Scientists are working furiously these days on testing therapies and vaccines to treat the coronavirus, but it will take time and focused effort before they’re ready. In the meantime, we’re all wrestling with a lot of emotion. Fortunately, there is already a way to vaccinate ourselves against panic, anxiety, and selfishness. It’s called loving-kindness.
How does it work? Here’s the science.
There is a component of our brain called the default mode network that gets activated when we think about ourselves — especially when we regret the past or worry about the future. It also gets activated when we get caught up in craving things like cigarettes. My lab has found that the feeling of getting caught up in our experience — the closed down, contracted feeling that arises when we’re afraid or anxious — aligns with increased activity in the default mode network. Meditation, by contrast, makes this same network quiet down.
So, how do we train ourselves to instead of selfishness or aggression when the going gets tough? Well, here we can follow our brains. I’ve mentioned in earlier columns how our brains set up a reward hierarchy to help us quickly and habitually make decisions. When given a choice between two actions, we’ll choose the more rewarding one. The more we do that, the more it becomes habitual. We default to the more rewarding option.
Short moments observed many times is how you make kindness your new habit.
With kindness, it’s really simple. What does it feel like when someone is kind to you? What does it feel like when you do something kind for someone else? Kindness feels better and our brains know this. It’s simply a matter of seeing this reward clearly, and then repeating it over and over until kindness becomes habitual. Then, like Matt Damon’s character in Contagion, when panic surrounds us, we can counter it by instinctively pitching in and helping.
You can pretty easily obtain the kindness vaccination today by noticing what it feels like to receive the kindness of others. And then you can get your booster shots by practicing loving-kindness throughout your days — by simply and silently wishing people well at the grocery store, when you walk or drive past them, or when you receive a package at the door. Short moments observed many times is how you make kindness your new habit.
Let’s all use this time to grow into our kindest selves.