How we are Wired for Kindness

Science shows we prefer compassion, and our capacity grows with practice

A three-month old infant sits propped up in her mother’s lap, entranced by a puppet show. A small dog tries to lift a heavy bag, and a kind teddy bear helps. Then, as the dog struggles once again to lift the bag, a mean bunny grabs it away.

After the puppet show, the infant is shown both the teddy bear and the dog – and stares at the kind doggy. For infants, that stare indicates liking.

It’s not just newborns. Given the same kind-mean choice 80 to 100 percent of infants and toddlers up to two years old prefer the kind puppet.

That three-month-old was part of a series of such studies by Kiley Hamlin at the University of British Columbia suggesting we come into this world wired to prefer kindness. The data adds to research challenging the assumption that self-interest alone guides us through life, painting human nature as a mix of self-interest and compassion. And converging date strongly suggests we can get better at strengthening the better side of our nature.

This scientific line of evidence was what the Dalai Lama cited – rather than any religious beliefs – in urging us all to embrace compassion, as I found when I interviewed him for my book “A Force for Good: The Dalai Lama’s Vision for Our World.” Compassion, he says – and science agrees – is innate, and can be strengthened like a muscle.

And, he adds, mobilizing our compassion just might provide us much of the fuel needed to tackle humanity’s most daunting challenges, from economic and racial inequity to the slow-motion species suicide our environmental impacts may bring.

Some of the evidence that compassion can be cultivated comes from studies on “social-emotional learning” (or SEL), school programs that complement the standard emphasis on academics with age-attuned lessons in self-awareness, managing upsetting emotions, empathy, relationship skills, and smart life decisions.

One SEL program, MINDUP, increased not just empathy in elementary school students, but also upped the number of their actual acts of kindness, according to a study published in January in the journal Developmental Psychology.

A meta-analysis of such studies with a total of 270,000 schoolchildren and teenagers found SEL programs, on average, boost pro-social activities like helping others and positive attitudes about school itself by ten percent, while anti-social indicators like fights and bullying drop ten percent – and often more in the schools where students need help most.

These programs, supporters argue, buttress positive human capacities, and help innoculate children against the harmful aspects of competition they are likely to encounter in school.

Research shows that as they enter school around age 5 or so five or so, children shift away from their innate altruism toward selfishness. But when pre-schoolers at the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin took part in a curriculum that had them think about the advantages of kindness – and used re-enforcers like giving a child a sticker in a “kindness garden” poster for being nice – the expected shift toward selfishness as they entered kindergarten at age five was neutralized.

And in a study published in PLOS One in 2012, among fourth and fifth graders the more acts of kindness, the happier and more popular the child and the less likely to be bullied.

Strengthening our compassionate side is not just for kids. At Germany’s Max Planck Institute, as neuroscientist Tania Singer reported last year in the journal Social and Cognitive Neuroscience, our compassion circuitry activates the neural network for caring for our young that we share with all mammals. Understandably, it also increases the likelihood we will help someone in need. Bonus: compassion also activates brain circuits for pleasure and good feeling.

A daily practice of minutes spend cultivating an attitude of compassion strengthens all this wiring, the Max Planck studies found – as have research with compassion-boosting programs for adults at Stanford University, Emory University, and the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

The steps are simple – any of us can try it. One widely used method for increasing compassion is to simply close your eyes, picture people who have been especially kind to you in your life, and repeat silently to yourself phrases like, “May they be safe. May they be happy. May they be free from suffering. May they have the ease of well-being.”

Then you do the same for yourself, then for your loved ones, then with people in your area, and finally for everyone everywhere. If you feel inspired, you can add people you have difficulties with.

As with any fitness program, the more you practice, the stronger the benefits seem to be. When neuroscientists at the University of Wisconsin tested the meditation equivalent of Olympic champs (15,000-55,000 lifetime practice hours) during this practice, the observed boost in the brain’s centers for positive feeling was off the charts.

I tried this method the other day, eyes open, while walking 50 blocks through the human thickets of mid-town Manhattan, making those “lovingkindness” wishes for strangers as they passed. Though I started out in a rather drab mood, by the end of the walk I found myself smiling broadly.

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