What Does Happiness Have To Do With Compassion? a #1000Speak post

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

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.

Write a relevant post and add it to the link-up right here by clicking the blue button below.
Here’s how to get involved:

Join 1000 Voices Speak for Compassion on Facebook

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  1. I’ve so been struggling to get my thoughts on this down, I hadn’t wanted to look at any link up posts until I finished writing… however here I am and you seem to have covered it all so clearly! Not sure if I will come up with any hinges publishable this month!

    1. Author

      Kiri, sorry to see you’ve been struggling to get your thoughts down for this, because I always enjoy your posts for the link-ups. Maybe reading some others will have given you inspiration!
      Thanks for reading and for your comment.

  2. Great post. I think that connecting with projects that have personal interest or appeal (not necessarily self-interest) is a great way to begin. It’s interesting that fear of being judged for acting out of self-interest holds people back. It depends on the type of involvement, and it’s not always possible, but I prefer to make donations anonymously. It is for nobody else to know, or judge.

    1. Author

      Norah, that’s a good point – it’s easier to get involved with sometime if it has some personal interest. And as you say, that’s not necessarily self-interest – in fact sometimes it’s almost impossible to know what motivates that interest in the first place.
      I also found the research about fear of being judged interesting. I think most of us are motivated (in a negative way) by that much of the time.
      Your point about anonymous donations is another thought-provoking one. I’m trying to think when I last did that (unless you count giving to homeless people) it’s not that easy these days, at least in the UK, most charities ask you to sign-up and pay by direct debit instead.
      Thanks for your comment.

  3. Aww, those poor monkeys. I can’t stop thinking about those “too invasive for humans” experiments. I know their necessity, as I myself have benefited from medical experimenting more than many I bet, but still. I have also seen what invasive can be, in a way.
    Excellent post on happiness Yvonne. I can certainly say 1000Speak makes me happy, but I feel for people when they don’t think they have anything interesting or worthwhile to say to add to the link up. Even a brief thought, we would all benefit from hearing it. It does help us stay connected to our fellow human beings I believe.
    I was just writing a post about my fear of what’s going on in parts of the world right now, with politicians and people all being so afraid of refugees, unwilling to even open their minds a little. There can’t possibly be compassion or connection that way. I can’t see they are happy being so afraid like that all the time.
    Well, off to try and get my thoughts together for my happiness piece. Thanks for all these things to ponder.

    1. Author

      Yes Kerry, I know! I’ve deliberately not going searching for what those tests involve. I don’t think I’d like it. It seems unfair that monkeys get subjected to so much for humans to benefit. I do understand that sometimes it’s been the only way scientists could see to find out about various medical issues, and I’m glad that more and more is being done in cell cultures instead.

      I am very glad to hear that 1000Speak makes you happy!! Me too. I also agree that it’s a shame when people don’t feel they have something worthwhile to post, and that it helps us stay connected. We love getting any posts, no matter how long or short!

      And also agree with what you say about politicians, people and fear. It’s not a happy way to be, and there’s a lot of it around.

      Looking forward to reading your post!

  4. What a great post! Definitely thought provoking. I guess those mirror neurones work a lot with me, as I sometimes am a sponge to other peoples emotions, I try to spread a smile wherever I go, so that the world will be a better place.
    I don’t think that people only give to get back, those who give without that goal in mind are probably the ones who will in the end get back the most, as they are the kindest 🙂

    1. Author

      Thanks Solveig. I think you could be right that those who give without a goal probably get most back in the end because of their kindness. I keep reading that it’s serving others that makes us happy.

  5. Yvonne this is FABULOUS and I’m so glad you wrote it and put everything together so coherently. Unfortunately I was still out for the count for 1000Speak this month, but I wish I could have been more involved and written something. I really appreciate you linking to my post and…well, yes, the connections and reading and openness we have here IS how the movement was inspired and born and how it proliferates and it’s something which makes me very happy to know that so many people are inspired by and want to be involved in compassion.

    Mirror neurones. They sound like wonderfully clever things. I feel bad for the monkeys but glad we know. Kinda. Probably.

    1. Author

      Thanks so much Lizzi. And I’m not surprised you didn’t manage to write for the link-up this month. Hope you are well on the mend now.

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