Compassion - a natural desire to soothe others' suffering - is expressed in the brain and affects our peripheral physiology. Compassion triggers a powerful biological response. It leads to an increase in vagal tone, which is the neuroconnection between your brain, heart, and other organs in your body. This response downregulates your body's sympathetic nervous system (fight-or-flight response) and upregulates your parasympathetic nervous system (rest-and-relax mechanism).
Cole and Fredrickson evaluated the levels of cellular inflammation in people who describe themselves as “very happy.” Inflammation is at the root of cancer and other diseases and is generally high in people who live under a lot of stress. We might expect that inflammation would be lower for people with higher levels of happiness. Cole and Fredrickson found that this was only the case for certain “very happy” people. They found that people who were happy because they lived a life of pleasure (sometimes also know as “hedonic happiness”) had high inflammation levels; on the other hand, people who were happy because they lived a life of purpose or meaning had low inflammation levels. A life of meaning and purpose is one focused less on satisfying oneself and more on others. It is a life rich in compassion and altruism.
One of the reasons that compassion may protect against stress is that it is so pleasurable. Motivation, however, seems to play an important role in predicting whether a compassionate lifestyle actually benefits our health. Researchers discovered that people who engaged in volunteerism lived longer than their non-volunteering peers—but only if their reasons for volunteering were altruistic rather than self-serving.
According to James Doty, neurosurgeon, while operating in a compassionate mindset, "you're relaxed, you're open, your heart rate and blood pressure decrease, and you are much more creative and open to new ideas. You look at the world in a completely different way. And the ultimate effect is that you are healthier and happier."
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