Guiding Principles

The Science of Gratitude

What Is Gratitude?

Robert Emmons, perhaps the world’s leading scientific expert on gratitude, argues that gratitude has two key components, which he describes in a Greater Good essay, “Why Gratitude Is Good.”

“First,” he writes, “it’s an affirmation of goodness. We affirm that there are good things in the world, gifts and benefits we’ve received.”

In the second part of gratitude, he explains, “we recognize that the sources of this goodness are outside of ourselves. ...We acknowledge that other people - or even higher powers, if you’re of a spiritual mindset - gave us many gifts, big and small, to help us achieve the goodness in our lives.”

Emmons and other researchers see the social dimension as being especially important to gratitude. “I see it as a relationship-strengthening emotion,“ writes Emmons, “because it requires us to see how we’ve been supported and affirmed by other people.”

Because gratitude encourages us not only to appreciate gifts but to repay them (or pay them forward), the sociologist Georg Simmel called it “the moral memory of mankind.”

For more: Learn about the GGSC’s Expanding the Science and Practice of Gratitude project, co-directed by Emmons. Source: Greater Good in Action.

The Science of Altruism

What Is Altruism?

Altruism is when we act to promote someone else’s welfare, even at a risk or cost to ourselves. Though some believe that humans are fundamentally self-interested, recent research suggests otherwise: Studies have found that people’s first impulse is to cooperate rather than compete; that toddlers spontaneously help people in need out of a genuine concern for their welfare; and that even non-human primates display altruism.

Evolutionary scientists speculate that altruism has such deep roots in human nature because helping and cooperation promote the survival of our species. Indeed, Darwin himself argued that altruism, which he called “sympathy” or “benevolence,” is “an essential part of the social instincts.” Darwin’s claim is supported by recent neuroscience studies, which have shown that when people behave altruistically, their brains activate in regions that signal pleasure and reward, similar to when they eat chocolate (or have sex).

This does not mean that humans are more altruistic than selfish; instead, evidence suggests we have deeply ingrained tendencies to act in either direction. Our challenge lies in finding ways to evoke the better angels of our nature. For More: Why do some people risk their lives to help others? Read about Kristen Renwick Monroe’s research to understand heroic altruists.

Source: Greater Good in Action

The Science of Compassion

What Is Compassion?

Compassion literally means “to suffer together.” Among emotion researchers, it is defined as the feeling that arises when you are confronted with another’s suffering and feel motivated to relieve that suffering.

Compassion is not the same as empathy or altruism, though the concepts are related. While empathy refers more generally to our ability to take the perspective of and feel the emotions of another person, compassion is when those feelings and thoughts include the desire to help. Altruism, in turn, is the kind, selfless behavior often prompted by feelings of compassion, though one can feel compassion without acting on it, and altruism isn’t always motivated by compassion.

While cynics may dismiss compassion as touchy-feely or irrational, scientists have started to map the biological basis of compassion, suggesting its deep evolutionary purpose. This research has shown that when we feel compassion, our heart rate slows down, we secrete the “bonding hormone” oxytocin, and regions of the brain linked to empathy, caregiving, and feelings of pleasure light up, which often results in our wanting to approach and care for other people.

For more: Learn about self-compassion and compassion fatigue. Read Dacher Keltner’s essay on “The Compassionate Instinct” and Paul Ekman’s “Taxonomy of Compassion”, which reviews different types of compassion.

Source: Greater Good in Action

The Science of Empathy

What Is Empathy?

The term “empathy” is used to describe a wide range of experiences. Emotion researchers generally define empathy as the ability to sense other people’s emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling.

Contemporary researchers often differentiate between two types of empathy: “Affective empathy” refers to the sensations and feelings we get in response to others’ emotions; this can include mirroring what that person is feeling, or just feeling stressed when we detect another’s fear or anxiety. “Cognitive empathy,” sometimes called “perspective taking,” refers to our ability to identify and understand other peoples’ emotions. Studies suggest that people with autism spectrum disorders have a hard time empathizing.

Empathy seems to have deep roots in our brains and bodies, and in our evolutionary history. Elementary forms of empathy have been observed in our primate relatives, in dogs, and even in rats. Empathy has been associated with two different pathways in the brain, and scientists have speculated that some aspects of empathy can be traced to mirror neurons, cells in the brain that fire when we observe someone else perform an action in much the same way that they would fire if we performed that action ourselves. Research has also uncovered evidence of a genetic basis to empathy, though studies suggest that people can enhance (or restrict) their natural empathic abilities.

Having empathy doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll want to help someone in need, though it’s often a vital first step toward compassionate action.

For more: Read Frans de Waal’s essay on “The Evolution of Empathy” and Daniel Goleman’s overview of different forms of empathy, drawing on the work of Paul Ekman.

Source: Greater Good in Action.

The Science of Forgiveness

What Is Forgiveness?

Psychologists generally define forgiveness as a conscious, deliberate decision to release feelings of resentment or vengeance toward a person or group who has harmed you, regardless of whether they actually deserve your forgiveness.

Just as important as defining what forgiveness is, though, is understanding what forgiveness is not. Experts who study or teach forgiveness make clear that when you forgive, you do not gloss over or deny the seriousness of an offense against you. Forgiveness does not mean forgetting, nor does it mean condoning or excusing offenses. Though forgiveness can help repair a damaged relationship, it doesn’t obligate you to reconcile with the person who harmed you, or release them from legal accountability.

Instead, forgiveness brings the forgiver peace of mind and frees him or her from corrosive anger. While there is some debate over whether true forgiveness requires positive feelings toward the offender, experts agree that it at least involves letting go of deeply held negative feelings. In that way, it empowers you to recognize the pain you suffered without letting that pain define you, enabling you to heal and move on with your life.

For More: Read forgiveness expert Fred Luskin’s essay, “What Is Forgiveness?”, and Jack Kornfield’s thoughts on what forgiveness means. Learn more about forgiveness research in this summary of key studies and consider: Is anything unforgiveable?

Source: Greater Good in Action.

The Science of Happiness

What Is Happiness?

Most of us probably don’t believe we need a formal definition of happiness; we know it when we feel it, and we often use the term to describe a range of positive emotions, including joy, pride, contentment, and gratitude.

But to understand the causes and effects of happiness, researchers first need to define it. Many of them use the term interchangeably with “subjective well-being,” which they measure by simply asking people to report how satisfied they feel with their own lives and how much positive and negative emotion they’re experiencing. In her 2007 book The How of Happiness, positive psychology researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky elaborates, describing happiness as “the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile.”

That definition resonates with us here at Greater Good: It captures the fleeting positive emotions that come with happiness, along with a deeper sense of meaning and purpose in life—and suggests how these emotions and sense of meaning reinforce one another.

Source: Greater Good in Action.

The Science of Mindfulness

What Is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness means maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment.

Mindfulness also involves acceptance, meaning that we pay attention to our thoughts and feelings without judging them—without believing, for instance, that there’s a “right” or “wrong” way to think or feel in a given moment. When we practice mindfulness, our thoughts tune into what we’re sensing in the present moment rather than rehashing the past or imagining the future.

Though it has its roots in Buddhist meditation, a secular practice of mindfulness has entered the American mainstream in recent years, in part through the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn and his Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, which he launched at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in 1979. Since that time, thousands of studies have documented the physical and mental health benefits of mindfulness in general and MBSR in particular, inspiring countless programs to adapt the MBSR model for schools, prisons, hospitals, veterans centers, and beyond.

Source: Greater Good in Action.