On Being Selfishly “Selfless”

10% Happier Dan HarrisEvery once in a while, I come across something that smacks me upside my head with a great big "Ah, ha!  I KNEW it."  Something so obvious, but I'd never heard it put that way before that it just leaves this lasting impression. Today, as I was finishing Dan Harris' book "10% Happier," I had just such a moment.

In the chapter entitled (I'm writing it as it reads folks) "The Self-Interested Case for Not Being a Dick," Harris recounts a story where he is interviewing the Dalai Lama. They are exploring the idea of self-cherishing and the link between that and the "development of concern for [the] well-being of others."  Harris himself has a huge lightbulb moment based on the revelations of the Dalai Lama and comes to the conclusion that "...there is a self-interested, or selfish, case for being compassionate?"  His Holiness responds, "Yes. Practice of compassion is ultimately benefit to you. So I usually describe: we are selfish, but be wise selfish rather than foolish selfish."

In the decade-plus timeframe that I've been coaching children, parents and professionals on the value of SocialSmarts, this is exactly a point I've been trying to make: being nice and doing good not only benefits others, it benefits you. While it's good to be good for the sake of others and how it impacts them, being kind and generally compassionate is in your best interests as well.

Science has shown that acts of kindness impact how our brain operates. They've been able to study how the brain reacts when you perform compassionate and kind acts.  Harris cites studies by Emory University where subjects were given coaching on compassion meditation and then were placed in stressful situations. The subjects who had practiced compassion meditation were found to be releasing "significantly lower doses" of cortisol, a stress hormone, than subjects who hadn't be compassion-focused.  Brain scans show that when people perform acts of kindness, their brain functions register similarly to eating chocolate, and not like they are fulfilling an obligation.  Scientists call this the "warm glow effect," and it's also something that comes from "selflessly" volunteering or donating to a charity.  Repeatedly, compassionate people tend to be happier, healthier, more successful and more popular.

That may seem like a no-brainer, but it shows that there is a personal benefit to being nicer to others. It's also true that we, as humans, are generally happier and less stressed when we are aligned with others in our community or social circle.  Being at odds with others is stressful. Some people, however, become conditioned to this state and their brains and bodies react powerfully when they are faced with conflict. Anger and conflict can become quite addictive to such individuals. But, it is not without stress to themselves, similarly how a chronic smoker derives great pleasure from "lighting up" while the source of his pleasure is literally killing him.  Chronic stress and the stress hormone cortisol can cause all sorts of damage to the body and lead to such conditions as high blood pressure, heart disease, depression and many other ailments.

The good news is that kindness, compassion and empathy can also addictive and, happily, can be trained and developed. Harris cites an example from the University of Wisconsin-Madison where preschoolers who were taught compassion meditation became more willing to give away their stickers to strangers.  People that meditated, according to another UWM study, were observed to have conversations that were empathetic, they spent more time with other people, laughed more, and even used the word "I" less! And, over time, as people used their compassion centers in their brain more, the more that part of their brain developed so that "acting with compassion" becomes more of a habit, and you become increasingly more mindful and sensitive to acting within the bounds of compassion and kindness.

And, people like people who are kind to them. Something as simple as making eye contact and smiling when you encounter someone gives them affirmation and recognition.  It's no surprise that people are also more likely to be helpful to you or be willing to do you a favor if they know you are a kind and compassionate person to them. As I've said before, the adage "like begets like" is all to true, and we are more likely to like those who seem to like us!  It again goes back to the underlying premise I started with in my book It's Not Who You Know, It's How You Treat Them:  behave towards others with compassion and kindness and you'll find you get more of what you want, more easily, and a lot less of what you don't want. And that, ultimately, comes back to benefit you.

Check it out for yourself: the next time you do something nice for someone, really focus on how you feel when doing it and after doing it.  You may make someone else smile, but you'll feel that "warm glow" of positive internal feedback, and you may find yourself smiling too -- not just on the outside but also on the inside.


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