Being nice to other people can make you and them feel better. And that is not all. Research shows that when you try to feel empathy for others and treat them with patience and kindness, it triggers a physiological response that can reduce the harmful stress hormone, cortisol. Too much cortisol, which means a lot of stress, can damage your memory and interfere with brain function, so anything that lowers cortisol in your system is good for brain health. It turns out that practicing kindness and empathy can create this effect, according to a study by researchers at Stanford and UC Berkeley.
To understand how this works, imagine yourself under stress. You are late for a date, late for a date, and you are facing a financial hurdle that could put you at risk. While you are mentally struggling with all of these stressors, your employee is looking for an extension of a task that was supposed to be done yesterday. What is your potential reaction? Would you treat the other person with forgiveness and empathy, providing reassurance that this backlog is not the end of the world? Or are you more likely to let them know how irritated and upset you are?
If you are like most people, the fact that you feel stress makes you respond with anger rather than kindness. Unfortunately, according to James Doty, MD, clinical professor of neurosurgery at Stanford and a co-author of the study, many of us experience at least one level of stress most of the time. Cultivating feelings of kindness and compassion counteracts this stress, he explains in an article on Uplift. “When one acts with empathic intent, that action has a great positive effect on one’s physiology.”
“To be happy, practice compassion.”
In addition to lowering our stress levels, there is plenty of evidence that being good to others makes us happier. As the Dalai Lama said, “If you want to make others happy, practice empathy. “If you want to be happy, practice empathy.” Tibetan monk Matthieu Ricard, whose brain scans suggest he is the happiest person on Earth, spends much of his time meditating on empathy, or what Buddhists call “kindness.”
In the Stanford / Berkeley experiment, 51 subjects, randomly selected from a larger study, entered the Stanford Empathy Cultivation Training program. During the 10 weeks of training, they were asked twice a day how anxious, calm, tired or alert they were feeling at that moment. They also completed weekly questionnaires, assessing how often they had had those feelings during the previous week. The result: “During the training there was a significant reduction in anxiety and an increase in calm,” the researchers write. In addition, they wrote, “With each successive assessment, participants were less likely to want to reduce their anxiety and fatigue, and less likely to want to increase their feelings of calm and readiness.”
Unfortunately, Empathy Cultivation Training has been suspended during the pandemic. But we can still focus on empathy and still be able to try to respond kindly to our employees and family members, as well as to the strangers we meet every day. Practicing kindness can make the world a better place. And it can help you be happier, healthier and think more clearly.