How Being Nice Can Boost Your Health

PHOTO: Being kind to others can help reduce stress and has other positive effects on health.
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According to scientific research, there's a strong case to be made for not being a jerk. As part of my research for a new book about meditation, I came across studies that say not only is compassion good for your health (and your wallet), but also that there’s a specific form of meditation that can boost your compassion.

How to Make Yourself Nicer

So, here are six selfish reasons to be nice.

How Being Nice Boosts Your Health

It feels good

Brain scans show that acts of kindness register more like eating chocolate than, say, fulfilling an obligation. The same pleasure centers light up when we receive a gift as when we donate to charity. Neuroscientists refer to it as “the warm glow” effect.

How Being Nice Boosts Your Health

It makes you live longer

According to studies, everyone from the elderly to alcoholics to people living with AIDS saw their health improve if they did volunteer work.

How Being Nice Boosts Your Health

It’s profitable

Compassionate people – specifically those who are able to read other people’s emotions, and communicate their own clearly – tend to not only be healthier and happier, but also more popular, and even more successful at work. According to Professor Dacher Keltner, a scientist at the University of California-Berkeley, “people trust you more, they have better interactions with you, you even get paid better.”

How Being Nice Boosts Your Health

Compassion meditation can actually make you nicer

If, like me, you do not consider yourself to be naturally overflowing with boundless loving-kindness, there is evidence that compassion meditation can actually make you nicer.

Brain scans done at the University of Wisconsin-Madison show that people who were taught compassion meditation displayed increased activity in regions associated with empathy and understanding. There’s also research showing that preschoolers became more willing to give their stickers away to strangers. My favorite study, done at Emory University, asked subjects to wear tape recorders for days at a time, which captured their conversations. The meditators were more empathic, spent more time with other people, laughed more, and used the word “I” less.

How Being Nice Boosts Your Health

It reduces stress

Also at Emory, researchers studied beginners who were given a brief course in compassion meditation. The subjects were then placed in stressful situations in the lab, including having a TV camera pointed at them (a detail which, for me, was particularly rich). The scientists found that the meditators released significantly lower doses of a stress hormone called cortisol. In other words, practicing compassion appeared to be helping their bodies handle stress in a better way. This is consequential because frequent or persistent release of cortisol can lead to heart disease, diabetes, dementia, cancer and depression.

How Being Nice Boosts Your Health

It tames the voice in your head

At Yale, scientists have been studying what’s called the Default Mode Network, the so-called “selfing regions” of brain, which are active when we’re obsessing about ourselves, or lost in thoughts about the past and the future instead of paying attention to what’s happening right now. Compassion meditators were better able to shut down the default mode--even when they were not meditating. In other words, they created a new default mode.

If you want to learn how to do compassion meditation, click here. For more information my book, 10% Happier, about how a skeptical newsman became a reluctant meditator, click here.

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