Everyday Mysticism: The Science of Happiness – Week Three


Welcome to our limited series on The Science of Happiness. Introduction: here | Week One: here | Week Two: here | Week Three: here | Week Four: here | Week Five: here | Week Six: here | Week Seven: here | Week Eight: here | Week Nine: here

Last week, we looked at how our interpersonal relationships affected our happiness. This week, the course covers compassion, kindness, and other “pro-social” behaviors that contribute to our happiness. While spiritual leaders have been telling us for centuries that doing good works—helping others, being kind, being compassionate, and such—brings us joy, researchers are now documenting these benefits, as well as exploring the evolutionary and biological reasons for these benefits.

Why do we do the good we do?

Besides strengthening social connections, which we already know to improve happiness, activities like spending money on others, volunteering, and other supportive behaviors boost happiness, activates reward circuitry in the brain, and lead to overall better life satisfaction and health. But why?

There are several reasons people choose kindness. In addition to our own sense of empathy, there is a sort of social status to be gained by being kind or generous. Many of us feel motivated towards kindness through a sense of reciprocation or “paying it forward.” For the times we have been helped in the past, we choose to help another in need through a sense of gratitude.

The biggest driver of good works appears to be compassion, that feeling that arises when you witness the suffering of someone else and want to help relieve that suffering. Unlike empathy, where you can identify with another’s situation but aren’t necessarily compelled to help, compassion motivates you do actually do something to alleviate that suffering.

Are we built for compassion?

Science suggests that compassion is actually an innate trait in human beings, rather than taught or learned behaviors. Darwin, in his Descent of Man, stated that sympathy “will have been increased through natural selection; for those communities, which included the greatest number of the most sympathetic members, would flourish best, and rear the greatest number of offspring.” In other words, sympathy and compassion helped our ancestors form communities and take care of offspring to continue the species. These genetic traits towards compassion, cooperation, and kindness would have survived in the successful communities, shaping the very nature of what it means to be human.

So, what is this compassion thing everyone’s talking about?

Compassion is that feeling you get when you see someone else suffering and want to help relieve their suffering. That desire to help is what distinguishes compassion from other feelings. For example, when you feel empathy, you sense or understand the emotions of others, but you’re not necessarily driven to help them. Mimicry is another tendency humans have, where we imitate the emotions or behaviors of other people. We may experience “contagious” yawns and laughs, but it’s not the same as feeling concern about the other persons’ welfare.

Compassion is also different from pity. Yes, when you pity someone, you want to help them. You feel for their pain. But pity implies a certain degree of inequality wherein the one doing the pity is superior to the one being pitied. Finally, altruism is when we act to help someone even at a risk or cost to ourselves.

Bottom Line?

Just like our parents taught us, and our teachers, and our religious mentors as well, it seems that being kind actually makes us happier people. In studies of toddlers, researchers observed that children who gave away a treat when they received a treat appeared happier, and that they experienced even more happiness when they gave away one of their own treats. The act of sacrificing something to help another person made them happier than if they helped with no cost to themselves.

We are basically a kind species, and we feel good when we do kind things. We feel better when these are done because we want to do them (as opposed to being compelled), but we still feel good. Biologically, when you are kind, the pleasure and reward centers of the brain are activated. We like to feel good, so we continue acting in ways that make us feel good. It’s a perpetual loop—kindness, happiness, happiness, kindness.

Avoid Compassion Drain

In a world full of suffering, it’s common to experience compassion overload. When there is simply too much to take in, it can become overwhelming or expensive or just plain too much. Wars, natural disasters, and other types of large-scale tragedies can trigger intense compassion in people, but too many of these events in rapid succession can cause us to shut down emotionally. There are plenty of ways we can build up our compassion muscles.

  • It matters to that starfish. There’s an old story about a man walking down a beach covered by thousands of stranded starfish. As he walked, the man would stop, pick up a starfish, and throw it back into the sea. When a passerby told him he would never be able to help all the starfish, the man looked at the starfish in his hand, threw it into the sea, and said, “Well, I helped that one.” Yes, your act of kindness (donation, volunteering, etc.) may be just a drop in the bucket. But every drop in the bucket helps somebody, and a whole lot of drops fill a whole lot of buckets.
  • Make kindness easy. I was unemployed and living in Kentucky when Hurricane Katrina devastated my home state of Louisiana. Too broke to even return home to help with the cleanup, I was devastated by my inability to help. But I was active in fanfiction at the time, and found groups where I could write stories for donations. That way, I was able to raise over $100 hurricane relief by doing something I loved to do.
  • Muscle Up. Build up your capacity to experience compassion. Whether it’s through meditation practices or just engaging in Random Acts of Kindness, it is possible to increase our capacity for compassion.
  • Elevate, elevate, elevate. You know that warm, uplifting feeling you get when you see unexpected acts of goodness, kindness, compassion or decency? Well, that feeling is contagious and definitely inspirational. Seeking out good news, inspirational people, and looking for the decency in other people (rather than focusing on the negative) not only elevates you, it inspires others as well.

Thanks for joining us this week. Coming up in Week Four: cooperation, embarrassment, trust, and forgiveness.

If you’d like to audit The Science of Happiness for free, sign up at the Greater Good Science Center here. You can also listen to the excellent podcast of the same name from Public Radio International.



8 thoughts on “Everyday Mysticism: The Science of Happiness – Week Three

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