Compassion literally means “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.
While cynics may dismiss compassion as touchy-feely or irrational, scientists have started to map the biological basis of compassion, suggesting its deep evolutionary purpose. This research has shown that when we feel compassion, our heart rate slows down, we secrete the “bonding hormone” oxytocin, and regions of the brain linked to empathy, caregiving, and feelings of pleasure light up, which often results in our wanting to approach and care for other people.
Why practice compassion?
Scientific research into the measurable benefits of compassion is young. Preliminary findings suggest, however, that 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. Here are some of the most exciting findings from this research so far.
- Compassion makes us feel good: Compassionate action (e.g., giving to charity) activates pleasure circuits in the brain, and compassion training programs, even very brief ones, strengthen brain circuits for pleasure and reward and lead to lasting increases in self-reported happiness.
- Being compassionate—tuning in to other people in a kind and loving manner—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.
- Brain scans during loving-kindness meditation, which directs compassion toward suffering, suggest that, on average, compassionate people’s minds wander less about what has gone wrong in their lives, or might go wrong in the future; as a result, they’re happier.
- Practicing compassion could make us more altruistic. In turn, it may also help us overcome empathic distress and become more resilient in the face of others’ suffering.
- 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.
- Feeling compassion for one person makes us less vindictive toward others.
- Restraining feelings of compassion chips away at our commitment to moral principles.
- 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.
- More compassionate societies—those that take care of their most vulnerable members, assist other nations in need, and have children who perform more acts of kindness—are the happier ones.
- 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 I cultivate compassion?
We often talk about some people as being more compassionate than others, but research suggests compassion isn’t something you’re born with or not. Instead, it can be strengthened through targeted exercises and practice. Here are some specific, science-based activities for cultivating compassion from the website Greater Good in Action:
- Feeling supported: Think about the people you turn to when you’re distressed and recall times when you’ve felt comforted by them, which research says can help us to feel more compassionate toward others.
- Compassion meditation: Cultivate compassion toward a loved one, yourself, a neutral person, and even an enemy.
- Put a human face on suffering: When reading the news, look for profiles of specific individuals and try to imagine what their lives have been like.
- Eliciting altruism: Create reminders of connectedness.
Compassion training programs, such as those out of Emory University and Stanford University, are revealing how we can boost feelings of compassion in ourselves and others. Here are some of the best tips to emerge out of those programs, as well as other research.
- 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.
- 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.
- Encourage cooperation, not competition, even through subtle cues: A seminal study showed that describing a game as a “Community Game” led players to cooperate and share a reward evenly; describing the same game as a “Wall Street Game” made the players more cutthroat and less honest. This is a valuable lesson for teachers, who can promote cooperative learning in the classroom.
- See people as individuals (not abstractions): When presented with an appeal from an anti-hunger charity, people were more likely to give money after reading about a starving girl than after reading statistics on starvation—even when those statistics were combined with the girl’s story.
- 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.
- Notice and savor how good it feels to be compassionate. Studies have shown that practicing compassion and engaging in compassionate action bolsters brain activity in areas that signal reward.
- To cultivate compassion in kids, start by modeling kindness: Research suggests compassion is contagious, so if you want to help compassion spread in the next generation of young men and women, lead by example.
- Curb inequality: Research suggests that as people feel a greater sense of status over others, they feel less compassion.
- Don’t be a sponge: When we completely take on other people’s suffering as our own, we risk feeling personally distressed, threatened, and overwhelmed; in some cases, this can even lead to burnout. Instead, try to be receptive to other people’s feelings without adopting those feelings as your own.
This article originally appeared on Greater Good, the online magazine of the Greater Good Science Center (GGSC) at UC Berkeley. This is the second of several articles we are syndicating this spring from the Center.
Also see these Q&A interviews with GGSC experts on our site: