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Compassion, wanting to reduce the pain of others, sometimes gets a bad rap. Some view it as a soft and fluffy virtue that allows others to walk all over you. However, giving and receiving compassion offers tremendous benefits for physical and psychological health.
Skeptics might be surprised about the science that backs up the power of compassion. Researchers have been studying the effects of compassion and have found compelling results. Studies indicate that compassion improves overall well-being, lessens implicit biases, and may even help you live longer.
These five studies help shine a light on the power of compassion.
You might have seen this TED talk given by psychiatrist Robert Waldinger from Harvard University. He shares the findings of the longest study on happiness—The Study of Adult Development, which is a combination of two 75-year-old studies. Researchers followed 268 male Harvard graduate and 456 men from the poorest neighborhoods of Boston and asked them each year about various aspects of their lives. Researchers also scanned participants’ brains and took blood samples to learn as much about these men as they could.
What did the researchers conclude was the ticket to a fulfilling and happy life? It wasn’t status, financial success, or even the amount of exercise. According to Waldinger, the research indicates that, above all else, “Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.”
University of Buffalo researcher Michael J. Poulin was curious about the associations between helping others, stress, and mortality rates. He and his team asked 846 people in the Detroit, Mich., area if they had experienced a stressful event in the past year and if they had helped others.
Through obituaries and state death records, Poulin monitored whether or not any of the subjects died over the following five years. His findings indicate that stressful events had a correlation to mortality, but only for those who had not engaged in altruism (acting unselfishly for others). Those who had helped friends or family members had reduced mortality rates, regardless of whether or not the helpers themselves had experienced stressful events.
A team of researchers out of the University of California, Berkeley, Stanford University, and the University of California, Davis, used a smartphone application to assess whether compassion training alters the feelings of anxiety, calm, fatigue, and alertness.
They also used the app to find out if the training might influence a participant’s desire to lessen, maintain, and enhance their feelings, or not influence their feelings at all.
Study participants attended the nine-week Compassion Cultivation Training course, and results of the study show a decrease in anxiety, an increase in calmness, and a willingness to accept their feelings instead of a desire to alter them.
Loving-kindness meditation employs a visualization technique to cultivate feelings of goodwill toward various people. Typically, you begin by offering wishes of goodwill toward yourself and then extend those wishes toward a loved one, a stranger, a difficult person, and, ultimately, all beings.
A 2013 study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology examined how loving-kindness meditation may influence unconscious (or implicit) biases toward homeless or Black people. Researchers divided study participants into three groups.
The results indicate that loving-kindness meditation lessens bias against these stigmatized out-groups.
A 2011 study out of Harvard and Northeastern University looked at whether synchronized tapping of the hands might cultivate altruism and compassion. Researchers divided study participants into two groups, and they were told that they were involved in a study that looked at how rhythmic abilities affected decision-making. In reality, the participants were involved in a study about compassion.
One by one, participants were led into a room, given headphones, and instructed to tap along to a certain beat for three minutes. While they were tapping with their fingers on the table, they faced an individual who was also tapping. The individuals across from them were on the research team, but the participants thought that the other was also enrolled in the study.
Half of the participants tapped at the same time as the person across the table from them, and half tapped to a different rhythm than the other. Researchers then assessed whether the participants felt similar to the other person who tapped with them. They also monitored whether the participants would offer compassion to that person and perform an altruistic act for that person.
The research showed that those who experienced synchronized tapping felt that their tablemates were similar to them. They were also more likely to offer compassion and altruism toward their tablemate than those who did not tap along to the same beat.
Acting kindly toward others is a good thing to do. It is a wonderful benefit that being compassionate also means good things for yourself.
*Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only; does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Chopra Center's Mind-Body Medical Group; and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health program.