The Science of Compassion


Stephen Post is a Professor of Preventive Medicine and the Director and Founder of the Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care, and Bioethics at Stony Brook University. He was previously a professor in the School of Medicine at Case Western Reserve University and a Senior Research Scholar at the Becket Institute of St. Hugh’s College, Oxford University.

Post is also a Senior Fellow in the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University, and a Senior Advisor for the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania. His research has been supported by the National Institutes of Health and the National Endowment for the Humanities. A public intellectual, Post has appeared widely on television programs such as Nightline and 20/20.

  • Transcript


Stephen Post:

When people are less focused on self and the problems of the self, there is a kind of alleviation of stress.  There’s nothing like reaching out and contributing to the lives of others to give a person, first of all a sense of significance and purpose. The idea of the helper’s high has been around since the early 1990’s.  Allen Lukes, a psychologist, had individuals going out and helping others in various ways, at low thresholds, a couple of hours of activity at a soup kitchen or helping down the block or whatever it might be.  And about half of the individuals, and this is a kind of half full/half empty paradigm, reported a feeling of elation; a kind of emotional buoyancy, if you will.  Forty-three percent reported a sense of warmth and tranquility.  Certainly many of them reported a sense of significance and meaning in life.  And interestingly, even 13 percent said they felt an alleviation of chronic aches and pains.  

Now since then, scientists have been studying this care and connection axis in human nature and know that it involves certain hormones, like oxytocin, sometimes called the compassion hormone.  Oxytocin is related not only to compassion, but also to feelings of tranquility or serenity, if you will, and also to social trust.

There’s a wonderful study that Jorge Moll, M-O-L-L, came out with several years ago down at the NIH, he had people coming off the street, just everyday folks, and he gives them a menu.  And on the menu you see a list of charities that the subject could consider contributing to.  It could be your Alma Mater High School, your Synagogue, your Church, the Alzheimer’s Association, who knows.  And of course they’re hooked up to an FMRI device which picks up activity in their brain.  When they check a box next to the particular line item that excites them, then the mesolimbic pathway gets active and that’s the deeply evolved part of the brain and the emotional part of the brain and it’s the part of the brain that’s associated with the feelings of joy that doles out feel good chemicals like dopamine, for example.  

Ands so we know, and I think this is perfectly Darwinian that we actually do have a kind of flourishing when we even think, notice this is a laboratory, so people aren’t really shelling out their dollars, but in the laboratory environment, people simply contemplate the idea of contributing to other merely on a financial level, let along a face-to-face, there is this kind of a benefit.