484

The Genetics of Kindness

By Paul C Pritchard on Thursday November 14th, 2019

The 'Kind' in 'Humankind'

… I hope that our culture shifts from a consumption-based, materialist culture to one that privileges the social joys (play, caring, touch, mirth) that are our older (in the evolutionary sense) sources of the good life … – Prof. Dacher Keltner

We all wonder about the children in our lives and speculate on their destinies. We project all sorts of realities on to them and project them into hypothetical futures: little Julia is so inquisitive, she has to open up everything to see how it works rather than actually play with it – I bet she’ll be an award-winning engineer; Henry is always in my wardrobe playing dress-up, I just know he’ll be a famous fashion designer one day; Alison is such a good listener and takes her time before she acts – she’ll make the perfect discerning lawyer or high court judge … and the list goes on.

Granted, sometimes it’s just a hunch or an intuition about the child in that very moment. Perhaps it’s wishful thinking. But could there be any truth in this theatre that family and friends create about predicting a child’s future? Take a colony of ants for example; they come in with a destiny. They just know what their role is in the great order of things. Somehow the invisible blueprints of their function or purpose is woven into their DNA. There’s no Mr. and Mrs. Ant speculating if she will be Queen one day or simply be working for the Queen.

Genetics to Help Us Thrive

You get my point … we have evolved. We are perhaps outrunning our genetic coding with a plethora of employment necessities and choices. But in some crude way, we still function as a complete society because of a need for a variety of skill sets and talents. Perhaps our evolution (or design) is far smarter than we think. Perhaps, like the ants, there are numerous genetic talents to help our species to thrive and not just survive. We need the engineers and architects for shelter. We need the strong for farming and gathering. We need the writers and poets to give voice to complex emotional landscapes and to tell stories as learning and knowledge databases. We need the natural caregivers to take care of the sick and those in need. We need the musicians, dancers, and actors to reflect our joy and shared experiences …

These have been the tenets of human civilisation for thousands of years. Yes, we have evolved rapidly into an urban industrialised society and therefore have much more complex ‘worker’ needs. But all the new jobs are variations on some of the above worker themes.

Genes for survivalPerhaps our numerous genetic talents help our species to thrive.

Yet, of all the innate talents or standout qualities, I am most fascinated by those who seem to have been born with empathy and compassion, a strong desire to help their fellow humans. Those who devote their lives to the betterment and wellbeing of others. The care-professions; Nurses, Doctors, Surgeons, Palliative Caregivers, Pharmaceutical researchers, Therapists, Physiotherapists, etc. Is there something unique in their DNA that lends them to these particular vocations?

Born with it?

When scientists studied the empathy of over forty-six thousand people who had analysed their DNA through the genetics company 23andMe, they discovered that genes play a large part in their ability to understand others’ emotions. Kindness cannot exist without the ability to register rationally and empathically with the other’s situation.

While previous studies have discovered that women tend to be more empathetic than men, the researchers found no genetic factors to explain this, suggesting that gender differences are due to social conditioning or possibly the hormonal environment in the womb. – Olivia Goldhill

Researchers crunched the stats of the ‘genome-wide association studies’ and illustrated that changes in empathy have a direct correlation with gene variation.

“Any human attribute is partly genetic,” says Varun Warrier. “Even something like empathy that most people might think is not genetic does have genetic correlates.”

This does not mean that empathy and therefore the kindness response cannot be learned. But those who are predisposed to the kindness gene have an easier time recognising and responding with kindness when and where appropriately needed. They come in this way and therefore it’s a natural progression to be a round peg in a round hole when it comes to job fit.

“People who are genetically predisposed to higher levels of empathy might find it easier to view social cues and increase their levels for being empathetic,” says Warrier.

Learning to be Kind

We have barely scratched the surface of DNA mapping and genome science which makes these very exciting times. The great news is that the majority of kindness and empathy is taught and modelled. When we see kindness displayed in the world and the emotive responses it inspires, we learn that being kind is a win-win. As a species, we’ve learned that being kind brings us ‘material’ and emotional rewards. Receiving obviously brings ‘material’ rewards, and giving makes us feel great. All humans get to experience giving and receiving. It’s a reciprocal loop. Humans are predisposed to kindness and the desire to help those in need. It’s reassuring to know that cultural and environmental factors can influence any gene patterning.

Learned kindnessThe majority of kindness and empathy is taught and modelled.

Reverence, love, tenderness, laughter, embarrassment … these emotions lie at the core of our capacities for virtue and cooperation. – Professor Dacher Keltner

Professor Dacher Keltner, director of the Berkeley Social Interaction Laboratory, explores in his new book, Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life, the innate power of human emotion as threads that bind our connections.

“Born to be good” for me means that mammalian and hominid evolution have crafted a species, us, with remarkable tendencies toward kindness, play, generosity, reverence and self-sacrifice, which are vital to the classic tasks of evolution—survival, gene replication and smooth functioning groups. These tendencies are felt in the wonderful realm of emotion, such as compassion, gratitude, awe, embarrassment and mirth.

Keltner offers some practical yet scientifically validated insights:

Meditating on a compassionate approach to others shifts resting brain activation to the left hemisphere, a region associated with happiness, and boosts immune functions.

Talking about areas of gratitude, in classrooms, at the dinner table or in the diary, boosts happiness and social well-being and health.

Experiences of reverence in nature or around morally inspiring others improves people’s sense of connection to others and sense of purpose.

Laughing and playing in the face of trauma gives the person perspective upon life’s inevitable difficulties, and improves resilience and adjustment.

Devoting resources to others, rather than indulging a materialist desire, brings about lasting well-being.

Be a blessing to someone. – Maya Angelou

So, the deeper I dig, the more I contemplate, the more I interact with the children around me, the more I realise just how exquisitely complex we are as a species. How unique and bursting with potential we all are. Perhaps there’s a complex blueprint that we are given at birth. But that is susceptible and malleable to social and emotional elasticity. It explains the billions of human variations we are … even if we come in with similar DNA coding. A child might display traits of that coding early on in their life … but all their experiences determine how that manifests; ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor, Rich Man, Poor Man, Beggar Man, Thief.’

~

What are your thoughts around this topic? What is your direct experience of being kind and expressing that creatively in the world? How does it make you feel? What feedback have you been given? Is it an accident that we are called ‘Humankind?

Please let us know in the comments below. We value and appreciate your contribution to our UPLIFTing conversations so very much.

Be kind … be evolving.

Team UPLIFT

 

Related

PodcastGraphicEp48FeatureImgSize

Maya Soetoro-Ng: Raising Peace Leaders

Should we be Measuring Gross National Happiness?

Should we be Measuring Gross National Happiness?

TNH finding peace feature

Thich Nhat Hanh on Finding Peace

Subscribe to UPLIFT

UPLIFT is dedicated to telling the new story of inspired co-creation.

Get free updates and news about UPLIFT events and films.

How will my data be used?

references

References

1) https://qz.com/1226026/the-ability-to-feel-empathy-or-not-is-shaped-by-your-genes/
2) https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/spanish-journal-of-psychology/article/are-women-more-empathetic-than-men-a-longitudinal-study-in-adolescence/8900C6ABC5BE52BCE657367A8516E48D
3) https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/kindness-emotions-psychology/

comments

22 Responses to The Genetics of Kindness

  1. Humankind – what a nice word – I hadn’t thought of it really.

    But I do agree that spreading happiness makes happy! I do it with our animals, with the birds in the garden that I feed every day and with people I meet. Most of the time I get happiness back. This is wonderful…

    Lots of Love,
    Natali

  2. It would be interesting to know exactly where in the profiling this is demonstrated, for those of us who have had some testing, which genes???

    • Yes – agreed. I am sure more and more science is being explored at a rapid rate and soon these findings will be more concrete and more transparent. I am not a scientists but rather came across the research and was fascinated in the idea of predisposed genes … more as a think-point. Have a great day … much love Paul

    • I believe we can ‘read’ kindness and empathy in people … like a built in honing system for Trust. Aweseone … much love Paul

  3. This is a good read! As with so many human tendencies, displays of kindness are likely to be influenced by both environment and genes. People who have genes that predispose them to empathy and kindness, for example, are steadfast in their charitable behavior, regardless of their current environment, a new study finds.

  4. I had a very critical mother all through my teen years and as a young woman. I was told how selfish I was, how I would end up on the street and what a bad person I was. As a result I believed all this and became a selfish, uncaring person. When she died, I was 40 and my world changed. Slowly I began to value myself, I volunteered at a group for palliative care for terminal cancer patients, and eventually I became a voluntary translator at a local health clinic, a job which I loved and did for 21 years. By the time I was in my mid-fifties, I had learnt to love myself.
    Through my spiritual practices and study, I now understand that I was sent to her as her daughter in order for her to help me develop my self-esteem. She knocked me down and then provided me with the building blocks to rebuild my character. I have long ago forgiven her and now realize that I love and miss her. This is just one of my many lives along the journey of encarnation. To anyone experiencing difficulty with a family member or close friend, remember they are doing the job they were sent here to do, to the best of their ability. To help you develop more as a loving human being.

    • Dear Lynn, This touches my heart and I am sure it will touch many more. Thank you for sharing your UPLIFTing story. We sincerely appreciate your courage and transformation. Much love and a bounty of continued blessings upon you. Paul for Team Uplift

  5. What an amazing read.
    Of course I read myself in this whole article. My upringing caused trauma. My soul remained in tact. To this day, my desire to laugh, be kind, listen, love, and be a good human is my core. I needed this article. Thank You for inspiration. 💜

    • Dear Patricia … so pleased this resonated with you. Inspiration is only valuable when it is witnessed and right action follows. Thank you for bearing witness. We appreciate you so very much. Much love Paul

  6. Kindness is indeed its own reward. One kindness ripple travels through time affecting, creating, joining other ripples. Kindness is never wasted

  7. Thank you for this article and for the above comments. I am a US citizen, teaching school in India for the past 3 years. Kindness is something that for years and years I’ve talked to my students about (I teach elementary). My mantra is that it doesn’t cost anything to be kind. As I observe kids who feel empowered to not be the least bit kind, and then, I see those who intuitively embody kindness always. I contemplate on the subject of kindness often: why not just be kind?
    A reflection of living in the subcontinent is that I notice how kind some of the poorest people are. I notice how lovely their smiles are when an expat takes the time to stop, smile and try to communicate. I think people want to be validated and noticed that they exist.
    Haakon—I’m not a Brit, but your questions are valid worldwide.
    Ty – you are correct.
    I also believe our world is in the process of a gigantic reset. Countries, governments, people here in this world cannot reset overnight—-it will take generations, but I have to hope we are starting to understand that kindness is the way. I fear we have yet to hit the bottom. Hope is, that we never stop trying.

    • Dear Sarah … really want to acknowledge your great work and ethos. In the end, only kindness matters. I try and live by this from moment to moment. May we all wake up to kindness in a way that is kind and supportive to us all. Much love Paul

  8. Found it fascinating that politicians were not mentioned in some of the lyrical paragraphs
    in this essay
    I am a caregiver and acupuncture TCM practitioner in Uk
    In the Brexit scenario I’m finding it pretty challenging to be compassionate towards many politicians who directly threaten life opportunities of my grandchildren and the health and well-being of the British nation
    They don’t have the genes ?
    Or so materialist in orientation refuse to learn?
    Or a different species ?
    Milk of human kindness doesn’t seem to be part of the makeup of many politicians

    • I, too, wonder about those who are so greedy… I wonder if there’s some kind of “disconnect” ability — that we are all born with Hearts for being kind & compassionate, (a conscience?), but that some can disconnect from their Hearts… they still are “loving” – but their love is for power and cruelty. So either their Hearts are different – or they are Disconnects. And I wonder if there is any way to get them to plug back in? or will they ever love to cause suffering – or be indifferent to the suffering of others – in order to come out on top. Scary.

    • Hey … thanks for your great comments. At UPLIFT we try and steer our articles into the light without negating the shadow. And yes … politics is everywhere. Thanks again for covering more ground with your reflections. Much love Paul

  9. I find this article fascinating. I grew up severely depressed and feeling out of place in my family. I never got on with my sister and told a psychiatrist when I was 9 that my sister hated me. Then when I was 60 I did a DNA test and discovered that my dad was not my real father. My real father was a kind, gentle and sensitive man, and I am just like him. Growing up in the ‘wrong family’ was hell. I am so glad I had the father I did, although I also loved the father who raised me.

    • We are so full of stories and secrets and mistakes and it’s wonderful when I read of people like you who steered your DNA into the good life. Well done for finding LOVE. Much love to you … Paul

Leave a reply