Decades of clinical research has explored the psychology of human suffering. Yet that suffering, as unpleasant as it is, often has a bright side: compassion.
Human suffering often inspires beautiful acts of compassion by people wishing to help relieve that suffering. What led 26.5 percent of Americans to volunteer in 2012 (according to statistics from the US Department of Labor)? What propels someone to serve food at a homeless shelter, pull over on the highway in the rain to help someone with a broken down vehicle, or feed a stray cat?
Traditionally, research has paid less attention to these questions than to the roots of pain, evil, and pathology. But over the past decade, this has started to change dramatically.
Nearly 10 years ago, in his Greater Good article “The Compassionate Instinct,” Greater Good Science Center co-founder Dacher Keltner summarized the emerging findings from this new science of human goodness, proposing that compassion is “an evolved part of human nature, rooted in our brain and biology.” Research since then—from neuroscience, evolutionary psychology, behavioral health, developmental science, and other disciplines—has backed him up convincingly. Again and again, studies have suggested that compassion is indeed an evolved part of human nature, vital to good health and even to the survival of our species. What was a relative handful of intriguing studies has become a scientific movement that is transforming our views of humanity.
What is compassion?
The definition of compassion is often confused with that of empathy. Empathy, as defined by researchers, is the visceral or emotional experience of another person’s feelings. It is, in a sense, an automatic mirroring of another’s emotion, like tearing up at a friend’s sadness. Altruism is an action that benefits someone else. It may or may not be accompanied by empathy or compassion, for example in the case of making a donation for tax purposes. Although these terms are related to compassion, they are not identical. Compassion often does, of course, involve an empathic response and an altruistic behavior. However, compassion is defined as the emotional response when perceiving suffering and involves an authentic desire to help alleviate that suffering.
Is compassion natural or learned?
Though economists have long argued the contrary, a growing body of evidence suggests that, at our core, both animals and human beings have that “compassionate instinct.” In other words, compassion is a natural and automatic response that has ensured our survival.
Research by Jean Decety, a neuroscientist at the University of Chicago, suggests that even rats are driven to empathize with another suffering rat and to go out of their way to help it out of its quandary. Studies with chimpanzees and human infants too young to have learned the rules of politeness also back up these claims: Michael Tomasello and other scientists at the Max Planck Institute, in Germany, have found that infants and chimpanzees spontaneously engage in helpful behavior and will even overcome obstacles to do so. They apparently do so from intrinsic motivation without expectation of reward.
Similarly, a recent study they ran found that infants’ pupils would increase in size when they saw someone in need—a sign of concern—but their pupils would shrink when they could help that person—or when they saw someone else help, suggesting that they felt better not simply because they got the feelings of reward or credit that come from helping. Instead, they seemed to care primarily that the person’s suffering was alleviated, whether or not they were the ones alleviating that suffering themselves.
What’s more, recent research by David Rand at Harvard University shows that adults’ and children’s first impulse is to help others, not compete with them. And research by Dale Miller at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business backs this up; however, Miller has also found that people will curb their impulse to help when they worry that others will think they are acting out of self-interest.
It is not surprising that compassion is a natural tendency, since it is essential for human survival. As has been brought to light by Keltner, the term “survival of the fittest,” often attributed to Charles Darwin, was actually coined by Herbert Spencer and Social Darwinists who wished to justify class and race superiority. Indeed, in The Descent of Man and Selection In Relation to Sex, Darwin makes a case for “the greater strength of the social or maternal instincts than that of any other instinct or motive.” In another passage, he argues that “communities which included the greatest number of the most sympathetic members would flourish best, and rear the greatest number of offspring.” Compassion may indeed be a naturally evolved and adaptive trait. Without it, the survival and flourishing of our species would have been unlikely.
One more sign that suggests that compassion is an adaptively evolved trait is that it makes us more attractive to potential mates. A study examining the trait most highly valued in potential romantic partners suggests that both men and women agree that “kindness” is one of the most highly desirable traits.
Compassion’s health benefits
Why is compassion so important to our survival? Part of the answer may lie in its tremendous benefits for both physical and mental health and our overall well-being.
Research by Ed Diener and Martin Seligman, leading researchers in positive psychology, suggests that connecting with others in a meaningful way helps us enjoy better mental and physical health and speeds up recovery from disease; furthermore, research by Stephanie Brown, at Stony Brook University, and Sara Konrath, at the University of Michigan, has shown that it may even lengthen our lifespan.
The reason a compassionate lifestyle leads to greater psychological well-being may be that the act of giving appears to be as pleasurable as the act of receiving, if not more so. A brain-imaging study led by neuroscientists at the National Institutes of Health showed that the “pleasure centers” in the brain—i.e., the parts of the brain that are active when we experience pleasure (like dessert, money, and sex)—are equally active when we observe someone giving money to charity as when we receive money ourselves!
Giving to others even increases well-being above and beyond what we experience when we spend money on ourselves. In a revealing experiment by Elizabeth Dunn, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia, participants received a sum of money; half of them were instructed to spend the money on themselves, the other half to spend the money on others. At the end of the study, which was published in the academic journal Science, participants who had spent money on others felt significantly happier than those who had spent money on themselves.
This is true even for infants. A study by Lara Aknin and colleagues at the University of British Columbia shows that even in children as young as two, giving treats to others increases the givers’ happiness more than receiving treats themselves (see video below for a demonstration of their experiment).
Perhaps even more surprisingly, the fact that giving makes us happier than receiving is true across the world, regardless of whether countries are rich or poor. A new study led by Aknin, now at Simon Fraser University, shows that, across 136 countries, the amount of money people spend on others (rather than for personal benefit) is highly correlated with personal well-being, regardless of their levels of income, social support, perceived freedom, and perceived national corruption.
Why is compassion good for us?
Why might compassion bring these health benefits? A clue to the answer can be found in fascinating new research by UCLA medical researcher Steve Cole and Barbara Fredrickson at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
Cole and Fredrickson evaluated the levels of cellular inflammation in people who describe themselves as “very happy.” Inflammation is at the root of cancer and other diseases and is generally high in people who live under a lot of stress. We might expect that inflammation would be lower for people with higher levels of happiness. Cole and Fredrickson found that this was only the case for certain “very happy” people. They found that people who were happy because they lived a life of pleasure (sometimes also know as “hedonic happiness”) had high inflammation levels; on the other hand, people who were happy because they lived a life of purpose or meaning (sometimes also known as “eudaimonic happiness”) had low inflammation levels. A life of meaning and purpose is one focused less on satisfying oneself and more on others. It is a life rich in compassion and altruism.
Research also suggests that a compassionate lifestyle may improve longevity, which may be because it provides a buffer against stress. A recent study conducted on a large population (more than 800 people) and led by the University at Buffalo’s Michael Poulin found that stress was linked to a higher chance of dying—but not among those who helped others.
One of the reasons that compassion may protect against stress is that it is so pleasurable. Motivation, however, seems to play an important role in predicting whether a compassionate lifestyle actually benefits our health. As mentioned earlier, Sara Konrath of the University of Michigan discovered that people who engaged in volunteerism lived longer than their non-volunteering peers—but only if their reasons for volunteering were altruistic rather than self-serving.
Another reason compassion may boost our well-being is that it can help broaden our perspective beyond ourselves. Research shows that depression and anxiety are linked to a state of self-focus, a preoccupation with “me, myself, and I.” When you do something for someone else, however, that state of self-focus shifts to a state of other-focus. If you’re feeling down and suddenly a close friend or relative calls you for urgent help with a problem, your mood is likely to lift as your attention shifts to helping them. Rather than feeling blue, you may feel energized to help; before you know it, you may even have gained some perspective on your own situation as well.
Finally, one additional way in which compassion may boost our well-being is by increasing our sense of connection to others. One telling study showed that lack of social connection is a greater detriment to health than obesity, smoking, and high blood pressure. On the flip side, strong social connection leads to a 50 percent increased chance of longevity. Social connection strengthens our immune system (research by Cole shows that genes impacted by social connection are also involved in immune function and inflammation), helps us recover from disease faster, and may even lengthen our life.
People who feel more connected to others have lower rates of anxiety and depression; studies show that they also have higher self-esteem, are more empathic to others, are more trusting and cooperative and, as a consequence, others are more open to trusting and cooperating with them.
Social connectedness therefore generates a positive feedback loop of social, emotional, and physical well-being. Unfortunately, the opposite is true for those who lack social connectedness: They not only experience declines in physical and psychological health but a higher propensity for antisocial behavior—which leads to further isolation.
Why compassion really can change the world
Why are the lives of people like Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Desmond Tutu so inspiring? Have you ever been moved to tears by seeing someone’s loving and compassionate behavior?
Research by Jonathan Haidt, a professor of psychology at NYU, suggests that seeing someone help another person creates a state of “elevation,” that warm, uplifting feeling we get in the presence of awe-inspiring goodness. Haidt’s data suggest that elevation then inspires us to help others—and it may just be the force behind a chain reaction of giving. Haidt and colleagues have shown that corporate leaders who engage in self-sacrificing behavior and induce “elevation” in their employees also yield greater influence among their employees—who, in turn, become more committed and may act with more compassion in the workplace.
Indeed, compassion is contagious. Social scientists James Fowler of the University of California, San Diego, and Nicholas Christakis of Harvard have demonstrated that acts of generosity and kindness beget more generosity in a chain reaction of goodness. You may have seen a news report about one of the chain reactions that has occurred when someone pays for the diners who come after them at a restaurant or the drivers behind them at a highway tollbooth. People keep the generous behavior going for hours. Our acts of compassion uplift others and make them happy. We may not know it, but by uplifting others we are also helping ourselves: Research by Fowler and Christakis has shown that happiness spreads—if the people around us are happy, we become happier in turn.
Although compassion appears to be a naturally evolved instinct, it sometimes helps to receive some training. A number of studies have now shown that a variety of compassion and “loving-kindness” meditation practices, mostly derived out of traditional Buddhist practices, may help cultivate compassion.
Cultivating compassion does not require years of study and can be elicited quite rapidly. In a study I conducted in 2008 with Cendri Hutcherson of the California Institute of Technology and James Gross of Stanford, we found that a seven-minute meditation was enough to increase participants’ feelings of closeness and connection to the target of their meditation, even on measures of compassion that the participants could not voluntarily control. This suggests that their sense of connection had changed on a deep level.
Similarly, when Barbara Fredrickson tested a nine-week loving-kindness meditation intervention, she found that the participants who went through the intervention experienced increased daily positive emotions, reduced depressive symptoms, and greater life satisfaction. A study led by Sheethal Reddy at Emory University showed that a compassion training for foster children increased hopefulness in the children. Overall, research on compassion trainings show that these trainigs don’t only boost compassion; they also improve overall psychological well-being and social connection.
Researchers are also finding that compassion trainings impact behavior. Using the “Zurich Prosocial Game” that they developed to measure kind, helpful behavior, Tania Singer and her team at the Max Planck Institute have found that a day-long compassion training does, in fact, boost prosocial behavior.
Interestingly, the type of meditation seems to matter less than just the act of meditation itself. A study led by Paul Condon of Northeastern University found that an eight-week meditation training made participants act more compassionately toward a person who was suffering, regardless of whether they were trained in mindfulness meditation or a compassion meditation.
More research is needed to understand exactly how compassion training improves well-being and promotes altruistic behavior. Research by Antoine Lutz and Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, has found that, during meditation, participants’ brains show enhanced activity in regions linked to empathy when they hear emotion-evoking cries. A study led by Gaëlle Desbordes at Massachusetts General Hospital found that, in response to emotional images, both a compassion training and a mindfulness meditation training decreased activity in the brain’s amygdala, which reacts when we detect a threat, suggesting that meditation in general can help us better regulate our emotions. However, the compassion meditation did not reduce amygdala activity when confronted with images of human suffering, suggesting that the compassion meditation increased a person’s responsiveness to suffering.
In collaboration with Thupten Jinpa, the Dalai Lama’s personal translator, as well as several Stanford psychologists, the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE), of which I am associate director, has developed a secular compassion training program known as the Compassion Cultivation Training (CCT). Preliminary research spearheaded by Stanford’s Philippe Goldin suggests that CCT is helpful in reducing ailments such as social anxiety, and that it elevates different measures of compassion. In addition to having taught hundreds of community members and Stanford students who have expressed interest, we have also developed a teacher-training program currently underway.
Given the importance of compassion in our world today, and a growing body of evidence about the benefits of compassion for health and well-being, this field is bound to generate more interest and hopefully impact our community at large. Thanks to rigorous research on the benefits of compassion, we are moving toward a world in which the practice of compassion is understood to be as important for health as physical exercise and a healthful diet, empirically validated techniques for cultivating compassion are widely accessible, and the practice of compassion is taught and applied in schools, hospitals, prisons, the military, and beyond.