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Science Agrees with Religion: Compassion is Good for You
Author: James R. Doty, M.D.

When we think of taking care of our health, most of us think of proper diet, an exercise routine, and maybe some stress-reduction. Do we ever think of compassion? Not usually.
Sometime ago, Deepak and I discussed the concept of a compassion gymnasium recognizing that one of the best ways to improve one’s mental, physical and spiritual health is through compassion. At the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University (CCARE), which I direct, we are taking this concept seriously. Why?
Let me back up a minute and explain. There is an epidemic in the West of loneliness, isolation and depression. We have created a society where competitiveness and envy are promoted, where one hears repeatedly the message that in order to be happy one must consume, purchase, increase one’s bank account, look 25 and be professionally successful at all cost, where one in every four people feels that they have no one to talk to if they are in pain or suffering, where a large number feel disconnected from those around them. A society of plenty where so many still feel impoverished. Yet, what is often forgotten is that one of the most important and consistent sources of happiness and fulfillment is compassion.

As I mentioned in my recent blog in the Huffington Post, many people think compassion is just a hippy dippy religious term irrelevant in modern society. But when one reviews the rigorous scientific data from a number of major research centers around the world, I can tell you this is not true. Scientific data now supports the view that all major world religions and spiritual traditions have long held: compassion is good. It is good for the recipient but, just as important, it is good for the giver.

We need only experience this for ourselves. Whenever we act with generosity or kindness, we inevitably feel good. One brain imaging study showed that the same amount of activation happened in the brain when people were given money or when they saw money being given to charity. In both occasions, activation happened in the pleasure centers of the brain and when they were actually the ones to give money, they felt even better. Another study showed that spending money on others increases well-being above and beyond spending money on ourselves. We love to give and to help, it creates a sense of elation within us, a state coined “elevation” by Jonathan Haidt at the University of Virginia. It is a natural and instinctual process that has evolved over millions of years in a variety of species because compassion, kindness and cooperation ultimately ensures a species survival in the long term.

Further, ground-breaking researchers such as Steve Cole’s at UCLA has shown that loneliness and social disconnection can take a tremendous toll on one’s health, weakening the immune system and making it prone to inflammation and infection. One large-scale study showed that lack of social connectedness predicts vulnerability to disease and death above and beyond traditional risk factors such as smoking, blood pressure, obesity and lack of physical activity! On the flip side, however, expert well-being psychologists like Ed Diener and Martin Seligman have shown that social connectedness is a predictor of longer life, faster recovery from disease, higher levels of happiness and well-being, and a greater sense of purpose and meaning. Stephanie Brown, professor at SUNY Stony Brook University and the University of Michigan, showed that, in a group of elderly people, those that helped others had greater levels of health and well-being than people who were recipients of help. It is through giving and compassion that health and happiness ensues.

So how can we increase compassion in our lives? One way is to change our brain. Is this possible? Emphatically, the answer is YES. It can be done through mental training. Chuck Raison and colleagues at Emory University have demonstrated that a regular compassion meditation practice reduces negative neuroendocrine, inflammatory and behavioral responses to psychosocial stress. Preliminary data from the Stanford Compassion Cultivation Training Program developed at CCARE is also demonstrating that an 8-week program increases self-reported feelings of compassion.
Another way is through engagement in community service, practicing active listening with those around us, and turning our attention away from ourselves and towards others that we work with, live with, or even strangers we encounter. There are countless opportunities for kindness every day, whether helping someone pick up their groceries, smiling at a toll booth operator, or wishing your loved one a wonderful day. Having a compassionate outlooks not only makes your feel better but research has shown it stimulates others to act compassionately.

At Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE), in collaboration with colleagues in psychology and the neurosciences worldwide, we aim to further research on compassion and altruism. So as you can see the idea of a compassion gymnasium isn’t so far fetched.

I’m happy to report that in July, CCARE will be sponsoring the largest gathering of experts ever brought together on this topic in a conference entitled, Science of Compassion: Origins, Measures and Interventions. Many of the pioneering researchers of compassion, including several mentioned in this article will be presenting their latest research findings there. We invite you to join us to learn more about the amazing world of compassion. For more information, please see http://ccare.stanford.edu/telluride.

[a] Jazaieri, H., Jinpa, T. G., McGonigal, K., Rosenberg, E., Finkelstein, J., Simon-Thomas, E., Cullen, M., Doty, J. R., Gross, J. J., & Goldin, P. R. (2012). Enhancing Compassion: A Randomized Control Trial of a Compassion Cultivation Training Program. Manuscript submitted for publication to Journal of Happiness Studies.

About the author:

James R. Doty, M.D.
Professor of Neurosurgery
Founder & Director, Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE)
Stanford Institute of Neuro-Innovation and Translational Neuroscience (SINTN)
Stanford University School of Medicine

James R. Doty, M.D. is Professor of Neurosurgery at Stanford University School of Medicine and Founder and Director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education ( http://ccare.stanford.edu ) at Stanford University. The Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, of which His Holiness the Dalai Lama is the founding benefactor, aims to support rigorous scientific research on compassion. Dr. Doty collaborates with scientists from a number of disciplines examining the neural, moral and social bases for compassion and altruism. In addition, Dr. Doty is an inventor, entrepreneur, and philanthropist. As a philanthropist, he supports a number of charitable organizations focused on peace and healthcare throughout the world. Additionally, he supports a variety of research initiatives and has provided scholarships and endowed chairs at multiple universities. He serves on the board of a number of non-profit organizations including as Chairman of the Dalai Lama Foundation and is on the International Advisory Board of the Council of the Parliament of the World's Religions.


 

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