The Greater Good Science Center is an interdisciplinary research center devoted to the scientific understanding of happy and compassionate individuals, strong social bonds, and altruistic behavior. While serving the traditional tasks of a UC Berkeley research center—fostering groundbreaking scientific discoveries—the GGSC is unique in its commitment to helping people apply scientific research to their lives.
The Compassionate Instinct – Think humans are born selfish? Dacher Keltner reveals the compassionate side to human nature.
Humans are selfish. It’s so easy to say. The same goes for so many assertions that follow. Greed is good. Altruism is an illusion. Cooperation is for suckers. Competition is natural, war inevitable. The bad in human nature is stronger than the good. These kinds of claims reflect age-old assumptions about emotion. For millennia, we have regarded the emotions as the fount of irrationality, baseness, and sin. The idea of the seven deadly sins takes our destructive passions for granted. Plato compared the human soul to a chariot: the intellect is the driver and the emotions are the horses. Life is a continual struggle to keep the emotions under control.
Even compassion, the concern we feel for another being’s welfare, has been treated with downright derision. Kant saw it as a weak and misguided sentiment: “Such benevolence is called soft-heartedness and should not occur at all among human beings,” he said of compassion. Many question whether true compassion exists at all—or whether it is inherently motivated by self-interest.
Recent studies of compassion argue persuasively for a different take on human nature, one that rejects the preeminence of self-interest. These studies support a view of the emotions as rational, functional, and adaptive— a view which has its origins in Darwin’s Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals. Compassion and benevolence, this research suggests, are an evolved part of human nature, rooted in our brain and biology, and ready to be cultivated for the greater good.
Global Compassion – A conversation between the Dalai Lama and Paul Ekman
Emotions unite and divide the worlds, both personal and global, in which we live, motivating the best and the worst of our actions. Without emotions there would be no heroism, empathy, or compassion, but neither would there be cruelty, selfishness, nor spite.
Bringing different perspectives to bear—Eastern and Western, spiritual and scientific, Buddhist and psychological—the Dalai Lama and I came together in conversation and sought to clarify these contradictions, in hopes of illuminating paths to a balanced emotional life and a feeling of compassion that can reach across the globe.
Better Than Sex (and Appropriate for Kids)
By Christine Carter. Might be that sitting with your legs crossed repeating stuff like “May all beings be free from suffering,” is a little too far-out for you. I’m a scientist for crying out loud, so you can imagine how I might feel meditating while surrounded by prominent neuroscientists, which I recently did on a 7-day silent meditation retreat. Except that I actually didn’t feel silly. Why? Because there is new scientific research that demonstrates the incredible power of loving-kindness meditation: No need to be self-conscious when this stuff might be more effective than Prozac. Also called metta, loving-kindness meditation is the simple practice of directing well-wishes towards other people.
Compassion across Cubicles – A new research movement tries to help everyone who tunes out their emotions when they punch in to work.
Five-foot tall panels divide the physician’s billing department into a maze of cubicles at Foote Hospital in Jackson, Michigan. Each cubi¬cle contains one of the 39 employees who make up the billing office staff. Most of the employees are women, many are single mothers, and they spend each day on the phone trying to collect unpaid debts owed to the hospital. The work is repetitive and may seem uninspiring. Yet the hosipital staff widely considers this department one of the best places to work at Foote. “Our department is special,” said Susan Boik, head of the billing unit. “People care about each other here.”
The Altruistic Electorate – New research debunks some conventional political wisdom.
By Jason Marsh. A new line of research has challenged some age–old assumptions about why people vote, suggesting that it’s concern for the welfare of others—not narrow self–interest—that sends people to the polls. In one study published earlier this year, Richard Jankowski, a professor of political science at the State University of New York, Fredonia, found that altruism is the single most important factor in predicting whether someone will vote. Jankowski recorded people’s responses to questions measuring their level of concern for others, and then compared those responses with their voting data from the 1994 general election. He found that if people expressed concern for helping others, they were far more likely to have voted. In fact, a sense of altruism was even more influential than people’s age, income, or education level, generally considered the most important factors for voting.
Connecting through compassion – For three decades Charles Garfield has trained volunteers to care compassionately for strangers. He shares what he’s learned about the extraordinary deeds of ordinary people.
I discovered a lost civilization on the cancer wards of San Francisco’s hospitals, hordes of anxious people facing a limited life span. I wanted to find a way to meet the psychological and social needs of these patients. It was obvious that I couldn’t meet this challenge alone, and many of my colleagues simply didn’t have the time or inclination to help. On a hunch, I turned to volunteers, who I trained in interpersonal and listening skills, and who could continue to provide peer support to patients even after the patients returned home. I soon realized I had a phenomenon on my hands: a cadre of volunteers who could respond to the human elements of illness and death—the isolation and loneliness that mainstream
Altruism in Space - What does the science-fiction series Battlestar Galactica teach us about human nature?
In the 1970s, anthropologist Robert Trivers proposed the theory of reciprocal altruism, which argues that organisms provide a benefit to others only in expectation of future reward. But Trivers’ influential theory has some holes. It doesn’t necessarily explain why someone would sacrifice her life for another, nor does it cover anonymous acts of charity. These behaviors offer a more benevolent picture of human nature, challenging the inherent selfishness presumed by Trivers’ tit-for-tat theory of altruism. So which is the more accurate depiction of altruism— and, by extension, of human nature?
Compassion & Empathy (from GoodWiki, GGSC’s user-editable website – think Wikipedia for the greater good)
Definitions and Overview – Based originally on text by Jennifer Goetz (UCB) – The construct of compassion is not clearly defined in psychological literature. Our first step was to form a working definition that would allow us to explore related constructs. We define compassion as a feeling of sorrow or concern for another person’s suffering or need accompanied by a subsequent desire to alleviate the suffering. This phrasing focuses on compassion as an emotion: a short-lived feeling that anyone may experience. We expect, however, that there are specific conditions in which people will be more likely to feel compassion, that there are differences in individual propensities to feel compassion, and that many people and cultures may view compassion as a basic human value.
More on Compassion and Altruism from the Greater Good Science Center