We assume 'bad trumps good', because 'good guys finish last' and you need to be tough-as-nails to engage in 'survival of the fittest'. To win, someone must lose. Compassion hasn't fared well in Western philisophy: Kant, Rand, Hobbes.
But there is another way to look at the world, and it is making its way into academic circles: doing good just may be contagious; it pays to be good; and positive emotions spread more quickly than negative ones.
When Richie and Jon Kabat-Zinn and colleagues had software engineers train in the techniques of mindfulness meditation — an accepting awareness of the mind, loving kindness toward others — six weeks later these individuals showed increased activation in the left frontal lobes. They also showed enhanced immune function. They may not have been donning the saffron robes of the monk, but at least their minds were moving in that kind direction.
Recent scientific studies are identifying the kinds of environments that cultivate compassion. This moral emotion is cultivated in environments where parents are responsive, and play, and touch their children. So does an empathic style that prompts the child to reason about harm. So do chores, as well as the presence of grandparents. Making compassion a motif in dinnertime conversations and bedtime stories cultivates this all-important emotion. Even visually presented concepts like 'hug' and 'love' at speeds so fast participants couldn't report what they had seen increase compassion and generosity.
Compassion is that powerful an idea. It is a strong emotion, attuned to those in need. It is a progenitor of courageous acts. It is wired into our nervous systems and encoded in our genes. It is good for your children, your health, and, recent studies suggest, it is vital to your marriage. In the words of the Dalai Lama: 'If you want to be happy, practice compassion; if you want others to be happy, practice compassion.' It has taken a sympathy breakthrough for science to catch up to this wisdom of the ages.
Ironically enough, compassion may be a prerequisite to the pursuit of self-interested happiness. Excerpt from Born to Be Good is taken from Spirituality and Practice
This book helped to inspire the documentary, 'I Am' recently released in the States.
Google Tech Talks has a full hour lecture with Keltner which is well worth a listen.
Here's a two minute interview with the author to whet your appetite: