By Mike Bouck, LCSW
I recently texted a friend who I hadn’t been in touch with for a while. When I asked how he was doing, he told me leukemia had returned to his body. Although he’d had 3 rounds of chemotherapy already, there was no progress on the cancer and he was going to the National Institute of Health for further evaluation and possibly an experimental trial. My heart ached for him. I wanted to reach through the phone and give him a hug. And cry with him and his family. I knew there was nothing I could do to heal him from the cancer, but I wanted to do something, anything I could for him to ease his suffering.
What is Compassion?
While there are many definitions, the one we’ll subscribe to today is “to suffer together.” Among emotion researchers, it is defined as the feeling that arises when you are confronted with another’s suffering and feel motivated to relieve that suffering.
Compassion is not the same as empathy or altruism, though the concepts are related. While empathy refers more generally to our ability to take the perspective of and feel the emotions of another person, compassion is when those feelings and thoughts include the desire to help. Altruism, in turn, is the kind, selfless behavior often prompted by feelings of compassion, though one can feel compassion without acting on it, and altruism isn’t always motivated by compassion.
For more definitions of compassion see Stanford’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research (Definitions of Compassion)
Why is there a need for compassion?
Being compassionate can improve health, well-being, and relationships. Many scientists believe that compassion may even be vital to the survival of our species, and they’re finding that its advantages can be increased through targeted exercises and practice. While the research on compassion is still young, here are some of the most exciting findings so far.
- Compassion makes us feel good. Being compassionate has been shown to activate pleasure circuits in the brain and can lead to lasting increases in self-reported feelings of happiness.
- Being compassionate can reduce risk of heart disease by boosting the positive effects of the Vagus Nerve, which helps to slow our heart rate.
- One compassion training program has found that it makes people more resilient to stress; it lowers stress hormones in the blood and saliva and strengthens the immune response. Compassion training may also help us worry less and be more open to our negative emotions.
- Compassion could improve our mental health: One research review found that practicing compassion meditation improved participants’ emotional life, positive thinking, relationships, and empathy.
- Compassion helps make caring parents: Brain scans show that when people experience compassion, their brains activate in neural systems known to support parental nurturance and other caregiving behaviors.
- Compassion helps make better spouses: Compassionate people are more optimistic and supportive when communicating with others.
- Compassion helps make better friends: Studies of college friendships show that when one friend sets the goal to support the other compassionately, both friends experience greater satisfaction and growth in the relationship.
- Compassion helps make better doctors: Medical students who train in compassion feel less depressed and lonely, and avoid the typical declines in compassion that happen during medical school.
- Employees who receive more compassion in their workplace see themselves, their co-workers, and their organization in a more positive light, report feeling more positive emotions like joy and contentment, and are more committed to their jobs. A compassionate workplace culture is linked to less burnout, greater teamwork, and higher job satisfaction.
- Compassionate people are more socially adept, making them less vulnerable to loneliness; loneliness has been shown to cause stress and harm the immune system.
How can we be more compassionate?
While some of us may meet people, who appear to be more compassionate than others, research suggests compassion isn’t something one is born with or not. Instead it can be seen as a capacity that can be developed with practice.
Following are some specific, science-based activities for cultivating compassion.
- Recall a time when you felt supported – Think about the people you’ve turned to when distressed and recall times you’ve felt comforted by them. What happened? How did you feel during that experience?
- Compassionate meditation – Loving Kindness meditation is a specific type of meditation where you cultivate compassion toward a loved one, yourself, a neutral person, and even those who you might consider enemies.
- Make it personal – When reading the news or watching a news program, look for specific individuals or families to try to imagine what their lives are like.
- Look for commonalities: Seeing yourself as similar to others increases feelings of compassion. A recent study shows that something as simple as tapping your fingers to the same rhythm with a stranger increases compassionate behavior.
- Notice and savor how good it feels to be compassionate. Studies have shown that practicing compassion and engaging in compassionate actionbolsters brain activity in areas that signal reward.
- Calm your inner worrier: When we let our mind run wild with fear in response to someone else’s pain (e.g., What if that happens to me?), we inhibit the biological systems that enable compassion. The practice of mindfulness can help us feel safer in these situations, facilitating compassion.
- Don’t play the blame game: When we blame others for their misfortune, we feel less tenderness and concern toward them.
- Respect your inner hero: When we think we’re capable of making a difference, we’re less likely to curb our compassion.
- Don’t be a sponge: Completely taking on another person’s suffering can lead to burnout. Instead, try to be receptive to other people’s feelings without adopting those feelings as your own.
Call to Action
“Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them humanity cannot survive.” Dalai Lama
Many of us aspire to be more compassionate in our lives, and to build a more compassionate society. In striving to build compassion, we work to overcome barriers that keep us from being motivated to help including feeling overwhelmed, apathetic, or fearful. As a mental health therapist, I am daily witness to the suffering of others. It’s a challenge. I have had to work hard to build resilience and barriers so as not to collapse under the weight of individual suffering. Not just of those I help, but also my own suffering through a life of grief, loss, mental health challenges, job changes, financial failure, marriage, parenting, and so on. At times I wonder if it’s all worth it. Do we really need compassion? Can’t we just keep our own crap together, stop causing each other harm, and build a better world where we stand?
Buddhist teaching says compassion flows in 3 directions. From self to others, others to self, and self to self. When one direction of compassion is blocked, the others naturally become less productive. Inevitably, I realize those negative thoughts and feelings are a result of too much compassion for others, and not enough for myself. So, I take some time to care of myself, or allow others to care for me. These things are not easy either. Certainly, skills to be developed over a lifetime of practice.
So, as you consider how you can make a difference in this very large world, remember, it is the little ways that we alleviate suffering that make the biggest difference. We may listen to the anguish of a stranger; help a mother open a door; assist an older person with their groceries. We may never know how we are the tipping point that shifts a life of suffering to a one of hope. We may never even realize that our act of compassion made a big difference. And with each action we realize our full potential as social creatures, as humans being together on this floating ball in space. As the great Albert Einstein put it, “A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”