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. And research has suggested that meditation could accelerate this process. In one study conducted at the University of Colorado, Boulder, when volunteers listened to biographies of suffering people and then did a guided compassion meditation, they reported significantly higher levels of compassion than those who didn’t meditate.

Furthermore, even though the meditators didn’t increase the amount of the donations they made to those suffering, their giving also didn’t drop off as quickly, a troublesome effect for charities known as “donor fatigue.”

This ties into research that indicates compassion seems to flow more easily when people don’t feel they have to give too much. “Compassion collapse” can occur when people feel overwhelmed by the needs of others, as in the case of mass suffering.

Mindfulness may help. “Compassion cultivation techniques have been shown to increase positive emotions and social support, reduce negative distress at human suffering, and reduce people’s fears of feeling compassion for others,” C. Daryl Cameron, an assistant professor of psychology at Pennsylvania State University, wrote for the Greater Good Science Center.

“[It] may increase their ability to savor and sustain compassion for many victims. But training people in how to accept their internal experiences may be a necessary first step, to defuse the fears that hinder compassion from emerging in the first place,” he concludes.

3 The kindness posture

According to Stanford University health psychologist Kelly McGonigal, compassion shows in our body language. Physical motions, such as head nodding, gentle eye contact, smiling, and leaning in toward the other person during conversation all communicate compassionate listening. This, in turn, makes the speaker feel seen and heard, and opens the door for greater connection.

Not surprisingly, folded arms, crossed legs, checking your phone, and interrupting the speaker with your own agenda have the opposite effect.

“We don’t need to wait for compassion to spontaneously arise,” McGonigal says. “When we have the intention to experience and offer compassion, we can make choices—even small ones, like how we make eye contact—that can lead both [parties] to the authentic experience of compassion.”

4 A trio of empathy

Psychologist Paul Ekman, who has studied human emotion for 45 years, says there are three types of empathy we need to be fluent in, which are inherent but influenced by our cultural and personal experiences. They can be nurtured and developed.

Cognitive empathy is when we’re able to identify how another person feels and consider what they may be thinking. Emotional empathy is when we physically feel what another feels. And compassionate empathy is when we not only grasp a person’s predicament and feel their feelings, but we’re moved to help in some way.

Ekman says that you can’t experience compassionate empathy without first developing your cognitive and emotional empathy. Yet as Dutch primatologist Frans de Waal wrote, “Empathy is … a hardwired response that we fine tune and elaborate upon in the course of our lives.”

And, says therapist and MBSR trainer Margaret Cullen, it can start as easily as taking the time to remember “the common humanity of the other person.”

We don’t need to wait for compassion to spontaneously arise. When we have the intention to experience and offer it, we can make choices that can lead to the authentic experience of compassion.

5 Loving-kindness builds it

There’s a common misconception that you have to be a jerk in order to succeed. In fact, science shows that compassionate people are healthier, happier, more popular, and yep, more successful.

Stanford University research scientist Emma Seppälä says that practicing loving-kindness meditation in particular has been found to provide numerous life-enhancing benefits. Among them: increased positive feelings, such as joy, awe, hope, gratitude, interest, and amusement. These give us greater access to personal resources, such as social connection and feeling purposeful, which results in greater overall life satisfaction. One study found that it even increases telomere length, the reverse of the normal aging process.

All of this comes alongside decreases in negative emotions, including depressive symptoms, and lessened physical discomfort, such as chronic pain and migraines.

It also strengthens and activates the areas of the brain responsible for empathy and emotional intelligence. In fact, “lovingkindness meditation may be the most effective practice for increasing compassion,” Seppälä writes.

Bottom line: Lovingkindness and compassion make us happier, healthier, and kinder—and much more likely to succeed.

Parting Thought

A basic loving-kindness meditation by Sharon Salzberg

Sit comfortably, eyes open or closed. Choose a phrase, something like: “May I be safe, May I be happy, May I be healthy, May I live with ease.”

Begin to repeat the phrase silently over and over again, while breathing naturally.

Offer this sentiment first to yourself, then to your close friends and family, and finally to others whom you don’t know. You might even offer it to the entire world.


This article appeared in the October 2017 issue of Mindful magazine.