Is being compassionate healthy?

By James Doty
Compassion is defined as the embodiment and recognition of another person’s suffering coupled with a sincere desire to alleviate that suffering. Every one of us has suffered, is suffering or will, at some point, suffer. It has been stated many times that survival is of the fittest, but when one reads Darwin closely this is not the case. Rather, the more accurate statement, coined by Dacher Keltner, Ph.D. and other leading social scientists, is “the survival of the kindest.” Paul Ekman, Ph.D., a leading expert on emotion describes an ever expanding body of scientific evidence that being compassionate affords significant benefit to oneself and society in his recent article in JAMA. In addition to evidence that survival may be enhanced by may be enhanced by caring for others, there are now findings suggesting that the statement made by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, “if one wishes to make others happy be compassionate, if one wishes to be happy be compassionate,” in fact, has great validity.

But happiness alone is not the only benefit of being compassionate. In a number of studies using a variety of psychological and biological measures and neuroimaging techniques, compassion not only stimulates one’s pleasure (reward) centers but also leads to a decrease in biological markers of stress and an increase in indices of adaptive immune function. The other extraordinary finding is that though our capacity to be compassionate is, in part, controlled by our genes, the work at our center, The Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford, (and a number of other centers) is demonstrating that compassion can be trained. In fact, this compassion training is based on practices by a number of contemplative traditions that have been practiced over 2500 years.

So what’s not to like about being compassionate? It improves survival of the species, leads to happiness and results in improved health. The reality is that while science and technology have the potential to offer incredible benefit, it is the simple interventions known to us for thousands of years that can have a profound effect on the lives of individuals and society. It is the humility of a number of scientists who had the courage to explore these ancient traditions who have created the powerful validated techniques to improve the health and happiness of those struggling with our modern, non-compassion-promoting society.

Dr. Doty is a Clinical Professor in the Department of Neurosurgery at Stanford University and director and founder of Project Compassion. This is the third in a series of essays exploring the relationship between religion and science. This series is an outgrowth of the Sages and Scientists Symposium sponsored by the Chopra Foundation.