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The Surprising Payoff of Compassion

Your kind act benefits you more than the recipient.

The current Dalai Lama says that compassionate concern for others’ welfare enhances your own well-being. Researchers at the University of Rochester set out to test this theory, and found some answers that surprised them. (No word on how the Dalai Lama responded. He’s unlikely to say ‘I told you so!’) The results of the study were recently published in the journal Emotion.

The study looked at 175 newlyweds in North American, married on average just over seven months. They asked the husbands and wives to keep a two-week diary recording times when they put aside their own needs in order to take care of their partners’ needs. For example, a husband might notice the wife was running a late, so he made her a travel mug of coffee and had it ready for her, instead of rushing straight out on to his own commute. Or perhaps the wife revamped her after-work plans in order to help her husband when he got in a pinch dropping off a Fed/Ex package. Husbands and wives reported giving and receiving an average of .65 and .59 compassionate acts per day. They also asked the study participants to track their own daily emotional state, that is, whether they were feeling happy or sad, calm, angry, enthusiastic, etc.

Before the study, the researchers had predicted that greatest impact would be when the generous act was noticed by the recipient, which would make the doer feel valued. But they found the donor benefitted from the compassionate acts regardless of whether the recipient even noticed the acts. And in the cases the recipient did notice, the benefits for the donors was still about 45 percent greater than for the recipients, as determined by the self-assessment in the daily diaries.

“Clearly, a recipient needs to notice a compassionate act in order to emotionally benefit from it,” wrote the study’s lead author, Harry Reis, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of Rochester. “But recognition is much less a factor for the donor.” The results of the study suggest that the results suggest, “Acting compassionately may be its own reward.”

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