Feeling It

Emotional expertise for happiness and success

Sinner or Saint? 7 Steps to Harness Your Inner Angel

Sinner one moment, Angel the next? Here's how to gain control.

Scientific evidence shows that compassion and kindness predict health and well-being. Compassion and volunteering makes us happier and can even lengthen our lives. It even has an impact on our cells: it is associated with decreased cellular aging and lowering cellular inflammation levels! (For more details, see here). So why is it that people are angels one minute but jerks the next? Why do some help in the face of need while others just stand by, step aside or walk away? Scientists and philosophers have delved into these questions for centuries. Kindness is as beautiful as it is complex but here are 7 to harness your inner angel (and the benefits that come with it):

The Good News: We’re Already Wired to be Good

The good news is that you’re wired for kindness. Living a life of purpose and care is so deeply beneficial that researchers believe we are evolved for it.  At our core, both animals and human beings have what Dacher Keltner at the University of California, Berkeley, coins a “compassionate instinct:” Compassion is a natural and automatic response that has ensured our survival.

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Most of us (except in extreme cases such as psychopathy) are wired for empathy. So what exactly is empathy? The shared experience of someone else’s pain or pleasure. Think of a time when a friend cried and you felt tears well up in your eyes. Or to the contrary, when she laughed and you fell into stitches too. We may think of ourselves as independent entities (especially if we’re from Western cultures), but we’re physiologically wired to connect: in fact, empathy is so innate that it happens automatically: Why do we flinch when we see someone trip and fall? Because we sense the pain the person must be feeling. Brain imaging research shows that parts our neural pain matrix is also activated when we view someone else’s pain. This extremely rapid emotional contagion process is called "resonance."

Whenever we look at or interact with others, parts of our brain, “mirror neurons,” internally echo what others do and feel. Someone’s smile, for example, activates the smile muscles in our faces, while a frown activates our frown muscles. In this way, we “read” other people’s states of mind. Think about when you see a relative walk in the room with a troubled expression—before you’ve even exchanged words, you know if something is going terribly wrong or wonderfully right. Our brain is wired to read cues so subtle that although our brain may not consciously register them ("he doesn't seem angry”), our body will. Research by Stanford University’s James Gross shows that even when someone is hiding their anger and we don’t consciously know they are upset, our blood pressure will increase. Our wiring for empathy is so deep that, just by observing someone else in pain, the "pain matrix" in our brain is activated. If someone else hurts, we hurt.

And we want to help. Instinctively, our first impulse both as children and adults (and even in animals) is to help, to be fair, to share. Research by Michael Tomasello at the Max Planck institutes shows that primates and infants too young to have learned the rules of politeness will spontaneously engage in helpful behavior and will even overcome obstacles to do so. David Rand at Harvard University shows that, when playing games for rewards such as money, adults’ and children’s first impulse is to act with fairness and to share.

What Turns us Into Jerks & How to Harness Our Inner Angel

So why do we not always see empathy in action? What are the obstacles to empathy and what can we do about them?

Stress

We’re living in a time that encourages fear in our everyday lives: “Tax season!” Rise in cortisol. “Traffic jam!” Rise in heart rate. “My boss is calling.” Palms start to sweat. “My partner is upset with me!” Insomnia. “Too much to do, too little time.” I can’t focus. Stress, anxiety and depression are all too common. The consequence of these mental states is self-focus. Evolutionarily, self-focus was adaptive when we were in high-stress situations (think: running from a lion). However, nowadays when we are under chronic stress, we are also under chronic self-focus which lowers our ability to connect with others in meaningful ways. In some cases, we are too self-focused to actually make eye contact with another person which is the key to resonance and empathy. Think of a day when you have a lot to do and are experiencing high levels of stress. You develop “tunnel vision” as you focus on your goals and are so immersed in your own world that your best friend could walk by and you may not notice. In a classic study, students of the Yale Divinity School were told to rush somewhere to give a talk on the Good Samaritan of all things. If they were told they were late, they wouldn’t stop to help someone strategically sprawled on the floor in their way in obvious need of help. When the participants were told to take their time, they were more likely to help.

1. Solution: Turn Your Self-Focus into Other Focus.

Think of a time when you were having a “bad day” and someone called you who was having a far worse day. All of a sudden, you were comforting them and thinking about ways in which you could help. What happened to your mood? To your mental state? As you focused on them and helping them, you felt energized, your mood improved and your perspective on your own situation probably broadened significantly. After helping them, you felt refreshed and better. That is what happens when we switch from self-focus (think stress, narrow perspective, misery) to other focus (compassionate outlook, empowerment, wisdom).  I’m not saying focus on other at the expense of your own well-being and at all times as self-compassion is also important, but balancing other-focus with self-focus can be of incredible psychological benefit while also uplifting others.

2. Solution: Do Things That Make You Happy

Some people might think focusing on your own happiness is selfish but this is not the case. If you are happier you are more likely to help. While negative emotions can increase self-focus, positive emotions, on the other hand, broaden our perspective, as has been shown by Barbara Fredrickson of the University of North-Carolina at Chapel Hill. On a day when you are feeling great, you are more likely to notice if someone needs help and to reach out a helping hand. Ironically, a great way to increase our happiness is to be empathic, to reach out and to help others. And the choice to live our lives in that way is ours.

Bystander Effect

So what else can get in the way of our empathy? Let’s consider the apathy to suffering that we often see in busy urban areas. It may in part be due to heightened stress levels but also to the bystander effect. The “Bystander Effect” is a psychological phenomena akin to “they don’t care/think it’s a big deal, so it’s not” i.e. the more people there are around doing nothing about the situation, the less likely people are to take responsibility and help. The prime example was the Kitty Genovese case in which a woman was stabbed by night and in which witnesses in nearby buildings did nothing to help.

3. Solution: Develop Awareness.

Now that you know about the Bystander Effect, you don’t have to be slave to it. making the decision not to fall prone to being a “bystander” can help you overcome that tendency or the social pressure to conform. Awareness-building exercises like meditation will help you become more mindful and alert (see here and here for more on meditation).

Overwhelm

Of course, if a situation feels too large to handle, compassion can also decrease. Daryl Cameron from the University of North Carolina has shown that, if we see a photo of one person suffering, we are more likely to wish to help but if we see a photo of ten needy people, we are less likely to feel compassion. Other people’s pain can sometimes also trigger “personal distress,” a feeling of empathic pain that feels too overwhelming and may trigger a desire to just flee the situation.

4. Solution: One Step at a Time

In these cases, it is important to remember that, even if we can’t help everyone, we can always make a difference. As Mother Theresa said, “Never worry about numbers. Help one person at a time and always start with the person nearest you.”

Being Stuck In Our Head

Too much time to think can also be an obstacle. David Rand, who found that adults’ first impulse was to help also found that this was not always the case when people were given too much time to make a decision. Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business professor Dale Miller found that adults often stop themselves from helping because they worry that others will think they are acting out of self-interest can stop them from this impulse to help. Frank Flynn, also at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business showed that people want to help if asked but assume that someone does not need help if they don’t ask.

5. Solution: Go With Your Heart

Here again, go with your heart and go with your gut. When you know you can make a difference, just go for it. In most cases, you will find it rewarding.

6. Solution: Get Creative

In other situations, you may feel unsafe or that you don’t have the resources, and in that case consider another option like calling for help or asking others to join in to help. In some cases, when you are not well, it is also important to take care of yourself.

Connection

Given the benefits of empathy and kindness, how can we overcome those internal and external barriers to it? It’s not difficult. A major determinant of empathy is our feeling of connection with the person in need. The more similar a person (or animal) feels to you, the more you identify with them and the more you will tend to want to help them.

7. Solution: Remember Shared Humanity

People like Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King and Gandhi felt such a broad sense of connection to others that they compassion was broad. To quote Albert Einstein: "Our task must be to free ourselves by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature and its beauty."

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To stay updated on the science of happiness, health and social connection, see emmaseppala.com.

Emma is the founder of Fulfillment Daily, science-based news for a happier life.

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© 2014 Emma Seppala, Ph.D.

Emma Seppala, Ph.D, is Associate Director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University. 

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