Compassion Cultivation Training series: It’s nice to be nice to the nice |

Compassion Cultivation Training series: It’s nice to be nice to the nice

Editor's note: This is the second part of an eight-part series chronicling reporter Pam Boyd's journey through Compassion Cultivation Training. Look for additional columns in the Tuesday High Life health section and online at

At the risk of dating myself, there's a quote from the television show "M*A*S*H" that I frequently employ — "It's nice to be nice to the nice."

That's kind of where Cultivating Compassion Training took me this week.

We have been working on compassion for a loved one — a partner, friend, child, sibling or even a pet. This isn't tough stuff. It's easy to feel compassion for the people we love. But that's why we are starting there. If we want to change ourselves to approach the world from a more compassionate place, then we need to rewire our thinking to put compassion first.

Gut feeling

Which brings me to the thought for this week. As part of our optional reading, Cultivating Compassion Training leader Mary Lou Keller shared an article by Philip Perry that notes compassion is actually weaved into our nervous system. As humans, we are literally wired to be compassionate. So why is there so much acrimony in our world?

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Perry refers to the work of Dr. Dacher Keltner, a compassion expert. Keltner is a psychologist at the University of California, Berkley, and director of the Berkley Social Interaction Laboratory. He authored the book "Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life."

"Through their research, Keltner and his team have found that the vagus nerve, a long strand which travels throughout the body and is present in the brain, neck, thorax and abdomen, plays a critical role in the physical component of what we call compassion," Perry wrote. "This is part of the parasympathetic nervous system. Only mammals have this nerve."

Turns out that when we say we feel something from the heart or in the gut, we actually do. Through the vagus nerve, the physical feeling of compassion is wired into our anatomy.

"Keltner and colleagues have found that those who have a high rate of vagus nerve activity at resting state report more altruistic emotions. Meanwhile, psychologist Nancy Eisenberg out of Arizona State University found that children with more active vagus nerves were more cooperative," Perry writes.

'The social brain'

Looking back on human evolution, Perry noted that compassion actually played a role in survival.

"The evolutionary advantage of the social brain was more likely to be passed down, as cooperative groups overtook less cohesive ones," he wrote. "Those social and altruistic genes were imprinted and passed on, creating what we now call the 'social brain.'"

What if compassion isn't just a nice practice but, rather, a vital survival skill? What if humans actually have a need to be compassionate? Perry even postulates that some day we will identify and treat "compassion deficit disorder."

As I sent out thoughts of compassion and loving kindness to my husband, children and sister this week, I find myself wondering if there's something more to the idea that it is nice to be nice to the nice. Maybe being nice is more important than it sounds. And maybe the meek really will inherit the earth.

Vail Daily writer Pam Boyd is enrolled in an eight-week Cultivating Compassion Training course, developed by the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University. The local class is taught by attorney Mary Lou Keller. For more information, visit