Psychologists test the Dalai Lama’s teaching on Compassion, and it works

Anyone in a relationship knows that it feels good to do something nice for your significant other. In fact, in general, it just feels good to give. Theorists have posited a spectrum of reasons why this is so, from the “egoist” position that we only give in hope of receiving back to accounts that suggest that “we” are merely giving to support similar genetic material or to strengthen social bonds.

The Dalai Lama’s famous quote (or paraphrase) is that “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” 

Essentially: just be compassionate!

The reasoning is spelled out more here:

Of course, it is natural and right that we all want friends. I often joke that if you really want to be selfish, you should be very altruistic! You should take good care of others, be concerned for their welfare, help them, serve them, make more friends, make more smiles, The result? When you yourself need help, you find plenty of helpers! If, on the other hand, you neglect the happiness of others, in the long term you will be the loser. And is friendship produced through quarrels and anger, jealousy and intense competitiveness? I do not think so. Only affection brings us genuine close friends.

Dalai Lama with Marco Pannella (photo by flickr user dumplife (Mihai Romanciuc) - modified with quote by permission)

Dalai Lama with Marco Pannella (photo by flickr user dumplife (Mihai Romanciuc) – modified with quote by permission)

So psychologists set out to test the theory. Do acts of compassion, even if there is no acknowledgment or other reward, in themselves bring happiness?

Yes.

At least to a new spouse. As always, the experiments should be replicated and expanded, but initial results are good.

Harry Reis, a University of Rochester (NY) professor of psychology, conducted research on 175 north American newlyweds. Specifically, he said that the “study was designed to test a hypothesis put forth by Tenzin Gyatso, the current Dalai Lama that compassionate concern for others’ welfare enhances one’s own affective state.”

The study, lasting 14 days, asked husbands and wives to keep a diary documenting acts of compassion (setting aside their own wishes for the other). The researchers thought that recognition of compassion would be a key to its success both for the one giving and receiving.

However, they found that even when the recipient doesn’t notice the act of kindness, the giver still benefits. Once again, anyone knows (hopefully). The joy of doing that little extra bit of cleaning, or cooking the dish just as a partner likes it…

All of this, of course, requires relatively healthy couples. Daily acts of compassion for an abuser or person engulfed in anger or depression might lose their effects over time. And Buddhism doesn’t advocate martyrdom. We must take care of ourselves first. But in a healthy space, this kind of joyful giving is natural and quite wonderful.

One could wonder if much of the Buddhist monastic structure, designed as a dependent upon the laypeople, isn’t a sort of model for a healthy relationship. Dharma/teachings are to be freely and joyfully given by the monastics while it is up to the laypeople to ensure material support for the monastic community.

Newsletter from Rochester University.

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