Kindness and Compassion: Week 3 of “The Science of Happiness” on edX

On September 9, the first positive psychology MOOC (massively open online course) called “The Science of Happiness” launched on edX. A whopping 100,000 students were signed up to learn more about what researchers have discovered about how to be happier. Taught by Berkeley’s Dacher Keltner and Emiliana Simon-Thomas, the course promises guest lectures by Sonja Lyubomirsky and Barbara Fredrickson and is an amalgamation of videos, readings, and happiness exercises.

Now, the self-paced version of “The Science of Happiness” will run until May 31, when all quizzes and tests are due. If you’re taking the course and want a refresher, or are just a little curious, here’s a summary of the content for week 3, Kindness and Compassion

Intro to week 3 (Emiliana Simon-Thomas)

Pro-social behaviors and emotions are directed at improving the well-being of others. This week looks at two of them: kindness and (one of its major motivators) compassion. Why are we studying kindness in a happiness course? Because various evidence suggests that kindness makes us happier: it literally activates the brain’s reward circuitry and strengthens our social connections. We’re happier when we spend money on others vs. on ourself, for example, and people who volunteer are more satisfied with life and in better health.

What is compassion and why does it matter?

What is compassion? (Dacher Keltner)

Kindness might be motivated by empathy, gratitude, or a desire for social status, but it might also be motivated by compassion. Compassion is the feeling of witnessing someone suffering and wanting to help them. That desire to help distinguishes compassion from empathy and from mimicry. Compassion is also different from pity, which includes the belief that the person suffering is inferior to us. Acting on compassion leads to altruism – helping others, even if it involves sacrifice – but compassion isn’t always acted upon, and altruism can be motivated by other things. Here’s a little graphic we created that might help:

Compassion empathy altruism

Various religious traditions emphasize compassion, but where does it come from? Although many theorists didn’t believe we evolved to be compassionate, Charles Darwin himself thought that sympathy or compassion was our strongest instinct. He reasoned that compassionate groups of people would cooperate better and raise more children. Altruism evolved for the same reasons, and it’s called “reciprocal altruism” when we expect the people we help to help us in the future.

Over time, training in compassion can increase happiness as well as altruism.

What’s good about compassion (Emiliana Simon-Thomas)

Compassion has three stages, beginning with empathy. After experiencing the emotions of others or understanding their perspective, we start to have other feelings. We might feel caring, distressed, or even annoyed. In the third stage, we form judgments about ourselves, the sufferers, and the environment that help us decide how to act (see the graphic above).

Compassion makes us happier by many pathways. It creates empathy, improving our social connections and making us feel more similar to others (particularly vulnerable people). It teaches us to manage distress: we learn to sit with others’ pain and channel it in a positive direction toward caregiving. Compassionate people also see themselves as more capable and self-efficacious, characteristics that are associated with happiness and resilience.

In the body, compassion has a number of physiological effects. It activates empathic and caregiving circuitry in the brain. It makes us happier by increasing vagal nerve activity and boosting the reward/pleasure response we get from helping others. It also has lasting stress-reduction effects, lowering stress response and amygdala activity when we’re confronted with challenging situations.

“The compassionate instinct” by Dacher Keltner

The same region of the brain activates when we imagine harm being done to others as when mothers look at their babies – suggesting that compassion may have its roots in our care for offspring (who are born more premature and dependent than other mammals’). The same brain region is also associated with positive emotions. Compassion calms our autonomic nervous system, slowing our heart rate, and can kick off a virtuous circle where compassion stimulates oxytocin that encourages more compassionate behavior. When we actually reach out and help others, we have activity in the brain’s reward/pleasure centers (like the caudate nucleus and anterior cingulate).

We’re hardwired to express compassion through facial expressions and touch. When we feel compassion, we display a concerned gaze and oblique eyebrows. Keltner’s research has also shown that a short touch on the arm from a stranger – whom we can’t even see – can convey compassion quite accurately.

Compared to negative emotions, positive emotions are less genetic and more influenced by our environment. So parents can try to raise compassionate children by helping them develop a secure attachment style, parenting with reasoning rather than power, and modeling compassion themselves.

The war on compassion (Dacher Keltner)

Despite recent scientific evidence for it, our compassionate nature has its critics. Freud believed that humans only desire sex and destruction, while Machiavelli saw us as fickle, hypocritical, and greedy beings. Immanuel Kant thought sympathy was a sign of weakness, and Ayn Rand famously spoke out against altruism.

In addition, our national and global culture is not as compassionate as it could be. Among industrialized nations, the United States is the only one to punish prisoners with solitary confinement and has one of the harshest criminal justice systems. Studies show that empathy is declining among students.

Paul Ekman on the building blocks of compassion

According to Ekman, compassion begins by recognizing what the other person is feeling. The next step is “emotional resonance”: where we actually feel someone else’s pain. But this response isn’t universal – some people, particularly anti-social people, do not resonate and instead may pretend they do in order to be socially accepted. Others experience “reactive resonance,” where we feel a different emotion in response to someone’s pain.

These stages can lead to various types of compassion: familial, global, sentient, or heroic.

How kindness fosters happiness

The kindness-happiness loop (Dacher Keltner)

Many studies have linked kindness to happiness, health, and a decrease in negative emotions. Kindness makes us less lonely and less depressed. It strengthens our immune system, reduces aches and pains, improves our cardiovascular profile, and boosts energy and strength in elderly people. In fact, people who volunteer live longer, and elderly people who care for others are less likely to die over a certain period of time.

In one famous study, people who spent $5 or $20 on others were happier at the end of the day, while people who spent it on themselves got less happy – a finding that is being confirmed across cultures. If we enroll in a two-month program in loving-kindness meditation, we’ll see an increase in our daily positive emotions.

“Kindness makes you happy…and happiness makes you kind” by Alex Dixon

One study showed that doing a daily act of kindness gives us as much of a happiness boost as doing something new every day. Even remembering a time when we spent money on someone else can boost happiness, and the happier we are when reminiscing, the more likely we’ll choose to spend money on others again (when given the option).

Sonja Lyubomirsky: Happiness for a lifetime

What’s the best way to boost our happiness with kindness? Pack one day with five acts of kindness, says Lyubomirsky’s research. (People who spread out five kind acts across a week didn’t get happier, probably because their kindnesses were less salient.)

Kindness changes the way we see ourselves: we become pillars of generosity, interconnected to those around us. We start giving people the benefit of the doubt and feel less distressed when we see suffering, because we’re doing our little part to help. Kindness also helps us make more friends and become the recipient of others’ kindnesses.

Happiness practice #3: Random acts of kindness

Follow Lyubomirsky’s suggestion and do five kind things – that you wouldn’t normally do – in a single day. To maximize the effects, make them all different and take time later to write down what you did and how you felt. The five kindnesses don’t have to be for the same person, and the person doesn’t even have to know about it (like feeding someone’s parking meter).

Evidence from evolution, child development, and biology

Evolutionary roots of kindness (Dacher Keltner)

Besides the fact that kindness propels us to care for offspring and is often reciprocated, evolution also selected for kindness because it makes us attractive to potential mates. One survey of 10,000 people from 37 countries found that good character/kindness was the most important trait that attracted people to long-term partners.

Further evidence that kindness is innate can be found in our instinctual reactions. When you force people to decide in 10 seconds or less how much to give, they give more than when they have extra time to think about it – suggesting that we have generous intuitions. Even 18-month-old children, who are relatively unburdened by social norms, show strong tendencies to help others.

“Being kind makes kids happy” by Delia Fuhrmann

One study introduced toddlers to a monkey pet and then distributed treats in various ways. Observers rated the toddler as happier when giving away one of their treats to the monkey than giving away a treat the experimenter found or even getting a treat. This suggests that kindness is innately pleasurable, although it’s possible that these young children have already been taught to be kind.

Research suggests that the way to raise kind children is not necessarily to reward them for kindness, which makes them see themselves as doing kind acts for the reward. Instead, parents should help kids cultivate an internal motivation to be kind.

Biological evidence that kindness fosters happiness

More studies of the brain show a connection between kindness and happiness. The reward systems in our brain show similar activity when we win money and when the same money goes to a charity of our choice. When our romantic partners are receiving electric shocks and we comfort them by holding their arm, the brain’s reward circuitry also activates. In short, when we give, our brains looks like they are gaining something – and the pleasure we feel will make us more likely to give in the future.

“5 ways giving is good for you” by Jason Marsh and Jill Suttie

We’ve talked about about how giving makes us happier, healthier, and more socially connected. In addition, it also increases gratitude in both the giver and the receiver – and gratitude is linked to more optimism, satisfaction, connection, positivity, and even exercise. Finally, giving is contagious, inspiring others to give as well.

Challenges to compassion and kindness – and how to overcome them

Challenges to compassion and kindness (Dacher Keltner)

Our environment can have a big effect on whether we decide to help others or not. If we’re busy, we’ve been playing too many violent video games, or the sufferer is outside our group, we’re less likely to help. We’re also discouraged from lending a hand when it doesn’t seem possible or our contribution doesn’t seem to matter, such as when lots and lots of people are in need.

“How to make giving feel good” by Elizabeth W. Dunn and Michael I. Norton

Dunn and Norton cite more evidence on the benefits of kindness: happiness correlates with how much money we spend on others (but not ourselves), and people who have donated to charity in the past month are more satisfied with life.

But not all types of giving make us happier. To get the biggest boost in well-being, the giving must be a choice, not something we feel we’re being forced into. It helps if we feel connected to the recipient and if the helping actually involves spending time with them. And we are happiest when we can see the actual impact of our helping, vs. giving to a big, abstract charity.

“How to increase your compassion bandwidth” by C. Daryl Cameron

Cameron cites a concerning phenomenon: the “collapse of compassion,” how we feel less compassion for larger groups of people than we do for smaller groups or individuals. The reason this happens is that we shut off compassion, because we’re afraid of feeling terrible and having to make big financial sacrifices.

Cameron has looked at different ways to prevent this from happening. In studies, for example, we can prevent the collapse of compassion by assuring participants they’re not expected to donate money or by instructing them to fully experience their emotions.

To increase compassion outside the lab, our job is to help people accept their compassionate emotions and not feel overwhelmed by them. We can do that by making helping easy – like sending a text message to donate – and making clear the impact of that help. Compassion training can also reduce our empathic distress and fear of compassion, and promote helping.

“Can fighting poverty make you happy?” by Jill Suttie

Daniel Karslake, creator of the documentary Every Three Seconds about five people fighting hunger and poverty, shared his insights about helping with Suttie. Helping can start small, and it’s not necessarily done out of a sense of duty – instead, people simply realize they have the opportunity to make a difference. Helpers should be aware of what the recipients need, rather than imposing their views on what would help. And helping can be incredibly rewarding when we see people transformed from a state of suffering to happiness and gratitude.

Scaling up kindness

Kindness is contagious

As mentioned above, kindness is contagious – it can spread three degrees in a social network to a third person we don’t know at all. Seeing people be kind or generous makes us more kind or generous. Being in a group of people who give to charity – like a department at work – makes us more likely to donate.

“Wired to be inspired” by Jonathan Haidt

Haidt studies “elevation,” the warm and uplifting feeling of seeing someone do something good, kind, courageous, or compassionate. The most common cause of elevation is seeing someone help a person in need. What does elevation feel like? We might feel a pleasant tingling in our chest, cry, or (for me) get goosebumps. We feel emotionally moved, surprised and stunned. Elevation induces social feelings, like the desire to be with, love, and help others and the desire to be closer to the person doing the good deed. Elevation can also reduce cynicism and cause people to “turn over a new leaf” or vow to become a better person.

Philip Zimbardo: What makes a hero?

Zimbardo defines heroism as altruism at a great personal risk. Heroes are ordinary people, yet most of us are “reluctant heroes”: we stand by and do nothing. His goal is to understand what makes a hero by studying the “heroic imagination,” the other-focused way of thinking – “from ‘me’ to ‘we'” – that could make us more likely to be heroic when the opportunity arises.

Philip Zimbardo: The Heroic Imagination Project

Heroism ranges from helping in an emergency or sacrificing for non-family to whistle blowing and defying injustice. Although heroes are often seen as solitary, heroism actually works best when we organize networks of people.

Through his research, Zimbardo has identified some of the demographic characteristics of heroes, which make up 20% of the population. They tend to be city dwellers, educated, male, and black. Surviving a disaster or trauma makes us three times more likely to be a hero, and one-third of all heroes are also volunteers.

Zimbardo’s Heroic Imagination Project is trying to figure out how to turn compassion into heroism. In his eyes, heroism is the antidote to indifference and evil.

“The banality of heroism” by Zeno Franco and Philip Zimbardo

Through decades studying the bad side of human nature, researchers have confirmed the idea of “the banality of evil.” Ordinary people can become evil in the right (or wrong) circumstances; there is no clear division between good people and bad people. Experiments like the Stanford Prison Experiment and the Milgram studies have shown that, in a particular environment, people adopt the dehumanizing and cruel behavior that is expected of them.

But the real threat to heroism is not evil but indifference. We tell ourselves that heroes are special – but we are not special, so we can’t be heroes – or that someone else will step in and help. Franco and Zimbardo are trying to teach people that anyone can be a hero.

A hero is someone on a quest – they’re out to save lives or preserve some noble ideal (such as justice). They expect to risk their lives or their social standing. Contrary to popular belief, heroism isn’t always a grand gesture in the heat of the moment; sometimes, heroism can be ongoing and can consist simply in passive acceptance – like Socrates dying for a cause.

What makes a hero? The same situations that bring out evil also tend to bring out heroism, like the Holocaust. Heroes have certain traits of character, like internal strength and self-assurance – they’re willing to stand against the crowd. Often, they have a strong sense of morality that prevents them from doing nothing in the face of injustice (what the authors call a “moral tickle”).

To promote heroism in our society, we should stop using the word “hero” to describe everyone we look up to and reserve it for true cases of heroism. We should cultivate stories of heroism and spread them through media like movies and video games. As individuals, we should be on the alert for opportunities for heroism and avoid talking ourselves out of it by rationalizing why we can’t help or fearing the negative consequences. We have to believe that heroism is the right choice, and it will ultimately be recognized and celebrated.

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