Post No.: 0245
Being benevolent and pro-social (e.g. sharing, helping, cooperating, donating and volunteering) has benefits for one’s own health and happiness. Giving our own resources to bring joy to or to relieve suffering from others evolved to be inherently pleasurable in itself for most of us. Woof!
In experiments, spending on others boosts happiness more than spending on oneself. Volunteering and heroism also lead to a better life satisfaction. Giving is innate, hence why across cultures people (and even some other primates) do it. We do it due to empathy and compassion (intrinsic factors), it can elevate our social status (extrinsic factors), and it boosts gratitude and benevolent reciprocation (good tends to beget good, although acts of kindness are hardly always about expecting any reciprocation e.g. donating to charities).
Giving might also indicate that we can afford to give or that we have something useful to give, and therefore we can recognise that things aren’t as bad for oneself or we’re not as deadweight as we might think. Making a positive contribution or impact on others, to the bigger picture, means a lot to our self-confidence and perceived self-worth. (Satisfaction in one’s work life also involves knowing how our actions contribute positively to the bigger picture of the organisation – happiness at work concerns far more than just the salary.)
Compassion is having the concern for someone else’s welfare that it motivates us to actually take action to help them. It’s not the same as pity since there’s no sense of inferiority imparted or superiority felt. Rationally, it’s better for us, both individually and collectively, to cooperate instead of fight each other most of the time – the economies and welfare of citizens in countries where active conflict is present logically do worse than countries that are in peace. Human ancestors who were compassionate enough to cooperate would have survived better than those who constantly fought against each other, hence compassion has been naturally selected. Now some free-riders would have flourished too but they could only do so because their numbers were and are relatively small – as long as humans still exist, the stable equilibrium will always settle back to most people being kind and compassionate in a population according to game theory because fighters tend to take each other out of the gene pool, and free-riders cannot be greater in number than those they free-ride off (like parasites cannot be bigger than their hosts).
Cooperation pays forwards then comes back around indirectly via a more cohesive and peaceful community, or more directly of course via direct reciprocation, or via efficiency gains for a group being more productive together than the mere sum of their parts (e.g. in looking after the children, who will become the future generations).
Emotions are adaptive, functional and rational when they’re appropriate – we have them because they evolved via natural selection and survival-of-the-fittest processes. Empathy and compassion makes you more socially adept and socially intelligent, and the social benefits this brings.
Neurologically, helping others activates the same brain regions as when we fulfil a personal desire i.e. the gratification we feel from giving is like the gratification we feel from getting something we want. This is due to (pre-emptive) empathy – we unconsciously anticipate the joy or relief a gift or kind gesture will bring to another person and this act of anticipation and empathy activates our own reward centres. Often we cannot wait to see the recipient’s face light up when they open the present we’ve bought or made for them! We’re wired to respond to others suffering and to alleviate it – via affective empathy, we feel their pain and therefore want to relieve it so that, via empathy again, we’ll feel their joy! (The difference between affective and cognitive empathy was discussed in Post No.: 0059.)
So because of our innate empathy, if we can improve another person’s state then we’ll feel their happiness and feel personally happier too. Happiness (as well as sadness and other emotions) is generally contagious. We therefore evolved to enjoy being kind. Compassion also reduces our blood pressure and heart rate – the opposite of a stressful fight-or-flight response. Compassion can overwhelm selfish concerns and motivate genuine altruistic behaviour – the urge to help even a stranger in need who is right in front of us, especially if there’s no one else around to help, is innate and powerful. Just about everyone has instinctively felt this urge before if they’ve ever encountered such a situation. We can even feel the urge to help strangers from the other side of the world after a terrible disaster, through donations.
Compassion means ‘to suffer together’, and it’s more than just empathy, which is feeling what another person is feeling – as stated earlier, compassion makes us feel motivated to actually do something to relieve another person’s suffering. Altruism, in comparison, is an act to promote someone else’s welfare even at a risk or cost to oneself. Like with compassion, empathy is the first step to altruism, although not all empathy leads to altruism and not all altruism is motivated by empathy (in cases of ‘reciprocal altruism’, although this is arguably not true altruism). We can feel empathy, compassion and be altruistic simultaneously.
Sympathy means ‘to feel together’ so is similar to empathy. Being sympathetic is neither blind nor weak – it evolved and is heroic. More effective than extrinsic rewards or punishments (carrots or sticks) – arousing sympathy (e.g. someone crying) can motivate people (and even some other animals e.g. dogs – woof woof) to help. Pity is feeling sorry for someone else but from a perceived position of superiority over the sufferer. Compassion can make us feel more similar to and creates a connection with others (seeing everybody as more alike), particularly our vulnerability and humility; whereas pride does the opposite by making us feel different to and creates a disconnection from others (seeing everybody as part of a hierarchy). Males need to be compassionate too – without vulnerability, there is no love.
Feeling overwhelmed and helpless when seeing a dire situation involving others isn’t great for our happiness though because it can cause feelings of distress and a wish to escape it all or shut it out – but if we conversely feel capable of helping and making a difference then it’s linked to increased resilience and happiness, and this is one reason why altruism feels good. It proves that you are capable of looking after others as much as looking after yourself. Empathy in the face of other people’s tragedies can hurt, can make us want to switch off because it’s too distressing – but having compassion and the desire to help is empowering and gives us hope, which generates good feelings. So empathy can hurt but compassion can heal.
So don’t shield your children from suffering and pain – exposing them to it helps them to feel compassion and gratitude rather than ignorance and entitlement; although you might want to be there to talk with your children when distressing news events are being viewed, to help explain them, what can be done, what is being done, and to put them into perspective.
Too much affective empathy (contagious feelings) can feel overwhelming if distressful, thus impeding our ability to help – but ‘cultivated detachment’ is often necessary for e.g. paramedics, who must keep their composure in the face of great suffering. But this must result in practical caring and compassion, not indifference.
Remember to share in other people’s joy, celebrations and enthusiasms too, not just their commiserations – empathy for positive events (e.g. expressing enthusiasm when someone shares good news with you) can be just as important for a relationship as empathy for negative events.
Self-compassion is also important, as in don’t be too hard on yourself, hypercritical or insecure. Being compassionate to yourself doesn’t mean being narcissistic or selfish – it means accepting oneself as one is and not being perfectionist when striving for perfection makes one unwell.
Evolved instincts that feel natural or pleasurable to follow can indeed sometimes be over-applied, but it’s still generally better to over-apply them than under-apply them (e.g. having too much sex as a species is overall better than having too little. Even overeating will shorten one’s lifespan but not to as short as if one doesn’t eat enough at all; although in this particular case the optimum level of consumption is very clearly somewhere in the middle). So, on balance, being ‘too’ compassionate is better than not being compassionate enough when one is not sure of what to do in a situation. It only goes too far if one genuinely suffers from ill health due to not being able to look after oneself enough for needing to care for others.
Stress reduces empathy (and in turn compassion), so a potentially valid alternative perspective is that people who lack empathy are simply under a lot of stress and their lack of empathy isn’t personal but contextual. However, some stresses are arguably more self-inflicted than others (e.g. a greedy ‘enough money/attention is never enough for me’ attitude). Stressful situations, uncertainty and insecurity reduce our capacity for empathy because our limited mental resources are being diverted towards processing or tackling such (perceived) threats, hence we’re more likely to be self-centred/egocentric for concentrating on ‘saving ourselves’ or ‘self-preservation’ during these times, and have no capacity left to consider others.
An extrapolation might therefore be that more intelligent people have greater mental capacities hence are logically less likely to be stressed and therefore selfish under similar situations? Indeed, thinking about and being able to properly understand others and feel what they feel surely requires more brain capacity than merely selfishly thinking about one person i.e. oneself. Not that this means feeling pride over people with smaller or less-developed mental capacities because that wouldn’t be empathic at all(!)
Naturally socially anxious people may have more cognitive empathy though, in order to read other people and their potential intentions; although this doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll have more (or less) affective empathy i.e. they may be able to read emotions well but this won’t necessarily mean they’ll feel the emotions they read in others. Arguably, true empathy is affective empathy, or actually mirroring and feeling the emotions of others. An artificial intelligence might be able to read people’s emotions (e.g. seeing an image of someone smiling then correctly determining that this person is happy), but we wouldn’t say that it’d have true empathy unless it actually felt those emotions too. But who knows for sure what the furry future holds?
Overall, chronic stress in any form is not good for compassion. Social stress can make someone seem cold, shy or stiff; plus loneliness is bad too. Much of the stress of performance anxiety (e.g. public speaking, presentations) is because one is being too self-focused (e.g. on how one will be judged, on what one stands to gain or lose). So stress increases self-centredness, and self-centredness increases stress too. Therefore being less self-focused will help reduce stress in these situations, as well as make one a better performer for being more attentive and generous to the audience.
So when you see someone being grumpy, selfish and anti-social, it could be their general personality, or if not then it’s highly likely because they’re currently under stress, having a bad time or depressed – so consider these possible contextual reasons first before judging someone. If it is likely their current situation then you may wish to help them rather than make things worse by ostracising them. And even if it appears to be their general persistent personality, they could have a long-term health problem that you’re not aware of (e.g. their ‘grumpy personality’ is because they’ve been generally sleep deprived for as long as you’ve known them?) Try to see the world from their point of view, and from an educated rather than judgemental basis. Think of this person as a sentient being.
Think, feel and act with empathy and compassion…