Editor’s Note: Nalanda Institute’s Director, Dr. Joe Loizzo recently sat down with Dr. Emma Seppälä for a conversation about compassion science and their hopes for the future. Dr. Seppälä is the Science Director at The Center for Compassion and Altruism Research at Stanford University. We present a small portion of their conversation here.
Dr. Seppälä is also our Guest of Honor at our 10th Annual Benefit on June 12th. Her talk entitled “Compassion Science: Healing Our Interconnected World” further explores the topics presented here. Find out more about our forthcoming benefit.
Joe Loizzo: Welcome, Emma, and thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me about your work in the science of compassion. First of all, maybe you could fill us in about how you found your way to your unusual career.
Emma Seppälä: While I was doing my master’s degree at Columbia in East Asian languages in the late 90’s, I took a class with Bob Thurman, and decided to focus on Buddhist Studies. That lead me to the seminar you gave on Science, Spirituality and Healing in the Tibetan tradition, where I remember you urged me to go to a talk at Union Seminary by Richie Davidson and Dan Goleman on meditation research, remember?
JL: Yes, I remember.
ES: I had been thinking about doing a PhD in religion, but after your class and that talk, I realized that I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life arguing about different translations. I just felt that the academic route was not going to be so useful to people in general. Instead, I got excited about doing research on meditation. So, I started taking psychology classes during my master’s, then did a year at Yale as a research assistant, and finally got into Stanford for a doctorate in psychology.
JL: So, you were right there at Stanford when the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE) was getting started?
ES: Well, it had just started emerging when I was a graduate student, but I was focused on my dissertation, doing research on social connection and compassion, based on loving-kindness meditation. While I was finishing up my dissertation, in one meditation, I had a powerful experience. I had this feeling — this is going to sound weird — like the veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan were marching into my heart. I can’t explain it. And I was sobbing, and I opened my eyes, and I realized that I had to find ways to help alleviate their suffering from PTSD. And then I went to my Grad school advisor at the time, he was like, just finish your PhD and then do whatever you want. So, I finished my PhD.
When I finished my PhD, I got a position in Richie Davidson’s lab at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. I arrived with that mission—to do research on veterans with PTSD — but it took me a few years to get a grant. In the study, I used an intensive yogic breath practice called Sudarshan Kriya Yoga (SKY). It was an amazing experience. It was incredible. After only a week or 10 days, they didn’t qualify as having PTSD anymore. They didn’t meet the criteria anymore. Then after a month, and even after a follow-up at one year, the result was the same even though many of the participants didn’t continue practicing. The intervention had the acute and sustained effect of healing their trauma — it was just so powerful. Some of the vets are still close friends of mine. I even officiated at the weddings of two of them — an amazing experience. Once I finished that study, I felt ready to move on from Richie’s lab. Labs can be very pressured, competitive places, even in the world of mindfulness and compassion research.
JL: Somehow that doesn’t surprise me—we’re all human, I guess. So, what came next?
ES: After Richie’s lab, I got a job at CCARE at Stanford as the associate director. That was an adventure — really fun and really intense. We did research, but also events and conferences. I enjoyed working with James Doty, who is larger than life. He’s a big thinker with a big vision, which I appreciate. Compassion Cultivation Training (CCT) had just been developed by Thupten Jinpa and colleagues. So when I arrived, the CCT courses were happening, teacher training was ongoing, and I was responsible for directing all the Center’s research, activities, conferences, and events. There were conferences on compassion and business, compassion and technology, and compassion in education.
JL: That must have been an amazing experience, working in that space, sort of like working in a heaven realm.
ES: Yes, it was, it was awesome. We organized a couple of events with the Dalai Lama, and I remember him saying to us, “You all are doing great work — but you may not see the fruits of your work until your next lifetime!” It was so gratifying to feel my work may be having a longterm effect; it doesn’t always seem apparent in the short term. That was around the time when I had my first baby. My husband got into Yale for business school, and we moved to New Haven. I kept my position at CCARE, and now I’m also at Yale doing very exciting work. I’ve just completed a study we’ve been running for three years in a row, but we finally finished it.
If you look at the data on happiness, I would sum it up by saying that in order to live the happiest lives, we need to live lives that are characterized by compassion. When you’re doing something for others, especially when it’s balanced with compassion for yourself, that’s what brings real well-being and happiness—not just for you but for those around you. — ES
JL: What’s the focus of this study, Emma?
ES: Basically, there’s a mental health crisis happening on campuses. The crisis has been steadily mounting. The University of Connecticut is seeing a 30% increase in mental health challenges in their students every year. Counseling services are overwhelmed everywhere. And yes, suicides are the number two cause of death for college students after traffic accidents. So, it’s alarming. And then obviously there’s the senseless violence of school shootings, which usually has to do with poor mental health and social isolation. This study is especially compelling for me because I was a fairly unhappy undergraduate at Yale. I felt like it was a place almost devoid of higher values — it was all about achievement and elitism. It really didn’t suit me, it felt very cold.
Even as a graduate student at Stanford, there were a bunch of suicides in my first year. I started teaching some programs there on compassion and well-being. So, when we moved here, I met with Marc Brackett who directs the Center for Emotional Intelligence and he said right off that he had just received a large grant and needed someone to research well-being on the campus. So, I ran a couple of pilot studies, and we learned something along the way each time. And then this year we, ran a large 200-student randomized controlled trial, looking at three different well-being interventions. One was Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), the second was an emotional intelligence program developed by Marc, and the third was SKY breathing meditation. And of course, there was a control group of undergraduates with no intervention. We just finished analyzing the results, and they’re amazing.
JL: Fascinating, Emma, what did you find?
ES: First of all, the control group significantly increases in stress and burnout, with all the symptoms you’d expect. Surprisingly, all of the active groups showed significant improvement. The SKY group is the one with the strongest improvement, but they all had an impact on almost every facet of well-being we measured, including optimism, self-compassion, gratitude, life satisfaction, and a number of other positive mental health factors. Of course, we also looked at anxiety, depression, stress, and burnout. Almost every negative mental health measure also improved significantly. All three interventions — SKY, MBSR, and the emotional intelligence groups — each helped significantly decrease stress and improve well-being. It’s heartening, you know, and so we hope to publish this to let schools everywhere know they can include these kinds of programs, even make them mandatory, and have great benefit.
JL: That’s very exciting, Emma. Are there other projects you’re currently involved in?
ES: Yes. I also work with the business school in executive education. I direct the Yale School of Management’s Women’s Leadership Program. I’ve never focused that much on women’s issues before, but now that I’m in the role, I see that it’s absolutely vital and wonderful. The women are coming into the program and getting a lot out of it that I hope will help prepare them to deal with the gender issues, male-centered values, and toxic energy in the workplace.
JL: Absolutely, Emma, that’s amazing, this kind of work is so needed. I’m especially fascinated by your findings in the well-being study. It doesn’t surprise me that you get impact from all three interventions, and it resonates quite well with my research on Compassion-Based Resilience Training (CBRT). Do you know about that?
ES: No, sounds intriguing, tell me more.
JL: I’ve always felt that it’s essential to teach people a broad range of contemplative practices, to introduce people to the most basic science and skills of mindfulness, compassion, imagery and abdominal breath work. So, in our compassion-based eight-week program, called CBRT, we cover the whole spectrum of the different interventions you studied at Yale. We have four modules focused on mindfulness, two on the social-emotional Kung-fu of compassion training, one on healing imagery and recitation, and one on Tibetan breath and posture practices very similar to SKY. Our four pilot studies at the Cancer Center at Weill Cornell have all showed a significant impact on stress, well-being, and PTSD symptoms, much like you’ve found in your work. Next, we’d like to do a randomized trial to see if there’s more impact when you teach all these skills together in one program. I suspect there may be.
ES: That’s awesome. That is so great. It’s also certainly needed.
JL: So where do you see all of this science going, Emma? Your writing shows a rare ability to bridge the laboratory and the mainstream — it’s quite impressive. Your popular book, The Happiness Track: How to Apply the Science of Happiness to Accelerate Your Success, is so accessible and personal. And The Oxford Handbook of Compassion Science is groundbreaking. You have some professional Karma with compassion, and you have a gift for translation from basic science to public health.
ES: Oh, thank you. It’s so true. Academia can be insular, and a super stressed kind of environment. But people, everyone in the world I mean, needs to know about this research.
JL: Yes, I so agree. In my experience, all our institutions are sick; our culture is sick, the stress-driven mindset and lifestyle cuts across everything. So, this is where I think this work is so crucial because we’re talking about reversing centuries of history in which our culture has been moving away from kindness, compassion, and love towards competitiveness, aggression, and violence. I think it’s going to take quite a while to turn the ship around.
ES: Maybe, although I find the younger generations are way more enlightened than we are. To be honest, I feel like I’m seeing that. What do you think?
JL: Yes, I agree. It’s quite heartening. I’ve seen a complete shift in popular consciousness that is remarkable. It’s shocked me to see how quickly people in general learn. And I agree with you that there’s much more of a sense among younger generations of the importance of social inclusion and personal well-being.
ES: Yes, and of the fundamental role of service.
JL: Certainly, I see that all happening. The thing is that our institutions seem to be lagging. Many or most of them still seem to be wed to this ethos of competition that has etched into them and their whole structure over the last few centuries.
ES: Absolutely. Institutionally, there are such major issues with how things run, it’s hard to see how that will change, but I assume it will.
JL: Yes, I believe it will. So a big part of what you’re doing in terms of the popular consciousness and we’re trying to do that at Nalanda Institute is to help people understand that the American Dream of pursuing happiness has been off track; that we’ve not actually been pursuing happiness, but different kinds of suffering.
JL: So hopefully, when people learn about the science of happiness and compassion, they will vote with their feet, and start changing things — that’s my hope.
ES: That’s the goal. Because, every time I go on Instagram and I look at people who have 500,000 followers, they’re these cute girls in scanty clothing selling handbags. And I think, that’s what people are following? But I have to say, I do believe that many younger people have another consciousness.
JL: So, I’m curious — from the vantage of your research and teaching and writing, what’s your long-term vision of the impact of compassion science, and the recognition of compassion? How do you see that being further articulated and developed for the next generation, for the future of our society?
Compassion for others includes the planet. Of course, all this begins with self-compassion. I almost think that’s the most urgent question — you cannot be compassionate to others if you don’t have self-compassion because, without self-compassion, you don’t actually have enough strength and enough fuel to be able to give as much as you would want. — ES
ES: If you look at the data on happiness, I would sum it up by saying that in order to live the happiest lives, we need to live lives that are characterized by compassion. When you’re doing something for others, especially when it’s balanced with compassion for yourself, that’s what brings real well-being and happiness—not just for you but for those around you. Of course, it’s hard to pay attention to the data when the rest of the world is trying to tell you that you’ll be happy when you look like this, achieve this, buy this, consume this, blah, blah, blah.
But we need to snap into some awareness that all that will give you nothing, or if it gives you anything, it won’t last very long. In contrast, there’s so much to be gained from practicing compassion. Compassion for others includes the planet. Of course, all this begins with self-compassion. I almost think that’s the most urgent question — you cannot be compassionate to others if you don’t have self-compassion because, without self-compassion, you don’t actually have enough strength and enough fuel to be able to give as much as you would want.
JL: Totally. I think that’s what the message of the embodied practice of India is, the practice called Tantra. The understanding that you need to be happy. It’s from our own profound internal well-being and joyful bliss of just being alive that the real source of happiness and compassion for others flows. And so, we have to be where we’re cultivating that or, or training that or whatever.
ES: Yes. And I see that lacking in almost everyone I teach. That is something our culture has not taught us. It’s counter-cultural. And it’s not honored in any kind of way.
JL: Yes, totally. I believe if you look at Western culture in the modern era, it’s become increasingly divided into two extreme options. We’ve got a religious culture that emphasizes duty and self-sacrifice, and a secular materialist culture that’s all about short-term pleasure and self-indulgence. We’ve got two extreme options and there’s not enough in the middle, there’s no middle way. I see this as having to do with the turn in the Renaissance or Enlightenment Era where we started rejecting western religious traditions and turning to materialism. Doty alludes to this divide in the introduction to your Oxford volume on compassion science.
ES: Yes, I agree, that’s true. That’s why the Dalai Lama is saying that science can be helpful because it can point out those elements of the religious traditions that are still genuinely spiritual. There needs to be a dialogue between science and religion about how they both can work together to enrich people’s lives— how both science and spirituality relate to our practical well-being. I write for Spirituality and Health magazine and there’s a Rabbi [Rami Shapiro] who writes for them who is awesome. Everything he writes makes me think, Oh my God, this could be from the Hindu perspective; this could be from the Buddhist perspective; this could be from a science perspective. Truth transcends any one religion.
JL: I’ve been thinking about this for the future. One of the programs we offer at Nalanda Institute is the Contemplative Psychotherapy Program that could be geared to interfaith dialogue with all the different religious traditions, bringing them all into dialogue with the psychology and the science of contemplative living, compassion, and well-being.
ES: Yes! So we need to get your program out there more.
JL: At Nalanda Institute we’re working to train the expert contemplative practitioners we need today and the future. We’ve got a huge hunger in popular consciousness, but it’s sort of skin deep. So, we’re working to train the kind of contemplative experts or contemplative leaders that will go into many different fields, including health, education, and leadership.
ES: That’s so good because sometimes you’ll meet someone who’s an MBSR teacher but they just don’t seem so balanced. There’s too much mindfulness and not enough other stuff. You know what I mean?
JL: Yes, we look at our curriculum as providing the complete grounding, including the second and third wave of contemplative science and practice. Even when we teach mindfulness in CBRT, we’re careful to teach it linked with the principles of Buddhist psychology and ethics. I think without that, without the wisdom and the compassion, it can just end up being another tool. But we’re still super grateful for the mindfulness movement because it makes people curious and hungry for programs like ours and the programs you’re studying.
ES: That’s so interesting. One of the things I took away from my studies at Columbia is how Buddhism and mindfulness, contemplative practices are so shaped by the culture that they are in. I remember I did part of my yoga teacher training in the U.S. and then the second part in India. They were completely different experiences.
JL: I think that’s true. I do think civilization is something you can’t fake. It may take generations or even centuries for us to find ways of translating and transplanting Indian and Tibetan science and practice into our way of life. But that’s where the hope lies, and that’s where the science of compassion is key to our future, to spreading the heartfelt, embodied culture of sustainable, compassionate civilization.
JL: Emma, thank you so much for your time and for sharing your experience. We really appreciate it.
ES: Thank you, Joe. Thanks for everything.
Find out more about Dr. Seppälä on her website.
Please join us for our 10th Annual Benefit on June 12th!