Helping others succeed by acting compassionately toward them can benefit you both mentally and physically, a UA professor told a Tucson audience at a lecture on happiness Wednesday night.
“The best way to pursue happiness for yourself is to work for the happiness of others,” said Dr. Charles Raison, an associate professor of psychiatry and family and consumer sciences at the University of Arizona.
“There’s increasing evidence that people who feel socially connected, loved and cared for have lower levels of harmful immune chemicals in their body. They live longer. They’re healthier,” he said.
Raison spoke about his research on the health effects of cognitively based compassion training (CBCT) at the Fox Tucson Theatre as part of the Happiness Downtown Lecture Series. UA’s College of Social and Behavioral Sciences sponsors the free series.
CBCT, developed by Raison’s collaborator Geshe Lobsang Tenzin Negi, is based on the Tibetan Buddhist tradition of lojong, or cultivating compassion through mind training.
The training, which incorporates mediation, instruction and discussion, is founded on the core concepts of equanimity and empathy, Raison said.
Raison suggests cultivating feelings of empathy, starting with people we do like, and then for people we do not like or whom we see as enemies.
We are evolutionarily wired to label people as friend or foe, Raison said, referring to this tendency as the “tribal mind.”
If we use these labels, however, we end up fighting the wrong enemy.
“In the struggle for happiness,” Raison said, “the real enemies are not the people who oppose us, but rather the anger and hatred we feel toward those people.”
Compassion training can counter the negative effects that anger and stress have on the immune system. People who participate in CBCT tend to see the world as less threatening and release fewer stress chemicals, Raison said. That, in turn, leads to feelings of happiness and can reduce health risks, such as heart disease,depression and even cancer, he says.
Raison has studied the effects of CBCT training on different groups of people. He found that children in elementary school made more friendships after compassion training. Foster children and at-risk youth reported lower levels of stress and more feelings of hopefulness, he said.
Our happiness and success depend on how we choose to relate to others. “Generally, we think about things being competitive, as if there’s a zero sum game in life, so that my gain is your loss,” Raison said. “But for almost everything, and with very few exceptions, in the real world there’s not a zero sum, so people that foster the good of others are often very successful themselves.”
Nearly 1,200 people filled the Fox Theatre the lecture, and an additional 300 watched a live feed of the lecture from the overflow seating.
Brian Jones, 40, chief hydrologist with the Pima County Regional Flood Control District, said that thinking about our evolutionary bias will help him see his social interactions in a new light. “This knowledge will help me ask, ‘Why am I reacting that way?’ “
“The university is doing a great service by hosting this lecture series,” said Susie Bergesen, 65, a retired social worker who assisted foster children. “It speaks to the extraordinary importance of research,” she said, noting the packed house.
“I’m very excited about this research,” said Christie Rogers, 65, a child family therapist with the Pascua Yaqui Tribe. “(Raison) showed something that really works for trauma victims.”
Rogers is hoping to obtain training in cognitively-based compassion.