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Do Kinder People Have an Evolutionary Advantage?

"Positive psychology" research indicates that the kinder you are, the more likely you are to survive -- and evolve.

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One outcome is the campus's Greater Good Science Center, a West Coast magnet for research on gratitude, compassion, altruism, awe and positive parenting, whose benefactors include the Metanexus Institute, Tom and Ruth Ann Hornaday and the Quality of Life Foundation.

Christine Carter, executive director of the Greater Good Science Center, is creator of the "Science for Raising Happy Kids" Web site, whose goal, among other things, is to assist in and promote the rearing of "emotionally literate" children. Carter translates rigorous research into practical parenting advice. She says many parents are turning away from materialistic or competitive activities, and rethinking what will bring their families true happiness and well-being.

"I've found that parents who start consciously cultivating gratitude and generosity in their children quickly see how much happier and more resilient their children become," said Carter, author of "Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents" which will be in bookstores in February 2010. "What is often surprising to parents is how much happier they themselves also become."

The sympathetic touch

As for college-goers, UC Berkeley psychologist Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton has found that cross-racial and cross-ethnic friendships can improve the social and academic experience on campuses. In one set of findings, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, he found that the cortisol levels of both white and Latino students dropped as they got to know each over a series of one-on-one get-togethers. Cortisol is a hormone triggered by stress and anxiety.

Meanwhile, in their investigation of the neurobiological roots of positive emotions, Keltner and his team are zeroing in on the aforementioned oxytocin as well as the vagus nerve, a uniquely mammalian system that connects to all the body's organs and regulates heart rate and breathing.

Both the vagus nerve and oxytocin play a role in communicating and calming. In one UC Berkeley study, for example, two people separated by a barrier took turns trying to communicate emotions to one another by touching one other through a hole in the barrier. For the most part, participants were able to successfully communicate sympathy, love and gratitude and even assuage major anxiety.

Researchers were able to see from activity in the threat response region of the brain that many of the female participants grew anxious as they waited to be touched. However, as soon as they felt a sympathetic touch, the vagus nerve was activated and oxytocin was released, calming them immediately.

"Sympathy is indeed wired into our brains and bodies; and it spreads from one person to another through touch," Keltner said.

The same goes for smaller mammals. UC Berkeley psychologist Darlene Francis and Michael Meaney, a professor of biological psychiatry and neurology at McGill University, found that rat pups whose mothers licked, groomed and generally nurtured them showed reduced levels of stress hormones, including cortisol, and had generally more robust immune systems.

Overall, these and other findings at UC Berkeley challenge the assumption that nice guys finish last, and instead support the hypothesis that humans, if adequately nurtured and supported, tend to err on the side of compassion.

"This new science of altruism and the physiological underpinnings of compassion is finally catching up with Darwin's observations nearly 130 years ago, that sympathy is our strongest instinct," Keltner said.