Nice Guys Finish First

Putting kindness and empathy first makes us happier, healthier, and even more successful. Compassion, it seems, isn’t just a nice idea. It’s downright good for us.

Illustration by Paula McGloin
1 Nature’s Way

Common wisdom says it’s the fittest among us who survive, with “fitness” being defined by the social and cultural standards of excellence of its time: health, wealth, beauty, brains, etc. But in Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life, social psychologist Dacher Keltner argues that Charles Darwin, who is credited with the survivalist theory, actually believed that humans, uniquely, depend upon kindness for their survival.

Humans lack the strength, size, and speed of other large animals. Our evolutionary advantage instead derives from two things: our complex and well-developed brains and our communal nature. And being part of a community means being able to relate, empathize, and to share. In other words: It requires compassion.

In fact, Keltner says that compassion is hardwired into our biology. Mammals alone possess a vagus nerve, which is activated when we notice others’ suffering. “It’s instrumental in aiding our regard of others, slowing down, and considering other people’s needs,” he says. It’s also stimulated through slow, focused breathing like the kind done in yoga and mindfulness meditation.

2 Growing compassion

Compassion is often likened to a muscle. The more you use it, the stronger it grows, so the theory goes.…

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