20 March is 1000 Voices Link-up day. It’s also International Day of Happiness, so this month its seems a great idea to write about the connection between compassion and happiness.
What does happiness have to do with compassion?
Um… everything. The more compassion we feel, the more likely we are to feel happy. You don’t have to take my word for this, science agrees – it turns out we are wired for connection and compassion. Studies show that even children as young as two want to make others happy and respond to another child’s upset.
Being aware of others’ emotions starts even earlier. When my first daughter was a few months old, I took her to get her jags (vaccinations.) She coped pretty well – until I was getting her dressed again in a room where several parents were also dressing their babies. The baby next to mine was howling. My daughter looked at him with wide eyes. She started howling too. This amazed me.
It turns out there may even be a biological explanation for it. Mirror neurons.
According to Wikipedia, mirror neurons fire: “both when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action performed by another.” The theory is that this is how we learn by imitation and how we feel discomfort when another person is hurt. Scientists don’t agree on how excited we should get about the discovery of mirror neurons, largely because most studies have been done on monkeys. The the reason scientists don’t know for sure if humans have these neurons is because: “Single-cell recording of the kind used in monkeys is too invasive to be performed in people, other than in exceptional circumstances.”
Those poor monkeys! My mirror neurons are going wild right now.
Even if mirror neurons are part of why we react with empathy or compassion to someone else’s distress or happiness, they are, in turn, effected by other factors – for instance in a monkey watching another one eat, mirror neurons may react differently to one watching a monkey grab an object. In his article, A Calm Look at the Most Hyped Concept in Neuroscience – Mirror Neurons, Christian Jarrett says this means mirror neurons are: “embedded in a complex network of brain activity.”
In other words, as ever, it’s not simply down to biology, even in monkeys. Yes, we are wired for compassion, but we have some choice too. We can decide to exercise those compassion “muscles” or we can try to shut them down.
In the video below, Emma Seppälä talks about how adults sometimes refrain from leaping to help because they think they will be judged as doing it from self-interest. This struck me as strange, but according to research by psychologist, Dale Miller, we generally assume that people act out of self-interest, even when those acts seem altruistic – and even when we ourselves don’t act out of self-interest.
For example, people assume those who will benefit from a social policy are more likely to be in favour of it than those who won’t benefit. But this isn’t necessarily the case. In the article, The Norm of Self-Interest, Miller concludes: “individualistic cultures structure their social institutions to reflect their belief that people are naturally disposed to pursue their self-interest.” Politicians assume we are driven by self-interest and so campaign by telling us we’ll be better off with them. (They also sometimes tell us that helping others will make our lives hard and unsafe, so we need to get rid of or ignore those others.)
But, sometimes our politicians create policies that would not be in their own self-interest, at least on a material level. For instance, during the UK elections last year, the Labour party proposed a “mansion tax” on homes worth over £2,000,000. Their leader at the time would have had to pay that tax. A more extreme example is Uraguay’s former president Jose Mujica chose to forego fancy cars and the presidential palace. He continued to live in his tiny home, and gave away most of his income.
Several studies have shown that we are happier when we give than when we receive, and again (as most parents will know) even small children feel more pleasure at giving to someone else than in receiving.
So what motivates us if it isn’t self-interest? And why have we fallen for this story?
I’m not sure of the answer that second question. Except, maybe as usual, it’s fear. Fear that we aren’t good enough. Everyone struggles with it sometimes. I’ve had moments of it this week, not because of any particular thing I’ve done – most likely, in fact, because both my daughters have a ton of school coursework to finish this week and have needed support to get through it. We’ve had late nights, and I’m tired. I’ve noticed before that tiredness often brings a return of old doubts.
If we worry that we aren’t good enough (as most people do, at least some of the time) our minds look for evidence of that. If someone says, “You’re selfish,” and you even partially believe it, you will start noticing where it might be true and ignoring evidence to the contrary.
For generations (way back to Roman times) the older generation has worried the younger generation is selfish, and the younger generation has bought that belief and seen themselves lacking. Here’s Horace in 20 BC
Our sires’ age was worse than our grandsires’. We, their sons, are more worthless than they; so in our turn we shall give the world a progeny yet more corrupt.
Miller says that it is seen as so against the norm to act without self-interest that: “individuals who support a cause in which they have no stake will be hesitant to take action … not because they lack an incentive but because they lack a justification.”
It seems strange hat we have so convinced ourselves that self-interest is our main motivation that we can’t justify action without it, yet most of us have a grim view of ourselves and the human race as a whole. This doesn’t make us happy – and it doesn’t make us more compassionate either.
What does motivate us if it isn’t self-interest?
How about connection? Or perhaps a healthy mix of self-interest and care for others?
In one way, it is true that the current state of humanity is worse than before. Research suggests that, in the United States at least, people feel less connected with others and so feel more loneliness and depression. A survey in 2004 found that a quarter of Americans didn’t feel they had one person they could share a problem with. That’s an awful lot of lonely people.
Low social connection is worse for us than smoking, obesity and high blood pressure. Emma Seppälä says that high social connection gives health benefits, including increased chance of longevity – she even says it is the most important factor.
Benefits aren’t to do with how many friends we have, but to do with our subjective feeling of connection. So while it may seem as if how socially connected we are is out of our control, that’s not the case. Even if someone has just one friend, opening up to that person will make a difference to how socially connected they feel. It will most likely also make it easier for the friend to open up and feel connected too. Over twenty years ago, when I was in teaching, a student said something to me and another teacher that hinted at a traumatic experience in her young life. I slipped into the conversation that I had been attacked as a teenager, and within moments, she revealed what had happened to her. She had told nobody about it before, but eventually went on to get the support she needed.
I’ve seen this many times since – if I am open about something difficult that happened in my life or am honest about how I’m feeling, another person feels safe enough to be open and honest too. That’s the kind of connection that helps us to heal pain and feel happy. That situation when I was teaching, again shows that it’s not self-interested behaviour that makes us happy – I felt pleased knowing that I had helped just a little.
The internet, seen by many people as a major factor in creating disconnection, can also create connection. When a blogger tells the story of their difficulties, either past or present, other people who have been through similar situations leave comments about their experiences. From these posts and comments, friendships can grow, and in her post Little Miss Lonely, Lizzi Lewis wrote about how online friendships have changed her life.
It’s also how 1000 Voices Speak for Compassion was born. That makes me feel very happy!
This month, 1000 Voices Speak for Compassion continues to work toward a better world with a focus on Compassion and Happiness.
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