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Lions Roar : May 2015
I think it’s true that these are dangers to guard against, but research like Zim- bardo’s—which includes nonviolent civil disobedience as an example of heroism— finds specific steps we can take to develop a more caring society, ones the critics might dismiss as self-centered or wishful thinking. Remember the study of helping be- havior by Cameron and Fredrickson that I mentioned at the beginning? They hypothesized that two mindful traits—a focus on the present moment and a non- judgmental acceptance of thoughts and experiences—would help people feel bet- ter about helping others. The research confirmed their hypothesis: present-focused attention and non-judg- mental acceptance both predicted more helping behavior. Mindful participants were more likely to experience emotions like compassion, joy, or elevation while giv- ing help. In part this was because mindful- ness helped them to put their own anxiety aside in order to focus on the needs of oth- ers. They just felt better when helping peo- ple, which likely led them to engage in more helping behavior in general. It’s a result echoed in other studies. Paul Condon of Northeastern University and his colleagues put study participants through an eight-week mindfulness course. After the course, the meditators were called into a waiting room with no empty seats. An actress working for the researchers limped in on crutches and leaned against a wall. The researchers cre- ated the same situation for a group who didn’t go through the mindfulness course. Here’s what they found: members of the group that studied mindfulness med- itation were five times more likely to give up their seat to the woman on crutches than those who didn’t. The upshot of these two studies is that cultivating awareness of your own thoughts, feelings, and surroundings makes you more likely to see and meet the needs of others. Mindfulness is also linked to greater compassion for ourselves—in other words, mindful people are quicker to comfort themselves when they screw up. The critics might think they’re just letting themselves off the hook, but the research says otherwise. “We think we need to beat ourselves up if we make mistakes so that we won’t do it again,” said University of Texas psychologist Kristin Neff in a Greater Good interview. “But that’s completely counterproductive. Self-criticism is very strongly linked to de- pression. And depression is antithetical to motivation: You’re unable to be motivated to change if you’re depressed. It causes you to lose faith in yourself, and that’s going to make you less likely to try to change and conditions you for failure.” Mindfulness and self-compassion are also turning out to be tools to correct for different forms of implicit bias, such as racial discrimination. This shouldn’t sur- prise us. Too often, we believe that people are either racist or they’re not—but new research finds that’s just not true. As David Amodio, Susan Fiske, and other scientists have documented, everyone is prone to kneejerk bias. The trick is to cultivate enough self-awareness to know when you are being biased—to see the world as it is, not what we fear it is. YOU CAN USE PRAISE and criticism in ways that en- courage altruistic behavior in your children. Research suggests that children have a natural propensity toward altruism which can be cultivated by parents and teachers. • Avoid using external rewards to reinforce altruistic behavior. Rewards may communicate to the child that altruism is not worthwhile for its own sake. • Praise character, not behavior. Saying “You’re such a helpful person” may be more effective than saying “That was such a helpful thing to do.” Praising character helps children incorporate altruism into their identities and seems to be especially effective around age eight, when children are forming their moral identities. • Use nouns rather than verbs. Instead of asking a child “to help,” ask them to “be a helper.” This subtle word- ing shift appeals to children’s desire to see themselves as good, helpful people. • Encourage guilt, not shame. Research suggests that criti- cizing a child’s behavior is more effective than criticiz- ing their character. Children who feel guilt (“I did a bad thing”) are more likely to feel remorse and make amends than those who feel shame (“I am a bad person”). Criti- cizing a behavior instead of character communicates that repair is possible. This is especially effective when it includes positive affirmation (e.g., “You’re a good person, and I know you can do better.”) Practice: Encourage Altruism in Your Children 6 PHOTO©BIALASIEWICZ/DREAMSTIME.COM SHAMBHALA SUN MAY 2015 62