How loving-kindness meditation makes you healthier, happier, and kinder

Meditation is a lot more than just chilling out and reflecting. It can actually rewire your brain to become a better person.

Daniel Goleman: Perhaps the most startling finding for meditation beginners comes with what’s called compassion or loving kindness meditation. This is a practice that often accompanies mindfulness the breath, for example. People will do at the end of the session, they bring to mind people that have been kind to them; they think of themselves; they think of people they love, people they know, everyone everywhere and wish them well may they be safe, happy, healthy, free from suffering. And it turns out that the repetition of those phrases is psychoactive it actually changes the brain and how you feel right from the get go. We find, for example, that people who do this meditation who’ve just started doing it actually are kinder, they’re more likely to help someone in need, they’re more generous and they’re happier. It turns out that the brain areas that help us or that make us want to help someone that we care about also connect with the circuitry for feeling good. So it feels good to be kind and all of that shows up very early in just a few hours really of total practice of loving kindness or compassion meditation.

So we feel that the brain is somehow biologically prepared to learn to love better. The brain area that become stronger in its activity is the same as a parent’s love for a child. It’s the mammalian caretaking circuitry. We share it with all other mammals. And in humans it’s extremely important for the third of three kinds of empathy. There’s empathy that allows you to understand better how someone thinks to take their perspective, lets you be a good communicator. There’s the empathy where you connect emotionally; you feel what the other person feels immediately; you sense in your own body what’s going on in the other person. This allows rapport and chemistry, it’s also very important. But the third kind of empathy is what’s called empathic concern; it’s the feeling of caring about another person wanting to help them. It’s the basis of compassion. You can have the first two and not to be particularly concerned or caring, but if you have all three then you’ve got the whole package of empathy and we find that love and kindness meditation strengthens that third, both in terms of how you behave, how you feel and what’s happening in the brain.

One of the paradoxes we found when we started looking very closely at all of the research that’s done on meditation was a kind of a disconnect between what the classic traditions from which these methods come are saying is important and what scientists are studying. One of the most important things, whether you’re looking in the Christian literature or the Buddhist literature or Jewish literature or Hindu literature, doesn’t matter, all of the meditative traditions within those classical schools of thought are saying the most important thing is that you become less focused on yourself, caring only about yourself, less selfish as it were and more open to the needs of others, more compassionate, more caring, more present to other people.

And even though the classic traditions say this is what counts, in terms of the scientific interest it was minimal. We found maybe three or four studies... remember out of 6,000... that really were tight methodologically and spoke to this, but here again the news was good. If you look at the longer-term meditators, people who have done more than say 1,000 or 2,000 hours of meditation over their entire life, and this happens naturally, let’s say you do a half hour of sit every morning before you go out for the day, well after a decade or two it does add up. And it seems that that cumulative amount does make people less selfish, less just caring about me and more open to other people around them, more caring, more able to tune in, more able to empathize. And this also shows up in a brain change, which we think is quite significant, which is that the nucleus incumbents, which is the focus of craving of I got to have that, drug addiction for example, actually become smaller in longer-term meditators. And that seems to be related to this lack of "I me mine" in how people behave and how they think in their emotional life.

And we see it most strikingly, of course, in Olympic level meditators where these are people who have done 10,000 or more... 10,000 to 62,000 hours of meditation and they are genuinely selfless people, but they’re very nourishing very enjoyable to be with because they pay attention to you, they really focus on the person they’re with and how they can be of service or what do you need now and it’s very refreshing. 

If you've ever watched someone meditating it looks like they're just sitting there with their eyes closed. But what's going on in their head is extremely interesting: metta meditation (or 'loving-kindness' meditation if that's your thing) has been proven to actually make long-term practitioners certifiably better people. You might have to do it for 1,000 hours to see discernible effects in your brainwaves, but it's still fascinating news for those in the mediation field and indeed anyone interested in brain science. Daniel Goleman's new book is Primal Leadership: Unleashing the Power of Emotional Intelligence.

7 most notorious and excessive Roman Emperors

These Roman Emperors were infamous for their debauchery and cruelty.

1876. Painted by Henryk Siemiradzki.
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Roman Emperors were known for their excesses and violent behavior.
  • From Caligula to Elagabalus, the emperors exercised total power in the service of their often-strange desires.
  • Most of these emperors met violent ends themselves.

We rightfully complain about many of our politicians and leaders today, but historically speaking, humanity has seen much worse. Arguably no set of rulers has been as debauched, ingenious in their cruelty, and prone to excess as the Roman Emperors.

While this list is certainly not exhaustive, here are seven Roman rulers who were perhaps the worst of the worst in what was one of the largest empires that ever existed, lasting for over a thousand years.

1. Caligula

Officially known as Gaius (Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus), Caligula was the third Roman Emperor, ruling from 37 to 41 AD. He acquired the nickname "Caligula" (meaning "little [soldier's] boot") from his father's soldiers during a campaign.

While recognized for some positive measures in the early days of his rule, he became famous throughout the ages as an absolutely insane emperor, who killed anyone when it pleased him, spent exorbitantly, was obsessed with perverse sex, and proclaimed himself to be a living god.

Caligula gives his horse Incitatus a drink during a banquet. Credit: An engraving by Persichini from a drawing by Pinelli, from "The History of the Roman Emperors" from Augustus to Constantine, by Jean Baptiste Louis Crevier. 1836.

Among his litany of misdeeds, according to the accounts of Caligula's contemporaries Philo of Alexandria and Seneca the Younger, he was accused of sleeping with other men's wives and publicly talking about it, as well as killing for mere amusement. Supposedly, during one competition he was presiding over, he got so bored that he had his guards throw a whole section of the audience into the arena during the intermission so they would be eaten by wild beasts as no prisoners were available. He also allegedly executed two consuls who forgot his birthday.

He was also said to have caused mass starvation and purposefully wasted money and resources, like making his troops stage fake battles just for theater. If that wasn't enough, he turned his palace into a brothel and was accused of incest with his sisters, Agrippina the Younger, Drusilla, and Livilla, whom he also prostituted to other men. Perhaps most famously, he was planning to appoint his favorite horse Incitatus a consul and went as far as making the horse into a priest.

In early 41 AD, Caligula was assassinated by a conspiracy of Praetorian Guard officers, senators, and other members of the court.

2. Nero

Fully named Nero Claudius Caesar, Nero ruled from 54 to 68 AD and was arguably an even worse madman than his uncle Caligula. He had his step-brother Britannicus killed, his wife Octavia executed, and his mother Agrippina stabbed and murdered. He personally kicked to death his lover Poppeaea while she was pregnant with his child — a horrific action the Roman historian Tacitus depicted as "a casual outburst of rage."

He spent exorbitantly and built a 100-foot-tall bronze statue of himself called the Colossus Neronis.

He is also remembered for being strangely obsessed with music. He sang and played the lyre, although it's not likely he really fiddled as Rome burned in what is a popular myth about this crazed tyrant. As misplaced retribution for the fire which burned down a sizable portion of Rome in the year 64, he executed scores of early Christians, some of them outfitted in animal skins and brutalized by dogs, with others he burned at the stake.

Roman Emperor Nero in the burning ruins of Rome. July 64 AD.Credit: From an original painting by S.J. Ferris. (Photo by Kean Collection / Getty Images)

He died by suicide.

3. Commodus

Like some of his counterparts, Commodus (a.k.a. Lucius Aelius Aurelius Commodus) thought he was a god — in his case, a reincarnation of the Greek demi-god Hercules. Ruling from 176 to 192 AD, he was also known for his debauched ways and strange stunts that seemed designed to affirm his divine status. Numerous statues around the empire showed him as Hercules, a warrior who fought both men and beasts. He fought hundreds of exotic animals in an arena like a gladiator, confusing and terrifying his subjects. Once, he killed 100 lions in a single day.

Emperor Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) questions the loyalty of his sister Lucilla (Connie Nielsen) In Dreamworks Pictures' and Universal Pictures' Oscar-winning drama "Gladiator," directed by Ridley Scott.Credit: Photo By Getty Images

A burning desire to fight both animals and humans as a gladiator for the New Year's Day celebrations in 193 AD brought about his demise. After Commodus shot hundreds of animals with arrows and javelins every morning as part of the Plebeian Games leading up to New Year's, his fitness coach (aptly named Narcissus), choked the emperor to death in his bath.

4. Elagabalus

Officially named Marcus Aurelius Antoninus II, Elagabalus's nickname comes from his priesthood in the cult of the Syrian god Elagabal. Ruling as emperor from 218 to 222 AD, he was so devoted to the cult, which he tried to spread in Rome, that he had himself circumcised to prove his dedication. He further offended the religious sensitivities of his compatriots by essentially replacing the main Roman god Jupiter with Elagabal as the chief deity. In another nod to his convictions, he installed on Palatine Hill a conical fetish made of black stone as a symbol of the Syrian sun god Sol Invictus Elagabalus.

His sexual proclivities were also not well received at the time. He was likely transgender (wearing makeup and wigs), had five marriages, and was quite open about his male lovers. According to the Roman historian (and the emperor's contemporary) Cassius Dio, Elagabalus prostituted himself in brothels and taverns and was one of the first historical figures on record to be looking for sex reassignment surgery.

He was eventually murdered in 222 in an assassination plot engineered by his own grandmother Julia Maesa.

5. Vitellius

Emperor for just eight months, from April 19th to December 20th of the year 69 AD, Vitellius made some key administrative contributions to the empire but is ultimately remembered as a cruel glutton. He was described by the Roman historian Suetonius as overly fond of eating and drinking, to the point where he would eat at banquets four times a day while sending out the Roman navy to get him rare foods. He also had little social grace, inviting himself over to the houses of different noblemen to eat at their banquets, too.

Vitellius dragged through the streets of Rome.Credit: Georges Rochegrosse. 1883.

He was also quite vicious and reportedly either had his own mother starved to death or approved a poison with which she committed suicide.

Vitellius was ultimately murdered in brutal fashion by supporters of the rival emperor Vespasian, who dragged him through Rome's streets, then likely beheaded him and threw his body into the Tiber river. "Yet I was once your emperor," were supposedly his last words, wrote historian Cassius Dio.

6. Caracalla

Marcus Aurelius Antoninus I ruled Rome from 211 to 217 AD on his own (while previously co-ruling with his father Septimius Severus from 198). "Caracalla"' was his nickname, referencing a hooded coat from Gaul that he brought into Roman fashion.

He started off his rise to individual power by murdering his younger brother Geta, who was named co-heir by their father. Caracalla's bloodthirsty tyranny didn't stop there. He wiped out Geta's supporters and was known to execute any opponents to his or Roman rule. For instance, he slaughtered up to 20,000 citizens of Alexandria after a local theatrical satire dared to mock him.

Geta Dying in His Mother's Arms.Credit: Jacques Pajou (1766-1828)

One of the positive outcomes of his rule was the Edict of Caracalla, which gave Roman citizenship to all free men in the empire. He was also known for building gigantic baths.

Like others on this list, Caracalla met a brutal end, being assassinated by army officers, including the Praetorian prefect Opellius Macrinus, who installed himself as the next emperor.

7. Tiberius

As the second emperor, Tiberius (ruling from 42 BC to 16 AD) is known for a number of accomplishments, especially his military exploits. He was one of the Roman Empire's most successful generals, conquering Pannonia, Dalmatia, Raetia, and parts of Germania.

He was also remembered by his contemporaries as a rather sullen, perverse, and angry man. In the chapter on his life from The Lives of the Twelve Caesars by the historian Suetonius, Tiberius is said to have been disliked from an early age for his personality by even his family. Suetonius wrote that his mother Antonia often called him "an abortion of a man, that had been only begun, but never finished, by nature."

"Orgy of the Times of Tiberius on Capri".Painting by Henryk Siemiradzki. 1881.

Suetonius also paints a damning picture of Tiberius after he retreated from public life to the island of Capri. His years on the island would put Jeffrey Epstein to shame. A horrendous pedophile, Tiberius had a reputation for "depravities that one can hardly bear to tell or be told, let alone believe," Suetonius wrote, describing how "in Capri's woods and groves he arranged a number of nooks of venery where boys and girls got up as Pans and nymphs solicited outside bowers and grottoes: people openly called this 'the old goat's garden,' punning on the island's name."

There's much, much more — far too salacious and, frankly, disgusting to repeat here. For the intrepid or morbidly curious reader, here's a link for more information.

After he died, Tiberius was succeeded in emperorship by his grandnephew and adopted grandson Caligula. How fitting.

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The ‘Lost Forty’: how a mapping error preserved an old-growth forest

A 19th-century surveying mistake kept lumberjacks away from what is now Minnesota's largest patch of old-growth trees.

Credit: U.S. Forest Service via Dan Alosso on Substack and licensed under CC-BY-SA
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New studies stretch the boundaries of physics, achieving quantum entanglement in larger systems.

Credit: Aalto University.
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