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How Compassion Protects Us from Stress

By Anahid Modrek, Bernie Wong, Neha John-Henderson | February 18, 2011 | 0 comments

Summaries of new research on the benefits of being compassionate, the neuroscience of laughter, and the links between social capital and health in low-income communities.

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* This Greater Good section, Research Digests, offers short summaries of recent studies on happiness, empathy, compassion, and more. Quick to read, easy to digest—we review the research so you don’t have to! Subscribe to the Research Digests RSS feed to receive future digests.

 

How Compassion Protects Us from Stress

"Is Compassion for Others Stress Buffering? Consequences of Compassion and Social Support for Physiological Reactivity to Stress."

Cosley, B.J., McCoy, S.K., Saslow, L. R., Epel, E.S. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Vol. 46, Issue 5, September 2010, 816-823

This study suggests that having compassion for others may actually protect us from stress. Fifty-nine study participants took an online questionnaire that measured their levels of compassion. Then these people had to complete a series of stressful tasks while someone else evaluated them; that evaluator either offered supportive, positive feedback or didn’t say anything. Participants who showed more compassion on the questionnaire interacted more with the supportive figures than the less compassionate people did, and they reaped the benefits of this support, showing lower blood pressure, heart rate, and levels of cortisol (a hormone released during stress) than their less compassionate counterparts. They also seemed less stressed than the compassionate participants who didn’t receive the supportive feedback. The authors suggest compassion for others may open us up to receiving social support, which may lead to more resilience to stress. —Anahid Modrek

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Community Ties Help Low-Income Children’s Health

"Loosening the Link Between Childhood Poverty and Adolescent Smoking and Obesity: The Protective Effects of Social Capital."

Evans, G.W., Kutcher, R. Psychological Science. Vol. 22 (1), January 2011, 3-7.

Past research has indicated that having a low socioeconomic status harms one’s health, but this study suggests that strong community ties can curb these negative effects. The researchers examined 196 adolescents from low-income and more affluent backgrounds, measuring smoking rates and body-mass index (BMI), an indicator of obesity. They also examined each adolescent’s level of social capital, meaning the amount of connections and cohesiveness within their community and and the adolescent’s relationship with the adults in that community. They found that while adolescents in low-income neighborhoods generally had greater rates of smoking and higher BMI, those problems were less severe in low-income communities with more social capital; in fact, they were almost as low as the rates in high-income communities. The researchers report this is the first time data has shown that “the impact of childhood poverty on lifelong physical health may be modulated by social resources.” —Bernie Wong

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Your Brain on Laughter

"It is Not Always Tickling: Distinct Cerebral Responses during Perception of Different Laughter Types"

Szameitat, D.P., et. al. Neuroimage. Vol. 53 (4), December 2010,1264-1271.

Humans have lots of different laughs: One laugh may reflect amusement, another may signal nervousness. According to this study, different types of laughs are reflected in different types of brain activity. Participants had their brains scanned while listening to laughs that conveyed tickling, taunting, or joy; the researchers classify the latter two types as “emotional laughter.” The scans revealed distinct patterns of brain activity between tickling and the two types of emotional laughter. The researchers believe their finding suggests that emotional laughter evolved in humans in order to facilitate our complex social interactions. —Neha John-Henderson

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