6 Selfish Reasons to Be Nice

ABC News anchor Dan Harris, author of 10% Happier, on boosting compassion through meditation.

“According to scientific research, there’s a strong case to be made for not being a jerk,” ABC News anchor Dan Harris writes in a column summing up recent research on the science of compassion.

When Harris had an on-air panic attack in 2004, it prompted him to visit a psychiatrist and find a way to cope with his “well-hidden and well-managed” drug use and depression—both of which had developed after he returned from covering the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel, and Palestine.

In his book, 10% Happier, Harris talks about how meditation helped him make changes to keep his life in check. One of those changes was looking at how meditation could improve his relationships. Here are two of the six reasons Harris gives for why science tells us we shouldn’t be jerks:

It feels good
Brain scans show that acts of kindness register more like eating chocolate than, say, fulfilling an obligation. The same pleasure centers light up when we receive a gift as when we donate to charity. Neuroscientists refer to it as “the warm glow” effect.

Compassion meditation can actually make you nicer
If, like me, you do not consider yourself to be naturally overflowing with boundless loving-kindness, there is evidence that compassion meditation can actually make you nicer.

Brain scans done at the University of Wisconsin-Madison show that people who were taught compassion meditation displayed increased activity in regions associated with empathy and understanding. There’s also research showing that preschoolers became more willing to give their stickers away to strangers. My favorite study, done at Emory University, asked subjects to wear tape recorders for days at a time, which captured their conversations. The meditators were more empathic, spent more time with other people, laughed more, and used the word “I” less.

Read the full column, “How Being Nice Can Boost Your Health.”

If you want to learn more about the science of compassion, you might want to check out “A Kinder, Gentler World” in the April issue of Mindful magazine. Reporter Jennifer Campbell tackles the question: Is compassion something we only have so much of? Or can we be trained to love more people more of the time? You might also want to check out “18 Science-Based Reasons to Try Loving-Kindness Meditation“—researcher Emma Seppälä looks at the emerging science around the benefits of loving-kindness meditation.

Photograph by Alex/Flickr.com