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Stanford research: Compassion aids well-being

Stanford University's Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education co-sponsored the Dalai Lama's visit to Silicon Valley for a talk on business, ethics and compassion. It highlighted recent achievements at Stanford's center, which continues to make research progress in the "science of compassion" while calling attention to the importance of well-being in our society.

Santa Clara University Dalai Lama

James Doty, left, director of Stanford's Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, and the Rev. Michael Engh, right, president of Santa Clara University, escort the Dalai Lama to Monday's conference on commerce, ethics and compassion

The message that the Dalai Lama brought to Silicon Valley was simple but profound – be kind and compassionate to other human beings. It's good for them, and good for you, he said.

The Dalai Lama's Feb. 24 visit to Santa Clara University highlighted progress and achievements at Stanford University's Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, which co-sponsored the event. The Dalai Lama is a founding benefactor of the Stanford center.

James Doty, the founder and director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, moderated the conversation between Tibet's spiritual leader and Lloyd Dean, CEO of San Francisco-based Dignity Health. The topic: commerce, ethics and compassion. It was a discussion particularly important in the epicenter of innovation known as Silicon Valley.

In his opening remarks, Doty noted that stress, anxiety and depression are the greatest health care costs to businesses – he referred to an "epidemic of depression." Companies do not pay enough attention to the well-being of its employees, he suggested.

"Is there a different approach?" asked Doty, referencing the effects of meditation and compassion on the brain. This type of research, he said, has stimulated a revolution in science. Being compassionate increases one's health, well-being and longevity, he said.

The Dalai Lama talked about how to become a "happy person" and build a "happy community" where people spread love and compassion.

"Everyone has the right to be a happy person, but generally we have too much of an emphasis on material values," he said.

"Basic human nature is gentleness. We are equipped with the seed of compassion" at birth, he said. But the challenge through adulthood is to overcome the materialism and self-centered attitudes of the world. Schooling and one's early home life can play huge roles, he added.

"Through education, we must include the teaching of compassion and warm-heartedness. When you give more happiness to others, you get maximum happiness. That is what we can teach people," the Dalai Lama said.

 Science of compassion

And that is exactly what Stanford's Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education is working on. Doty said that researchers are especially interested in ways to integrate technology and well-being.

"We're studying the development of interventions, including web-based or smartphone-based apps that support health and well-being by decreasing stress and anxiety in the workplace," Doty said in an interview before the Dalai Lama spoke. "We know that stress and anxiety have a huge negative effect on performance and result in significantly increased expenditures on health care costs."

In the past year, some top research findings included mind-training focused on being in the present moment, and acting with a sense of compassion for one's self and others, Doty said.

"This has a demonstrable effect on one's sense of well-being," he added.

The center's ongoing projects include "Neural Correlates of Compassion in Buddhist Adepts and Novices," "Is it Better to Give or to Receive? A Neuroeconomic Research" and "Compassion in the Political Arena."

With the increasing amount of peer-reviewed research in the field, the center offers a compassion database as well as a compassion wiki to explain key terminology.

Beyond research, the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education regularly hosts speaker series, science conferences, events, film screenings and performances, all aimed at promoting the science of compassion.

Benefits of meditation

What did the Dalai Lama's visit mean personally to Doty? In a sense, it's an affirmation of the work he and his Stanford colleagues have done on cultivating the science of compassion – a convergence of sorts between 21st century science and ancient spiritual wisdom. Large grains of truth overlap in both, though the semantics and symbolism may differ.

The Dalai Lama has for the last 30 years encouraged the study of the effects of mind-training – meditation, that is – on the brain, Doty noted. This has resulted in an entirely new research area of inquiry: contemplative neuroscience.

"It has led not only to interest in this area," Doty said, "but specifically an interest in how compassion and kindness affect the brain and, secondarily, peripheral physiology. We are now seeing an ever-increasing number of research articles that demonstrate such behaviors have an incredibly positive effect on health, wellness and longevity."

Researchers are increasingly convinced that while science and technology have a huge impact on the human condition, the human species would be doomed if it were to fundamentally lack compassion. "It is through compassion that we connect with others and it is through compassion that we will have our greatest impact," Doty said.

Doty finds wisdom in what the Dalai Lama has often said: "If you wish to be happy, demonstrate compassion. If you want others to be happy, demonstrate compassion."