The Science of Compassion

Last week I went to Plymouth Housing’s Luncheon for Hope, which raises money to house Seattle’s homeless. It was a packed house of 1600 compassionate people who collectively raised $1.3M in a mere 90 minutes for their mission. After client testimonials and The Ask, we were introduced to the keynote speaker, Shankar Vedantam,the host of NPR’s Hidden Brain. Apropos of why we were there, he spoke to us about compassion and how it is accessed and processed (or not) in our brains.

 As someone who for over 20 years has relied upon and tapped into the compassion of many in order to do my part in making our society more livable and equitable, I was captivated by his words. I know that when we help others, we experience a greater happiness than if we had done something for ourselves. Now science has weighed in and has offered proof that it’s true. 

 One well-cited study shows this clearly. Two groups were given varying sums of money. One group was told it must give the money away, whereas the other group was instructed to spend it on themselves. Consistently and across variables, persons in the first group had greater neural activity in key areas of the brain and were seen as happier than their self-indulgent counterparts. And this neural activity was present even in the mere anticipation of giving money away to help others. In other words, we are hard wired to do good. So why don’t we do it all the time?

 Vedantam explained that just as there are predictable triggers in our brain for generosity and happiness, there are barriers to them as well. He shared three with us, and I noticed that the first two address an issue that we talk about all the time in philanthropy: the quest for impact. 

The first barrier is distance. It’s much easier to help someone right in front of us than someone who is miles away. Responding to the immediacy of someone’s needs is a knee-jerk response for most of us. However, when someone far away is in crisis, the time it takes to learn of the problem and then to get your relief delivered, causes many of us to lose interest or become more apathetic than we’d like to be. The reason, Vedantam says, is because we don’t get that immediate rush of happiness that comes from having done well by someone. Helping close by is evolutionary.  

The second barrier is scale. For many of us, when confronted with massive problems that we can’t readily solve, we tend to shut down or simply just ignore it--think about homelessness, climate change, etc. You are not alone if the sheer scope and magnitude of the world’s most intractable problems leave you feeling exhausted. It turns out that we are genetically and neurologically predisposed to being overwhelmed in these situations. When we don’t feel we are having, or can have, an positive impact on a negative situation, we are less inclined to help.

 The final barrier is what’s called “the bootstrap narrative.” We have all heard it said that if a person is in trouble, they should “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” and fix their own problems. It’s a widely held notion, but research debunks the idea that the first person who should help someone in crisis is that very same person. Vedantam cited a famous study called the Minnesota Starvation Experiment, which showed that a person’s mind becomes entirely captured by the thing they lack (especially if that thing is essential, like food, housing, or even a drug). In fact, they can think of little else. Scientists have learned that scarcity captures the mind and the afflicted are in fact the least ableto solve their own problems. They lose the ability to think rationally and instead do the things that may manage the scarcity today, but do nothing to address the root cause of their problems. Watching people make what we can clearly see to be “poor choices” makes our compassion for their plight go out the window. But our expectations are unreasonable. Boot strapping while in distress simply doesn’t work.

 So what can we do to override or outwit our brain’s wiring so that we can be compassionate all the time? Well, apparently it takes very little—and you don’t have to be a martyr either. We just need to remember that: 

  1. Compassion is contagious. When we are working at something with others or if we even see another person toiling away at something good, we tend to be more eager to join in and to help. 

  2. Break it down. Instead of thinking you must rescue all stray animals in world, find one. When we can more readily see our impact by breaking off a small piece of the problem and we “solve it,” we’re more apt to do it again, and so will others. (See point #1.)

  3. Compassion lives everywhere. There are many ways to exhibit compassion, so don’t be fooled into thinking that it’s all about money. Making a call to check in on a grandparent or mentoring a teen, goes a long way toward making a difference in the world. And when we do it, we give something more valuable than money—time.

 Being compassionate is a part of what makes us human. As we get strategic with our philanthropy, let us not complicate what it’s all about in the end.