Being kind to other people can make both them and you feel good. And that's not all: Research shows that when you make the effort to feel compassion for others and treat them with patience and kindness, it causes a physiological reaction that can reduce the harmful stress hormone cortisol. Too much cortisol, which is to say too much stress, can impair your memory and interfere with brain function, so anything that decreases cortisol in your system is good for brain health. It turns out that learning kindness and compassion can create this effect, according to a study by researchers at Stanford and UC Berkeley.
To understand how this works, imagine yourself under stress. You're behind on a deadline, running late for a meeting, and facing a financial setback that could put your company in jeopardy. While you're mentally struggling with all these stressors, your spouse forgets an important appointment. Or your employee asks for an extension on a task that was due yesterday. What is your most likely reaction? Will you treat the other person with forgiveness and compassion, offering reassurance that their slip-up isn't the end of the world? Or are you more likely to let them know just how frustrated and annoyed you are?
If you're like most humans, the fact that you're feeling stress makes you likelier to respond with anger rather than kindness. (This is certainly true of me.) Unfortunately, according to James Doty, clinical professor of neurosurgery at Stanford and a co-author of the study, many of us feel at least some level of stress much of the time. Cultivating feelings of kindness and compassion counteracts that stress, he explains in an article on Uplift. "When someone acts with compassionate intention, it has a huge, huge positive effect on their physiology," Doty says. "It takes them out of the threat mode and puts them into the rest and digest mode."
"To be happy, practice compassion."
In addition to lowering our own stress levels, there's plenty of evidence that being kind to others makes us happier. As the Dalai Lama has said (and tweeted), "If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion." Tibetan monk Matthieu Ricard, whose brain scans suggest that he is the happiest person on earth, spends much of his time meditating on compassion, or what Buddhists call "loving-kindness."
In the Stanford/Berkeley experiment, 51 subjects, randomly selected from a larger study, entered Stanford's Compassion Cultivation Training program. Over 10 weeks of training, they were asked twice a day how anxious, calm, fatigued, or alert they were feeling at that moment. They also filled out weekly questionnaires, assessing how often they'd had those feelings during the preceding week. The result: "During [the training] there were significant decreases in anxiety and increases in calmness," the researchers wrote. "With each successive rating, participants were less likely to want to reduce their anxiety and fatigue, as well as less likely to want to enhance their feelings of calmness and alertness."
The Compassion Cultivation Training, sadly, has been suspended during the pandemic. But we can still focus on compassion, and we can still make the effort to react with kindness to our employees and family members, as well as the strangers we meet every day. Practicing kindness can make the world a better place. And it can help you be happier and healthier and think more clearly, as well.