he asserts that compassion is an evolved part of human nature, rooted in our brain and biology. According to him, research demonstrates that a unique region of the brain is associated with compassion when mothers look at their babies and also when subjects contemplate others being harmed. Such dissimilar cases that provoke similar neurological reactions suggest that compassion isn’t an irrational emotion, but an innate human response embedded into our brain. Compassion calms our autonomic nervous system, slowing our heart rate, and starting a virtuous circle in which oxytocin secretion is stimulated, which in turn encourages more compassionate behavior. Research also suggests that when we reach out to help others moved by compassion, we have activity in the caudate nucleus and anterior cingulate, the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. And, as Dacher Keltner has found, it is even possible to convey compassion through our facial expressions and touch to complete strangers.

According to Emiliana Simon-Thomas, compassion makes us happier in many ways. It creates empathy, improving our social connections; it teaches us to manage distress and to tend toward caregiving; and it makes us more capable and resilient. In the body, compassion activates the caregiving circuitry in the brain, which makes us happier by increasing vagal nerve activity and boosting the pleasure we get from helping others. In her article Measuring Compassion in the Body, Simon-Thomas explains the links between the vagus nerve and compassion, signaling that “the Vagus nerve appears to be intimately tied to experiencing compassion towards other people’s suffering… More specifically, these studies show that what happens in your Vagus affects whether or not you can handle the feelings provoked by another person’s suffering—and whether or not you’ll feel concerned and motivated to help.” In the article How to Increase Your Compassion Bandwidth, C. Daryl Cameron describes that even though we are able to restrain our impulses to help, there are also ways to boost compassion by increasing the sense that helping will make a difference, streamlining helping opportunities to make them cheaper, and training our brain for compassion in the long term using meditation and mindfulness techniques.

Together with compassion, one of the main promoters of happiness that is also rooted in human evolution is kindness. According to Dacher Keltner, giving or receiving acts of kindness makes us less lonely and less depressed; they strengthen our immune system; they reduce aches and pains; they improve our cardiovascular health; and they boost energy and strength in elderly people. Research has also shown that kindness is physically attractive; that performing acts of kindness increases life satisfaction; that kindness makes us happy and happiness makes us kind; and that when we give, the pleasure centers in our brains activate like if we were gaining something. “It isn’t just that kind people also tend to be healthier and happier, or that happy, healthy people are more kind. Experiments have actually demonstrated again and again that kindness toward others actually causes us to be happier, improves our health, and lengthens our lives,” says Christine Carter in her article What We Get When We Give.

But one of the most incredible features of kindness that has been demonstrated to have broad implications for all is that kindness is contagious. Indeed, research suggests that kindness gathers momentum and its impact can go beyond our personal happiness or the well-being of the person we help, affecting countless people we don’t even know. James Fowler and Nicholas Christakis published in 2008 a twenty-years research, Dynamic Spread of Happiness in a Large Social Network, and concluded that “People’s happiness depends on the happiness of others with whom they are connected. This provides further justification for seeing happiness, like health, as a collective phenomenon.” Moreover, in their book Connected, they explain that one person’s generosity can have a ripple effect, spreading by three degrees through a social network that can influence dozens or even hundreds of people that do not know each other.

These findings correlate to the positive emotions we experience when we feel moved or inspired by others. Jonathan Haidt, social psychologist and professor of ethical leadership at New York University, calls this emotion elevation. In his article Wired to Be Inspired, he defines elevation as “a warm, uplifting feeling that people experience when they see unexpected acts of human goodness, kindness, courage, or compassion. It makes a person want to help others and to become a better person himself or herself.” According to him, elevation induces social feelings, like the desire to be with, to love, and to help others, and the desire to be closer to the person doing the good deed. Several participants of his studies, when observing acts of kindness or courage, describe an openness and an urge to be playful that psychologist Barbara Fredrickson ascribed to joy. Indeed, a hallmark of elevation is that it is contagious. “When an elevation story is told well, it elevates those who hear it. Powerful moments of elevation, whether experienced first or second hand, sometimes seem to push a mental ‘reset’ button, wiping out feelings of cynicism and replacing them with feelings of hope, love, optimism, and a sense of moral inspiration,” remarks Haidt.

Very close to compassion and kindness, and often triggered by them, are two essential human behaviors that lead to happiness and well-being as well: cooperation and reconciliation. Let’s have a closer look at them in the next post.

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