The Self-Interested Case for Not Being a Jerk

Being mean feels good for a moment. But researchers are finding that kindness is the source of lifelong happiness.

I recently created Google Alerts for the words “meditation” and “mindfulness,” and the headlines that now pop into my inbox every day are consistently, if unintentionally, amusing: “Can Mindfulness Raise Your Net Worth?”; “4 Ways Mindfulness Can Improve Your Relationship”; “Can Mindfulness Help Your Furniture Store?”

It was through these automated compilations of news stories and blog posts that I discovered that The Santa Barbara Independent newspaper had dubbed meditation “the new kale,” that the actress Michelle Rodriguez had posted a nude picture of herself meditating on Instagram, and that there is such a thing as a “mindful selfie.” (It’s unclear whether Ms. Rodriguez read this article.)

Notwithstanding the absurdity of the above, I believe it actually reflects a positive trend. It’s high time that meditation (and it primary benefit, mindfulness — the ability to see what’s going on in your head at any given moment without getting carried away by it) made a jailbreak from the ghetto of hippies, yurt-dwellers, and fans of Ultimate Frisbee, even if doing so involves blatant appeals to our selfish desire to find love or sell furniture.

Not everyone agrees. I’ve spent the past few years reporting on meditation, and I’ve become friends with some Buddhist purists, who point derisively to the proliferation of books such as Mindfulness for Dummies, The Mindful Investor, and The Joy of Mindful Sex while crying, “McMindfulness!” There’s something vital being lost, they argue, in the mainstreaming of meditation. CEOs, soldiers, and athletes may be embracing the practice because of the explosion of new scientific research that says mindfulness improves focus and boosts the immune system, but critics say this narrow, utilitarian approach overlooks a central plank in the Buddha’s platform: compassion.

While I have sympathy for this point of view, I believe the remedy is not to gnash teeth, rend garments, and become moral scolds. Rather, it’s to do exactly what’s been done with mindfulness: make being compassionate appeal to people’s self-interest. As it turns out, there is a specific type of meditation designed to boost your compassion, and a strong, science-based case to be made that it has tantalizingly selfish benefits.

Compassion meditation has been shown to reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol — and also quiet the parts of the brain that fire when we are dwelling in the past or the future instead of the here and now.

I’ll admit that, at first blush, compassion meditation seems astonishingly annoying. It involves picturing specific people — including friends, mentors, strangers, and “difficult people” — and systematically sending them good vibes: May you be happy, May you be safe, etc.

Like any reasonable person, I was initially deeply turned off by this notion — until I heard about the aforementioned research. Among other things, compassion meditation has been shown to reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol and also quiet what’s known as the “Default Mode Network,” the parts of the brain that fire when we are obsessing about ourselves or dwelling in the past or the future instead of the here and now.

What’s more, studies show that even small doses of compassion meditation can actually make you nicer. At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, they found that beginners displayed increased brain activity in regions associated with empathy and understanding. They also found 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 capturing their conversations for days at a time. The compassion meditators were more empathic, spent more time with other people, laughed more, and used the word “I” less.

What this research suggests is that compassion is not some God-given, genetic trait, our level of which we have to simply accept. Instead, it’s a mental muscle — a skill, susceptible to training. Consider the consequences of this. For example, what kind of impact could early compassion training have on the epidemic of bullying?

As dopey as it can feel to systematically cultivate sap, I believe the practice has boosted my own happiness. (For the record, I don’t do it every day; I sprinkle it once or twice a week into my daily meditation practice, kind of like cross-training.) Making it a priority to be nice, to take other people’s perspective, and to have fewer arguments and more positive interactions quite simply feels good. Again, science backs this up. Brain scans show that acts of kindness register more like eating chocolate than, say, fulfilling an obligation.

While compassion meditation has made me easier to live with, I’m not going to claim that it’s made me a saint. (My wife disabuses me of this notion regularly.) In fact, it was well after I started doing the practice that I asked Paris Hilton in an interview for Good Morning America whether her “time had passed,” provoking her to get up and walk away. On The View, Joy Behar pronounced me “rude.”

It’s pretty easy to win people over, especially in tense situations, if you’re able to take their perspective and validate their feelings.

All of which raises another, larger question: if you become too nice, will you go soft? Are competitive professions such as journalism incompatible with compassion?

In my experience, the answer is no. Obviously, you don’t want to be so nice that you become a pushover or a punching bag, but there are genuine strategic advantages to empathy. Turns out, it’s pretty easy to win people over, especially in tense situations, if you’re able to take their perspective and validate their feelings. More significantly, there are real benefits to not letting your mind get locked in negativity or paranoia, to dropping the subconscious suspicion that people are out to get you.

One of my meditation teachers, Joseph Goldstein, describes a virtuous cycle in which lower levels of anger help you make better decisions, which, in turn, means more happiness, and so on. Once again, there’s science: studies have shown that compassionate people tend not only be happier and healthier, but also more successful.

If the self-interested case for not being a jerk takes hold with the same fervor with which mindfulness is beginning to — at least according to my Google Alerts — perhaps reporters will someday be writing articles about how compassion can sell more furniture. May that make both the purists and the mainstreamers happy.


Photo courtesy of Flickr.

Dan Harris
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  • justinstoned

    Great article. thanks for sharing dan.