In the so-called age of narcissism, it's been said that empathy is declining -- and some research has shown that social media is causing us to become more self-obsessed than ever before. But whether or not selfishness is actually on the rise, it's safe to say that we need compassion more than ever.
Eastern spiritual practices have long touted the importance of compassion as a necessary ingredient for building happy lives and peaceful nations ("Without [compassion], humanity cannot survive," the Dalai Lama wrote in The Art of Happiness). Now, Western science is catching up to this ancient wisdom.
New research from the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research (CCARE) at Stanford University (some funding for which has been provided by the Dalai Lama) is shedding light on the human capacity for goodness. Through his work at CCARE, James Doty, the center's founder and director, has become convinced that young people are actually becoming more compassionate.
"We're really seeing a sea change in how people perceive their place in the world," Doty recently told New Scientist. "The millennium generation is the first to grow up with 24/7 access to global information. When you see the suffering of others, you realize that those individuals could just as easily have been you. It's much easier to say, 'I can't let that happen -- I feel their pain.' That is how humanity is going to survive."
Doty and other neuroscientists and psychologists have made compassion a growing field of study, looking at how empathy and altruism work in the brain and how we can increase our capacity for goodness. Here are six insights that will change the way you think about compassion -- and revolutionize your approach to giving and social connection.
We're wired for compassion.
For thousands of years, scientists and philosophers have asked whether humans are self-interested or altruistic. Historically, it's been thought that our actions are largely selfish in motivation (look no further than the popular theory of Social Darwinism), but that school of thought has started to give way to a new, and more compassionate, picture of human behavior.
Many psychologists have suggested that we developed altruism as an evolutionary advantage -- helping others is in fact a powerful way of helping ourselves, and key to the development of tribes and social groups. Datcher Keltner of the University of California has presented a wide body of research to support the idea humans have a "compassion instinct" -- in other words, there is a biological basis for treating others well.
"It has long been assumed that selfishness, greed, and competitiveness lie at the core of human behavior, the products of our evolution," Keltner wrote in a report for the Greater Good Science Center. "But recent scientific findings forcefully challenge this view of human nature. We see that compassion is deeply rooted in our brains, our bodies, and in the most basic ways we communicate. What’s more, a sense of compassion fosters compassionate behavior and helps shape the lessons we teach our children."
Compassion is good for business.
More than 80 percent of US workers say that their jobs cause them stress, and this high level of employee stress can have a high cost for businesses. Workplace stress can result in lower employee productivity, engagement and retention, and higher health care costs. But recent research has found that creating a culture of compassion -- a workplace in which managers and employers are friendly and help one another -- can make employees happier and more productive. A 2005 study, conducted by Jonathan Haidt of New York University, found that when managers were fair and self-sacrificing, employees experienced "elevation," a state of heightened well-being, and were more likely to feel loyal to their company and act kindly toward their co-workers.
LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner knows this well, and runs his business accordingly. Weiner calls leading compassionately his "first principle of management," and wrote in a 2012 LinkedIn blog that the Dalai Lama's Art of Happiness taught him compassion and empathy. Weiner has also spoken about the potential of meditation to boost compassion.
Compassion makes you happy.
The Dalai Lama has long held that compassion is the key to happiness and good physical health, and recently, brain-imaging studies have shown that doing good for others does provide pleasure and boost well-being. A 2006 National Institutes of Health study showed that the brain's reward centers are activated in the same way when we give to others as when we receive money ourselves.
“I believe compassion to be one of the few things we can practice that will bring immediate and long-term happiness to our lives," His Holiness wrote in The Art of Happiness. "I’m not talking about the short-term gratification of pleasures like sex, drugs or gambling... but something that will bring true and lasting happiness. The kind that sticks.”
Meditation can increase the brain's capacity for compassion.
Neuroscience research on Tibetan Buddhist monks has found that meditation on compassion (metta meditation) can produce powerful changes in the brains of experienced practitioners. When asked to meditate on "unconditional loving-kindness and compassion," the brains of the monks generated powerful gamma waves that may have indicated a compassionate state of mind, Wired reported. The research suggests that empathy can be cultivated by exercising the brain with loving-kindness meditation.
But meditation doesn't just boost compassion among monks. University of Texas psychologist Kristin Neff says that cultivating mindfulness -- the focused awareness on the present moment, which can be increased through meditation -- is the first step for anyone to develop compassion for the self and for others.
"In order for us to open our hearts in the face of suffering, we need to be mindfully aware that suffering is occuring, and we need to be able to turn toward it and be with it as it is," Neff explained in a Greater Good Science Center talk.
Compassion can be taught.
Just as we can wire our brains for happiness, we can also optimize the mind for altruism. Compassion training developed at Stanford has been shown to be effective in boosting an individual's level of care for others. Preliminary data shows that subjects who participated in Stanford's nine-week compassion cultivation training demonstrated significantly enhanced compassion in the three target areas of compassion for others, receiving compassion from others, and self-compassion.
"There's a small subset of people on the side of extraordinarily kind, compassionate, and that's their baseline -- Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama," Doty explained. "And then there's a fairly small group who, no matter what we do to try to potentiate their capacity for compassion, don't have that capacity. Between those extremes are the rest of us, who can probably benefit from some kind of intervention or training when it comes to our ability to be altruistic or compassionate."
Compassion is contagious.
Here's a good reason to pay it forward: It turns out that there's scientific proof for the idea that "kindness is contagious." A 2010 social science study from the University of California and Harvard found that being kind to others is like yawning: It catches on. Small and large acts of generosity, compassion and helping others can inspire a chain of more good actions from others -- and this social influence spreads for up to three degrees of separation.