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Lions Roar : May 2015
I ’VE BEEN COVERING the science of human goodness, off and on, for almost ten years. In that time, I’ve seen a dramatic transformation in how scientists understand how and why we love, thank, empathize, cooper- ate, and care for each other. Of course, “goodness” doesn’t seem like a very scientific concept. It sounds downright squishy to many people, and thus unworthy of study. But you can count acts of goodness—and all science begins with counting. It’s the counting that has started to change our under- standing of human life. For example, in a study published in the January edition of the journal Mind- fulness, psychologists C. Daryl Cameron and Barbara Fredrickson asked 313 adults if they had helped anyone during the previous week. Eighty-five percent said they had—by, say, listening to a friend’s problems, babysitting, donating to charity, or volunteering. This small study reveals a truth that is consistently demonstrated in many domains of research: that daily human life is not characterized by violence, exploitation, or indifference. Far from it. The research—that is, the count- ing—reveals that we care deeply for one other, and that we would rather help our fellow beings than not. Even more, the science shows that refusing to help others can have debilitating, long-term mental and physical consequences for ourselves. Isolation hurts, physically; so does ag- gression. Every angry word we utter fries neurons and wears out our hearts. When I first started to write about the research, that was big news: Wow, human life isn’t as bad as we thought it was! Acts of goodness yield physical rewards! Good thoughts are good for our bodies! These insights led to a lot of predictably Polly- annaish media coverage. But as the years went on, the science of goodness grew more complex. Scientists started to look at how the good and the bad interact. The study by Cameron and Fredrickson explores how we feel when we’re helping others, and they found that quite a few participants didn’t feel good at all. These people helped others out of a sense of obligation, and they felt disgust, contempt, stress, or resentment toward those they helped. Today, the science of human goodness reveals that good and bad go hand in JEREMY ADAM SMITH edits the website of the Greater Good Science Center at the Univer- sity of California, Berkeley. He is author of The Daddy Shift. hand, and what ties us together can also tear us apart. So the important question becomes: How can I cultivate the good? The empirical answer to that question contains some surprises. Just as good and bad go hand in hand, the science reveals how inextricably our inner world and the external one are tied together. This is what the research currently suggests: If you want to find and foster the good in society, you need to start by searching for the goodness inside yourself. The Science of Evil You’ve probably heard of the famous Stanford Prison experiment. In 1971, the US Navy asked professor Philip Zimbardo to study the psychological effects of prison conditions. He did this by recruiting twenty-four young men as either guards or prisoners for a mock jail in the basement of the Stanford psychol- ogy building. The results of the “experiment” are often cited as evidence for the innate depravity of human beings. Things went horribly wrong in the mock jail, as the guards brutally abused their authority and the prisoners turned on each other. Zim- bardo himself was caught up in the inhu- manity of the situation he had created. 13 2 You Can Count on Goodness JEREMY ADAM SMITH introduces us to the new science of human goodness. Scientists are counting up acts of goodness—and you can too. It will change the way you see life. SHAMBHALA SUN MAY 2015 58