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Can Cultivating Compassion Lead to Happiness?

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"Kindness"

“Kindness” (Hossein Ghodsi/Flickr)

You know how Jesus said to love thy neighbor and Buddha urged compassion for all beings? Well, modern science agrees. Stanford psychologists recently found that cultivating compassion not only makes you kinder, it makes you happier—as well as less worried.

But compassion is having a tough time in the age of the internet. We’re more connected than ever, but also more distracted. We answer e-mail while talking on the phone, text one friend while having dinner with another. Such multitasking erodes awareness, a key component of compassion.

Trolls

Trolls can terrorize the internet, as well as Bilbo Baggins. (Tristan Schmurr/Flickr)

Distraction isn’t the worst of it. Internet trolls fill the web with flame wars, offensive YouTube comments and bullying. For the most part, trolls aren’t psychopaths, just ordinary people who act like jerks online. Psychologist John Suler described the phenomenon in 2007, attributing it to a combination of factors such as physical invisibility and anonymity.

The emotional disconnect caused by technological connection is a thorny problem. And if anyone loves to solve problems, it’s Silicon Valley engineers.

Coding Compassion Into the Internet

“Technology isn’t the end; it’s the means to a greater end,” says Danae Ringelmann, co-founder of Indiegogo. She described how the crowdfunding platform has been used to give gifts and right wrongs at Wisdom 2.0, an annual Bay Area conference about integrating kindness and mindfulness with business and technology.

Speakers at this year’s gathering (February 14-17 at the San Francisco Marriot Marquis) included a Benedictine monk, the CEO of Zappos.com, a VP from Google and Alanis Morissette. It’s not just talk—a past conference inspired changes in Facebook to help users work out interpersonal problems.

Wisdom 2.0 has blossomed from a few hundred people at its inaugural meeting in 2010 to a few thousand in 2014. San Francisco, once famed for its hippie culture of love, yoga and drugs, now appears to be the epicenter for a “second wave” of interest in love, yoga—and tech.

The Science of Doing Good

In 2008, Stanford University School of Medicine founded the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research Education, aiming to study basic human goodness with scientific rigor. Researchers developed a 9-week Compassion Cultivation Training (CCT) program, which includes meditation and practicing compassion for yourself and for others.

Does it work?

A team led by researcher Hooria Jazaieri conducted a randomized controlled trial with 100 subjects and found that the training did indeed increase compassion. Not only that, but it enhanced happiness and decreased worry. Their findings were published in February in the journal Motivation and Emotion.

“Given the emphasis in CCT on focusing on the suffering of oneself and others, the increases in happiness associated with CCT may seem paradoxical,” they wrote. They speculated that the boost could be due to participants learning to be simply aware of suffering, without trying to suppress it or ruminate on it. Participants are also taught to cultivate a desire to help, which might bolster their opinion of their own competence.

Hands holding phones

Technology has tremendous power to connect, not just distract (JR_Paris/Flickr)

Future studies could test exactly what it is about compassion that makes people happier, but the mere fact that it does is both encouragement for the future and explanation for the present. Even on the internet, the troll-creating online disinhibition effect is not always toxic—as Suler wrote, people can also “show unusual acts of kindness and generosity, sometimes going out of their way to help others.” Ringelmann offered the example of an Indiegogo campaign to give a vacation to a woman who had been bullied at her job. The funding goal was exceeded a hundred times over.

Perhaps one day these “internet elves” will outnumber the trolls.

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Category: Engineering, Health

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About the Author ()

Danna is a marine biologist, a science writer, a novelist, an artist, and an educator. She helped found the outreach program Squids4Kids, illustrated The Game of Science, and has blogged at Squid A Day since 2009. She holds a BA in Creative Studies from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a PhD in Baby Squid from Stanford. She lives in San Jose with her husband, daughter, and cats.