Positive Psychology Lab

"A joyful life is an individual creation that cannot be copied from a recipe."

- Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi


About Us

Dr. Myriam Mongrain's Positive Psychology Lab is a group of passionate, motivated, and multi-faceted individuals who conduct research on a variety of topics related to human flourishing and its absence (languish). We are made up of a team of doctoral, master's, and undergraduate students. Our research focuses on the integration of the positive and the existential aspects of human lives.

Positive Psychology Lab News

I have had the pleasure of editing a special edition for Frontiers in Psychology called The expanding science of compassion (Front. Psychol., 13 September 2021 | https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.745799)

The study of compassion has theoretical paradoxes. Some models emphasize a basic instinct resting on the evolved capacity of humans to empathize and care for one another. Meanwhile, other computational models derived from contemporary brain science argue that compassion is a value-driven choice evaluated against other self-serving goals.

In recent years, neural pathways associated with empathic concern and altruistic helping have been identified. Biological markers operating in the periphery and available for modulation have also been delineated. Other conceptualizations emphasize the experience of the self as an interconnected entity valuing the greater good over self-serving goals. These different windows into the phenomenon of compassion are explored in this research topic.

Sections of the editorial are reproduced here and include links to important research showcased within this special topic:

In an ambitious paper, Ho et al. offer a brain-based Bayesian inference framework to highlight the information processing pathways involved in “ego preserving biases” that compromise compassionate responding. The juxtaposition of Buddhist concepts onto emerging findings in neuroscience is a tour-de-force. The authors manage to weave in the operations of large functional systems within the brain that hijack empathic concern toward another's suffering. The role of mind training to bypass ego-biases in situations of interpersonal conflict are incorporated within a neuro functional model.

Self-soothing in the form of self-reassurance has also been mapped onto the brain. The areas underlying the experience of compassion toward the self are believed to stem from the same motivational system underlying compassion toward others. In their study, Kim et al. show that participants high on trait self-criticism show different patterns of brain activation during a self-reassurance task. Their results demonstrate how difficulties in being kind to oneself can be captured in distinct brain processes. This research adds to the physiological underpinnings of compassionate responding.

Miller et al. demonstrate the role of the peripheral nervous system in the expression of compassion. There is a rich literature connecting compassion to parasympathetic activation, including heart rate variability and vagal tone (Porges, 2017Stellar and Keltner, 2017). Individual differences in these functions emerge early, and Miller et al. show how vagal flexibility in children helps them orient toward another's distress and help support their ability for calm engagement. They also demonstrate the role of the mother's levels of compassion in predicting altruistic action for those children with vagal flexibility. The findings are in support of a “biopsychosocial” model of prosociality.

Many meditative techniques rely on Buddhist notions about the nature of mind and suffering. Ho et al. propose a compassion meditation technique to cultivate attunement to universal suffering. In this process, the authors provide a compelling argument for the benefits accrued through a re-wiring of the brain that allows detachment from ego-related concerns. Further, meditation practice allows for a glimpse of the true nature of mind which is innately compassionate.

Condon and Makransky present other meditation tools under “Sustainable Compassion Training” (SCT). It consists of a number of incremental steps to help respond to others with unconditional care and discernment for right action. The foundation of this model relies on the development of a secure base activating inner qualities of safety, acceptance and love. Guided meditations in SCT are linked throughout the text of this article, and can be applied immediately.

Transmuting our own pain and empathizing with humanity is a quality of mind that may help maintain compassion. Baguley et al. examined the strategies used by health care professionals to maintain a compassionate stance toward their patients. Empathy and shared humanity was invoked as an important skill deliberately recruited to maintain compassionate responding. Self-care was also invoked as an important strategy to avoid compassion fatigue.

Given the benefits accrued from compassionate responding, how could we apply this knowledge to create a more compassionate world? In an empirical study, Mongrain and Shoikhedbrod illustrate how judgment and stigma pre-empt the experience and expression of compassion. Stigmatized attitudes and harsh judgments toward vulnerable groups may reflect a more general societal problem. The authors suggest that broad endeavors such as public health campaigns to educate and promote greater understanding may improve empathy and compassionate responding toward marginalized groups.

As illustrated by Weng et al. we can be more inclusive and compassionate in our own research. In their “Intersectional Neuroscience Framework” the authors describe how multiple marginalized communities can be included in contemplative research. They describe individualized neuroscience methods to recognize unique brain patterns associated with internal attention states during a meditative task. In this study, brain patterns associated with attention to the breath, mind-wandering, or self-referential processing could be reliably identified for each meditator. This research presents promising methods for future research in contemplative neuroscience.

In a seminal paper on the evolutionary history of basic human drives, Gilbert describes how the acquisition of resources since the agricultural revolution 10,000 years ago has shifted human beings' fundamental drives. The ability to acquire and store resources has shifted our social mentality from one of caring and sharing (essential to the survival of hunter-gatherers) to one of “controlling and holding” onto resources. This has led to the predominance of a competitive orientation in our recent evolution, concerned over the acquisition of personal wealth and power. Gilbert provides compelling arguments for the destructive outcomes of this social mentality and argues that change within our culture is urgently needed. For example, he suggests that shifts in resource distribution and societal institutions are necessary to facilitate cooperation over competition.

In the age of an interconnected world, Day et al. explain how digital technology could be harnessed to promote the greater good. While virtual networks have reduced our capacity for empathy, the authors provide ideas on how to develop technologies tapping into our potential for compassion. For example, virtual assistants could be designed to maximize personal growth. Public ownership of digital platforms could facilitate mutually-beneficial decision-making among its members. There are tremendous opportunities to enhance self-transcendence and minimize greed through the digital world and this article provides directions for future implementations.

In conclusion, this special issue provides the latest advances in our understanding of compassion, its roots, and facilitative conditions as well as its obstruction. The papers are consistent with recent views on “conscious evolution” and the possibility that compassion and altruism could evolve through intentional and guided effort to shape individuals and environments. We may be at the dawn of a cultural change and a transformation in the expression of our prosocial nature where behaviors associated with self-transcendence and goodness could be promoted (Wilson, 2020). This collection of papers will hopefully inspire innovation in research and serve to inform future inter-disciplinary efforts to increase compassion in all our human affairs.