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Whether on TV, in a movie or in your own life, you’ve heard the phrase, “Karma is a b*$%h.” This is typically said to somebody who has just had something bad happen to them, and the declaration is usually made with a certain amount of schadenfreude. But what is karma, exactly? And why does popular culture invoke its name during times of negativity?

Let’s crack open the textbook for a literal definition. Karma is a Sanskrit word that means “action, word or deed.” Its origins are linked to ancient India and the concept behind it exists in many Asian religions, including Hinduism and Buddhism. In these contexts, karma refers to reincarnation, and the belief that if you live morally and justly in your current life, you’ll reap the rewards in your following one.

For those of us who believe we only get one turn on Earth, however, karma is simplified thusly: what goes around comes around. If you put good energy out into the universe through actions, words or deeds, the same energy will be returned to you. Conversely, if you are negative and selfish, the world will respond to you in the same way.

So, basically: karma isn’t a b*$%h unless you are.

It’s a hopeful thought and one that should inspire people to put others ahead of themselves. But pop psychology (and thousands of years of civilization!) has taught us as human beings, our default setting is to look after no. 1. Which begs the question: what if there was some scientific evidence to suggest that karma is definitively real and that being kind to others ensures that you will lead a good life?

Most people are familiar with Newton’s Third Law of Motion, which dictates that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. It’s the law of cause and effect. Even the more skeptical among us can accept that although this is a principle in physics, it might be applicable to human interaction. But where are the studies that examine if karma is indeed its own law?

Enter Adam Grant, organizational psychologist and author of the NY Times bestseller Give and Take. While speaking with the American Psychological Institute about his book, Grant said, “I’m joining a long line of people who have said that giving is better than getting, but what’s new is putting a science behind karma. I find that if you want the good guys to win, it requires thoughtful strategies and a set of supportive conditions.”

Grant points to a study he conducted in graduate school which supports this claim. It involved a group of call centre workers who were able to raise 171% more weekly revenue when they were informed about how their work was positively affecting specific individuals (Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 2007). When talking to the American newspaper The Monitor, Grant proclaimed, “There’s reason to believe when you adopt a consistent stance of pro-social behavior, that has a profound effect on the depth and the breadth of your relationships and so you end up with a wider set of relationships and a richer, more meaningful set of connections.”

Sounds like scientifically sound good karma to us.

Meanwhile, in a study at York University in Canada, 700 participants were separated into two groups: one which was instructed to practice compassion in words or deeds for a mere 5 to 10 minutes per day, and a control group. Six months later, the first batch of participants reported much higher instances of improved self-esteem and happiness than those in the control group (York University News).

In 2016, The National Center for Biotechnology conducted three experiments to determine whether altruistic behaviour in times of crisis has a positive effect on the volunteers’ lives. They used Hurricane Sandy, the second most destructive hurricane in US history, as a retroactive study and found that “people who helped others felt warmer of the ambient environment than people who did not. These findings suggested an immediate internal reward of altruism” (US National Library of Medicine). In summary, they people who selflessly gave their time and energy to others were rewarded for their efforts.

While karma is usually spoken about casually in terms of “payback,” and more seriously as a tenant of certain religions, it’s heartening to discover that it might truly be relevant to all of us and can be backed by scientific proof.

And even if it wasn’t, putting good energy into the universe is a principle we should all be practicing, right?

This post is also available in: Dutch

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