Compassion's curative power

Emma Seppala, PhD is the associate director of Stanford School of Medicine’s The Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE) and a well-known researcher and speaker on the science of well-being, social connection and compassion. BeWell spoke with Dr. Seppala to glean her latest insights and learned that strong medicine does not always come in a prescription drug vial.

Are we wired for kindness?

Absolutely. Whether scientists have studied the animal kingdom (from rats to primates), infants or adults, our first instinct is to help someone in need. In general, our first instinct and spontaneous impulse is to help, to act fairly and kindly. Living a life of purpose and care is so deeply beneficial that researchers believe this trait has emerged as a part of human evolution. At our core, both animals and human beings have what Dacher Keltner at the University of California, Berkeley, coins a “compassionate instinct”: compassion is a natural and automatic response that has ensured our survival. Darwin's message was not "survival of the fittest" (a phrase coined later by Herbert Spencer), but rather "survival of the kindest" — because we need each other's support and care to survive as a species.

Empathy: the most evolved form of kindness

Most of us (except in extreme cases, such as psychopaths) are wired for empathy, defined as the shared experience of someone else’s pain or pleasure. Whenever we look at or interact with others, parts of our brain, “mirror neurons,” internally echo what others do and feel. Someone’s smile, for example, activates the smile muscles in our faces, while a frown activates our frown muscles. In this way, we “read” other people’s states of mind. Think about when you see a relative walk into the room with a troubled expression; before you’ve even exchanged words, you know if something is going terribly wrong or wonderfully right. Our brain is wired to read cues so subtle that although our brain may not consciously register them ("he doesn't seem angry”), our body will. Research by Stanford University’s James Gross shows that even when someone is hiding their anger and we don’t consciously know they are upset, our blood pressure will increase. Our wiring for empathy is so deep that, just by observing someone else in pain, the "pain matrix" in our brain is activated. If someone else hurts, we hurt ... 

From empathy to action

… and we want to help. Instinctively, our first impulse both as children and adults (and even in animals) is to help, to be fair, to share. Research by Michael Tomasello at the Max Planck Institute shows that primates and infants too young to have learned the rules of politeness will spontaneously engage in helpful behavior and will even overcome obstacles to do so. David Rand at Harvard University shows that, when playing games for rewards such as money, adults’ and children’s first impulse is to act with fairness and to share.

Does compassion offer any health benefits? 

Compassion offers tremendous benefits for both physical and mental health and overall well-being. Research by APS William James Fellow Ed Diener (a leading researcher in positive psychology) and APS James McKeen Cattell Fellow Martin Seligman (a pioneer of the psychology of happiness and human flourishing) 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 (Stony Brook University) and Sara Konrath (University of Michigan) has shown that compassion may even lengthen our life spans.

Compassion: a healthy pleasure 

The beneficial effect of a compassionate lifestyle on our psychological well-being may be explained by the fact that the act of giving appears to be as pleasurable, if not more so, as the act of receiving. A brain-imaging study headed by neuroscientist Jordan Grafman (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 an individual gives money to charity as when receiving money him/herself! 

In a revealing experiment by Elizabeth Dunn (University of British Columbia), participants received a sum of money and half of the participants were instructed to spend the money on themselves; the other half was told to spend the money on others. At the end of the study, which was published in Science, participants who had spent money on others felt significantly happier than those who had spent money on themselves. Therefore, giving to others appears to increase well-being even above and beyond what we experience when we spend money on ourselves.

What is the science behind compassion’s health impact?

A clue to this question rests in a fascinating new study by Steve Cole (University of California, Los Angeles) and APS Fellow Barbara Fredrickson (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill). The results were reported at Stanford Medical School’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education’s (CCARE) inaugural Science of Compassion conference in 2012. Their study 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 types of “very happy” people. They found that people who were happy because they lived the “good life” (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. 

Another way in which a compassionate lifestyle may improve longevity is that it may serve as a buffer against stress. A new study (spearheaded by the University at Buffalo’s Michael Poulin) conducted on a large population (more than 800 people) found that while stress did not predict mortality in those who helped others, mortality was negatively impacted for those individuals who did not help others. One of the reasons that compassion may protect against stress is the very fact that it is so pleasurable. Motivation, however, seems to play an important role in predicting whether a compassionate lifestyle exerts a beneficial impact on health. Sara Konrath (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.

Compassion’s link with social connection 

Compassion may boost our well-being because it increases a 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 also code for immune function and inflammation), helps us recover from disease faster, and may even lengthen our life. 

The mental boost from compassion and connection

Compassion may boost our well-being because it broadens 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 recall a time you were feeling blue and suddenly a close friend or relative calls you for urgent help with a problem, you may remember that as your attention shifts to helping them, your mood lifts. Rather than feeling blue, you may have felt energized to help; before you knew it, you may have even felt better and gained some perspective on your own situation as well.

Moreover, studies show that socially-connected individuals have higher self-esteem, are more empathic to others, more trusting and cooperative. 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 also true for those who lack social connectedness. Low social connection has been generally associated with declines in physical and psychological health, as well as a higher propensity for antisocial behavior that leads to further isolation. Adopting a compassionate lifestyle or cultivating compassion may help boost social connection and improve physical and psychological health.

What has surprised you most about compassion research?

I always felt that service, kindness and compassion could make a big difference, but I did not realize the extent to which it could both change our lives and our society. Why are the lives of people like Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Desmond Tutu so inspiring? Research by APS Fellow Jonathan Haidt at the University of Virginia suggests that seeing someone helping another person creates a state of “elevation.” Have you ever been moved to tears by seeing someone’s loving and compassionate behavior? Haidt’s data suggests that elevation then inspires us to help others — and it may just be the force behind a chain reaction of giving. Haidt has shown that corporate leaders who engage in self-sacrificing behavior and elicit “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. 

Compassion is contagious — in a good way!

Social scientists James Fowler (University of California, San Diego) and Nicholas Christakis (Harvard University) demonstrated that acts of generosity and kindness beget more generosity in a chain reaction of goodness. In other words, helping is contagious. You may have seen one of the news reports about chain reactions that occur when someone pays for the coffee of the drivers behind them at a drive-through restaurant or at a highway tollbooth. People keep the generous behavior going for hours. Our acts of compassion uplift others and make them happy. In other words, you may feel like just one small human being in a giant worldwide population and you may wonder how much of an impact you really can have, but research shows that you can have a huge impact — so go for it, and live a life of compassion!