Living in our fast-paced often self-involved society, one might think the adage “it’s a dog-eat-dog world” holds true. Such a belief, however, would not be confirmed by research. Charles Darwin taught us that survival belongs to the fittest, and social psychologist, Dacher Keltner, in his book, Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life, added that humans depend upon kindness for their survival. Since humans lack the size, strength, and speed of other large animals, he argues that our evolutionary advantage comes from our complex, well-developed brains and our communal nature. Being part of a community requires us to relate, empathize, and share; it requires compassion. Keltner believes that compassion is hardwired in our biology. For example, our vagus nerve, which mammals alone possess, becomes activated when we notice others’ suffering. In addition to this biological compassion support, we can also cultivate compassion (thereby stimulating the vagus nerve) through slow, focused breathing that is done in yoga and mindfulness meditation.
But, why should we take the time to cultivate compassion and kindness? Research shows that compassionate people are happier, healthier, and even more successful. Stanford University researcher, Emma Seppala, has found that cultivating compassion by practicing a loving-kindness meditation provides many life-enhancing benefits. These benefits include increased positive feelings such as joy, hope, gratitude, awe, amusement, and interest. These positive feelings can give us greater access to personal resources, such as social connection and feeling a sense of purpose, which can result in greater overall life satisfaction. In addition, one research study found that practicing loving-kindness meditation even increases telomere length, which is the reverse of the normal aging process. Loving-kindness meditation has also been found to decrease negative emotions, such as depressive symptoms, and decrease physical discomfort such as chronic pain and migraines.
Compassion can be likened to a muscle; the more you use it, the stronger it grows. Compassion meditation is one way to train our muscle of compassion. Compassion meditation, or loving-kindness meditation, is an ancient contemplative practice to strengthen feelings of compassion towards different kinds of people. With practice, compassion can be enhanced and the likelihood of a person exhibiting helping behavior increases. A study conducted at the University of Wisconsin, directed by Dr. Richard J. Davidson, found that after only two weeks of online training, participants who practiced compassion meditation every day behaved more altruistically towards strangers and actually showed changes in how their brains responded to images of suffering. These findings do suggest that compassion is a trainable skill and that practice can alter the way our brains perceive suffering and increase our actions to relieve that suffering. Anecdotal responses of participants of the study included, “I feel I can monitor my emotions better, I can sympathize with other people and I get upset with them less often” “…I feel far greater kindness and self-acceptance towards myself…”.
In addition to practicing compassion meditation, Kelly McGonigal, a Stanford University health psychologist suggests that having the intention to experience and offer compassion, by making eye contact, listening while nodding our heads, smiling, and leaning in toward others while they are speaking, can nurture compassion. Although, by virtue of our vagus nerves, we are hard-wired for compassion, we can cultivate and fine tune our capacity for compassion and kindness, thereby encouraging our happiness, health, success, and a sense of life-satisfaction.
To practice a basic loving-kindness meditation, sit comfortably with eyes open or closed and choose a phrase such as: “May you/ I be happy, May you/ I be healthy, May you/I find peace, and May you/ I feel joy.” Begin to repeat the phrase silently while breathing naturally. Offer this sentiment first to someone you love, then to yourself, then to an acquaintance, and then perhaps even to someone you do not like very much. You might even offer it to those you don’t know and finally to all living beings. Try practicing this compassion meditation every day; do your own experiment. After a few weeks, notice if you are behaving more altruistically, and if you feel happier, and healthier. Cultivating compassion and kindness should be worth a few minutes of your day.
Marcia Kaufman, Ph.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist
** Portions of this blog were taken from the article, “Nice Guys Finish First”, in the October, 2017 volume of Mindful magazine, and an online article by Helen Weng, “Want to Train Your Brain to Feel Compassion? Here’s How”.