Dacher Keltner, Ph.D., is the founding faculty director of the Greater Good Science Center and a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. He is also the author of Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life and a co-editor of The Compassionate Instinct: The Science of Human Goodness.
What is compassion and kindness? Why are we kind and generous?
Research states, "emotions as rational, functional, and adaptive—a view which has its origins in Darwin’s Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals. Compassion and benevolence, research suggests, are an evolved part of human nature, rooted in our brain and biology, and ready to be cultivated for the greater good."
Compassion is deeply rooted in human nature; it has a biological basis in the brain and body. Humans can communicate compassion through facial gesture and touch, and these displays of compassion can serve vital social functions, strongly suggesting an evolutionary basis of compassion. And when experienced, compassion overwhelms selfish concerns and motivates altruistic behavior.
Human communities are only as healthy as our conceptions of human nature. It has long been assumed that selfishness, greed, and competitiveness lie at the core of human behavior, the products of our evolution. It takes little imagination to see how these assumptions have guided most realms of human affairs, from policy making to media portrayals of social life.
But clearly, 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.
Of course, simply realizing this is not enough; we must also make room for our compassionate impulses to flourish. In the Greater Good Science Center's online magazine, Greater Good, contributors provide ample evidence to show what we can gain from more compassionate marriages, schools, hospitals, workplaces, and other institutions. They do more than make us reconsider our assumptions about human nature. They offer a blueprint for a more compassionate world.
Biology and Compassion
The brain, then, seems wired up to respond to others’ suffering—indeed, it makes us feel good when we can alleviate that suffering. When we feel threatened, our heart and breathing rates usually increase, preparing us either to confront or flee from the threat—the so-called “fight or flight” response. What is the ANS (Automatic Nervous System) profile of compassion? As it turns out, when young children and adults feel compassion for others, this emotion is reflected in very real physiological changes: Their heart rate goes down from baseline levels, which prepares them not to fight or flee, but to approach and soothe. In some recent studies researches have found that when people perform behaviors associated with compassionate love—warm smiles, friendly hand gestures, affirmative forward leans—their bodies produce more oxytocin. This suggests compassion may be self-perpetuating: Being compassionate causes a chemical reaction in the body that motivates us to be even more compassionate.
Jack Nitschke found in an experiment that when mothers looked at pictures of their babies, they not only reported feeling more compassionate love than when they saw other babies; they also demonstrated unique activity in a region of their brains associated with the positive emotions. Nitschke’s finding suggests that this region of the brain is attuned to the first objects of our compassion—our offspring.
Joshua Greene and Jonathan Cohen of Princeton University found that when subjects contemplated harm being done to others, a similar network of regions in their brains lit up. Our children and victims of violence—two very different subjects, yet united by the similar neurological reactions they provoke. This consistency strongly suggests that compassion isn’t simply a fickle or irrational emotion, but rather an innate human response embedded into the folds of our brains.
Neuroscientists James Rilling and Gregory Berns, gave participants the chance to help someone else while their brain activity was recorded. Helping others triggered activity in the caudate nucleus and anterior cingulate, portions of the brain that turn on when people receive rewards or experience pleasure. This is a rather remarkable finding: helping others brings the same pleasure we get from the gratification of personal desire.
Terms of Happiness
Kindness is a general, everyday term describing behaviors that involve being friendly, generous, or considerate. Pro-social is the term favored by scientists to refer to kind, helpful behaviors or states, but it is also quite broad.
Compassion: Literally means “to suffer together.” Among emotion researchers, it is defined as the feeling that arises when you witness another’s suffering and feel motivated to help relieve that suffering.
Compassion is not the same as empathy or altruism, though the concepts are related. While empathy refers more generally to our ability to sense the emotions--and/or take the perspective--of another person, compassion is when those feelings and thoughts include the desire to help. While altruism is often prompted by compassion, one can feel compassion without acting on it, and altruism isn’t always motivated by compassion.
Altruism: Altruism is when we act to promote someone else’s welfare, even at a risk or cost to ourselves. Many debate whether and why true (or "pure") altruism actually exists. Evolutionary scientists speculate that altruism has deep roots in human nature because helping and cooperation promote the survival of our species. Indeed, Darwin himself argued that altruism, which he called “sympathy” or “benevolence,” is “an essential part of the social instincts.” Some evolutionary biologists argue that organisms may sometimes put themselves at risk in order to help another because they expect that the other organism will return the favor down the line, a concept known as reciprocal altruism.
Empathy: Emotion researchers generally define empathy as the ability to sense other people’s emotions (affective empathy), coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling (cognitive empathy).
Studies suggests that empathy is often a vital first step toward altruistic behavior, but it does not always lead to altruism, and altruistic acts can be motivated by factors other than empathy. More specifically, research by Daniel Batson and others suggests that empathy is much more likely to lead to altruism when it elicits the specific feeling of empathic concern, which is when we observe someone in need and truly "feel for" that person--a state similiar to compassion--rather than wanting to escape the situation or feeling overwhelmed by distress.
Sympathy: Sympathy, which means "to feel together," is sometimes used synonymously with compassion. However, while sympathy does refer to feelings of sorrow or sadness about another person's suffering, it does not typically involve the urge or motivation to help, or do anything about the situation. In other words, a person may feel sympathetic towards another person's difficulties, but not feel inclined to help.
Pity: Feeling sorry for the suffering or misfortune of someone else. Pity is similar to compassion, but it suggests a power imbalance, whereby the observer occupies a place of superiority and looks down upon the person who is suffering.
The kindness Happiness Loop and its connection to volunteering
The kindness Happiness Loop and its connection to volunteering