A concept called “survival of the kindest” is emerging from an increasing number of social science studies, demonstrating that we might be becoming more compassionate and collaborative in our need to survive in today’s society.

According to Yasmin Anwar, who holds a Ph.D. in patient knowledge and chronic disease management, researchers at University of California/Berkeley are “challenging the long-held beliefs that human beings are wired to be selfish.

Contrasting Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, UC Berkeley psychologist, Dacher Keltner and other social scientists are building the case that humans are successful “because” of our nurturing, altruistic and compassionate traits.

“Human beings have survived as a species because we have evolved the capacities to care for those in need and to cooperate”, states Keltner, author of “Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life.”

“As Darwin long ago surmised, sympathy is our strongest instinct,” he says.

While many studies indicate that bonding and seeking out social connections are intrinsic in a healthier, more meaningful life, the larger question is how these traits actually ensure our survival and enhance our status among our peers? According to UC Berkeley social psychologist Robb Willer, the more generous we are, the more respect and influence we wield.

Regarding a recent study by Willer and his team published in American Sociological Review, he writes: “The findings suggest that anyone who acts only in his or her narrow self-interest will be shunned, disrespected, even hated. But those who behave generously with others are held in high esteem by their peers and thus rise in status.”

While much of the “positive psychology” being examined nationwide centers around personal fulfillment and happiness, UC Berkeley researchers have narrowed their investigations to how altruism contributes to the greater societal good.

For example, one study conducted by psychologist Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton found that cross-racial and cross-ethnic friendships can improve the social and academic experience on college campuses. In one set of findings, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, he discovered that cortisol (the hormone that triggers stress and anxiety) levels of both white and Latino students dropped as they became more familiar with one another over a series of one-on-one encounters.

Though our personal behavior usually rewards kindness, many of our laws and public policies do not. Human evolution may depend on our altruism, but that quality is not abundantly evident in American history, politics and leadership.

Unfortunately, “positive psychology” research hasn’t effectively explained why con-men, hypocrites, thieves, murderers and autocrats continue to survive and flourish in our societies.

Unfortunately, in human existence and in nature as a whole, unselfish, empathetic behavior is often trumped by competition, greed and a general collision of self-centered needs, whether of the predator or prey.

Most human beings, for example, have been born into a society in which we are allowed almost nothing unless it is paid for in some manner. People are selfish because they have been taught to be selfish.

As well, it can easily be argued that “the way life should be” is a lost cause. Greed has poisoned our psyches and barricaded the world with hatred. Technology has given us unparalleled communication access, but left us bereft of understanding.

The knowledge we glean from the media has made us more cynical, hard and uncharitable. We think a lot more but feel much less. Humanitarianism is rarer to witness these days.

Because of these unassailable facts of modern-day life, altruism’s rewards are grossly underrated. However, societies and cultures have grown and prospered because of our natural tendencies to reach out to one another and organize.

People who live in egalitarian societies do seem to live longer, produce more, and are happier than others. From an evolutionary perspective, even seemingly unselfish social behavior has made us a vastly more successful species of animal.

Far too often, our talking heads shout us down with their endless praise of gladiator-style competition in our so-called dog-eat-dog world. Career capitalism reigns supreme and we are constantly being told one way or the other that competition makes us “better” and wealth and prestige is the end game.

Fighting for resources that we don’t need and that don’t give us lasting satisfaction once we acquire them is both pointless and a wasteful use of our personal capital. Ambition is not a bad thing, but when it is always linked to the acquisition of things and power over others, we diminish our souls.

The findings of UC Berkeley social science studies and many others are challenging the long-held notion that nice guys finish last, but support the idea that, with nurture and support, people tend to err on the side of compassion.

 

Leigh Donaldson is a Portland writer whose book, “The Written Song: The Antebellum African-American Press in the Northeast,” is due for publication this year. He can be contacted at:

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