Compassion, Happiness and Brain HealthDr. Jim Collins
Scientists and spiritual leaders both agree that compassion is the key to less stress and happiness, especially as we age. Some stress, of course, is necessary to motivate action and pursue goals. Too much stress, on the other hand, can have negative consequences on physical, emotional and even brain health.
The spiritual leader Dalai Lama says that “We are a social species and our happiness is defined by our relationship with others”. It is important to avoid feelings like anger and distrust and instead practice patience and compassion. He also believes that it is detrimental to think of one’s self as special or privileged as these feelings can interfere with happiness and compassionate attitudes and behaviors.
Scientifically, the HPA (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal) axis in the brain is a complex set of influences of the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland, and the adrenal glands. It is important in regulating many functions like digestion, emotions, and energy. It also controls the secretion of stress hormones including cortisol, which helps the body respond to stress. Exposure to high levels of stress hormones can be detrimental to the hippocampus which is important in learning and memory.
Reducing stress is important throughout the lifespan, but is especially important later in life when learning and memory needs to be optimal. By combining spirituality and science, we can see that exercising compassion, which enhances happiness and minimizes stress, is healthy for not only the body and mind, but for the brain itself.