(VEGETARIAN LIFESTYLE) There’s no doubting the benefits of a meat-free diet as statistics show vegetarians have lower rates of health conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. But did you know going meat-free also promotes empathy amongst human beings?
In the following article, Dr. Sujatha Ramakrishna, author of Raising Kids Who Love Animals, discusses both the mental and physical benefits of a vegetarian diet, claiming a compassionate lifestyle is much more fulfilling than a selfish one. Read on to learn more about the relationship between human compassion and our eating habits. — Global Animal
By Dr. Sujatha Ramakrishna
Ongoing medical studies have consistently shown that a plant-based diet offers many health benefits for human beings. Chronic illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer have been linked to meat consumption, and vegetarians have lower rates of these medical conditions. Yet some people say that they are reluctant to eliminate or reduce their consumption of meat and other animal products, regardless of the risks, because they don’t want to deprive themselves of foods that they enjoy. I often wonder if these people realize that living with compassion ultimately brings us more pleasure than behaving selfishly, and that vegetarian diets provide mental as well as physical health benefits.
Empathy, or the ability to share and understand the feelings of others, is a trait which is deeply ingrained in our biological heritage, because it provided numerous evolutionary advantages to early animals. Prey species that lived in herds and had the ability to read each other’s emotions avoided predators more easily, since when one of them became fearful and ran away, the others sensed their fear and also fled. Predators who lived in packs and shared each other’s feelings were able to work together during a hunt, remaining calm when others were calm and becoming aggressive as a unit, using these coordinated efforts to increase their chances of success.
Our own species evolved living in social groups, and in primitive societies people were in constant danger of being attacked by both predators and members of neighboring human communities. People who shared the emotions of those around them were motivated to help each other out during stressful situations, and were therefore more likely to survive as a group than those who abandoned friends and family in times of need.
In The Descent of Man, Charles Darwin hypothesized that modern concepts of human morality are based on our social instincts. Although we do have selfish instincts that drive us to compete with each other when resources are scarce, Darwin believed that ultimately our social instincts are more powerful than our selfish ones. It is because of this that we experience regret and remorse when we behave selfishly and take advantage of others. Although he noted that human beings feel the most empathy for those who closest to us, Darwin believed that these same feelings could be extended to strangers and members of other species. The Golden Rule in Christianity, which encourages people to treat others as they would like to be treated themselves, is a reflection of our social instincts.
In recent decades, researchers have concluded that having the ability to understand and consider the perspectives of others offers many advantages in modern society. In his landmark book Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman explained how children who can read the emotions of those around them get along with teachers and other students better than those who lack this ability. Measurements of these kinds of social skills are considered to be even more important than traditional intelligence tests when predicting a child’s future success in life.
Laboratory experiments have provided additional support for these concepts. In one such study, researchers demonstrated that thinking compassionate thoughts improves human mental health and immune system functioning. In another, scientists used a combination of computer simulations and brain scans to show that giving money to charity activates pleasure centers in our brains. These results help explain why so many people in Western societies, where competition and personal gain are generally emphasized over kindness and cooperation, become increasingly dissatisfied with their lives as they work towards selfish, materialistic goals.
Researchers who used brain-imaging studies to explore the relationship of compassion to our eating habits discovered that vegetarians have more empathy than omnivores for not only animals but also other people. These results are consistent with Darwin’s hypothesis that compassion is a trait which crosses species lines. They also reflect a concept that psychologists have known for many years: The way that people treat animals is closely related to the way that they treat other people. A truly empathic person, one who always takes the perspectives and feelings of others into consideration, does not create artificial boundaries separating some species from others. He or she applies the Golden Rule to all sentient creatures.
So while some people might consider meat-eating to be a wonderful, selfish pleasure, we actually feel much better about ourselves in the long run if we take the time to consider how our everyday actions affect other living beings, and behave accordingly. Reducing or eliminating our meat consumption, and therefore saving numerous animals from a life of suffering and a miserable death, is an important way that we can achieve this.