Activating Our Biological Goodness

When I began my study of the human emotion 25 years ago, most of the work was on anger and fear and shame and sadness and depression. Those are all really important states that we need to understand. But there wasn’t really this attempt to understand the evolutionary and biological origins of things like gratitude, compassion, and joy and sacrifice. 

And so, 15, 20 years ago, my lab got really interested in the “Born To Be Good” emotions, the emotions that help us get outside of ourselves, that help us serve other people, that help us connect emotions like love and compassion and beauty and awe, and I think that as those studies have really mounted and replicated and spread in different parts of the world, the Born To Be Good thesis has some credence.

And it’s important for young people today, the kinds of people I teach, because there’s a lot of cynicism. You go to the news on social media and you feel that there’s not a lot to be hopeful with respect to human nature, but in point of fact, we’re really wired to do a lot of good things.

Cultivating Good Feelings

A common question that I get, like “Born To Be Good, aren’t we born to be bad too?”

It’s good to have a little bit of fear about spiders or places where you might be in peril. It’s good to evolutionarily to feel pain. If we didn’t have physical pain, we wouldn’t know what threatens our bodies, right? 

But just on a similar par to those really obvious evolved tendencies is, for example, as Charles Darwin reasoned, our instinctual tendency to feel sympathy for people who suffer. That our born to be good tendencies, contrary to a lot of assumptions out there, are just as strong and easily accessible as our tendency to get angry or to feel anxious. And then the challenge becomes how to cultivate them. 

So you take a scientific finding, for example, that when we feel compassion, we have now replicated eight to ten times that when you feel compassion and you’re watching some signs of people suffering physically and you want to help, right, and it’s classic compassion, a very old part of your nervous system called the vagus nerve, which is this bundle of nerves that starts up at the top of your spinal cord, wanders through your throat, kind of moves by your larynx, drops down into your heart and your lungs, moves into your digestive organs and slows the body down and helps you connect. 

So caring is this old bundle of nerves … it’s rooted in this old mammalian process. 

Now here’s what’s really interesting when you get to the practice world or cultivation which is, when we ask people to breathe mindfully and deeply, right. You breathe in to a count of six, you breathe out to a count of six, you breathe in, you exhale. That deep breathing we know anatomically activates the vagus nerve. And people often … when you just have them breathe deeply, they’re like, “God, I feel so kind, I feel so open to people and loving.” 

And for us that’s this interesting intersection of well, the vagus nerve supports caring and connection and kindness and once we activate it, even through breathing, you get these psychological benefits. 

The way that we approach it is these are secular, intuitive, but rooted in deep traditions, practices. Breathing is rooted in different yogic traditions. Training the mind as we will do goes back to almost every contemplative tradition, and so I really encourage people to just try different pieces of these practices in their daily life. 

A Practice to Engage Deep Breathing

So what we’re gonna do, just to frame it is engage in some deep breathing and then we’ll do just a tiny little bit of body scan where we direct our attention to relaxing the musculature, and then we’ll move in a little bit of kindness where I’ll encourage our listeners to think of someone they really deeply care about and the feeling that arises.

Let’s all breathe in deeply and expand our belly and chest for a count of six, and breathe out and feel that air go through the nasal passage. Breathe in and feel the nice belly and chest expand, breathe out. I like to count to six. As you breathe in, relax your brow. Relax your jaw and brow and face as you breathe out. Breathe in. On this next breath, as you breathe in, let’s bring to mind someone you really care about, a friend, a family member, a pet, someone whose close. Call forth that person’s face in your mind. Think about that person’s presence in your life and the warmth you feel towards him or her. You may feel warm feelings in your chest or even tearing as you think about that person. Think of how deeply you appreciate them. We’ll now close out this little breathing exercise with our final breath.

Taking 10 deep breaths like that, when we bring people to our lab, it actually activates the vagus nerve, slows down your cardiovascular response, calms certain indicators of stress in your body. There is nice work that when you regularly practice this kindness training in the mind, as you know … work by Barb Fredrickson and other labs, gives you these boosts in well being and so these really simple practices that we can start building and finding on a daily basis, as you know are great antidotes to the stresses of today.