Sometimes, compassion can seem like it’s in short supply.
But there are ways to increase the amount of compassion in the world—and inside of ourselves. Researchers consider compassion to be a skill that can be sharpened, similar to a muscle that can be strengthened with exercise (or deteriorate and atrophy if left uncultivated). In fact, preliminary research from a variety of randomized controlled trials suggests that compassion can in fact be enhanced through systematic training programs.
For example, Thupten Jinpa and colleagues at Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education developed an eight-week compassion cultivation training (CCT) course. Not only does this structured program seem to increase caring behaviors for oneself and others, data suggests that it can help improve people’s emotion regulation and mindfulness, increase their feelings of calm and acceptance, and reduce some forms of mind wandering. In a recent paper, Philippe Goldin and I describe how this compassion program can potentially improve aspects of compassion for those who are not already thriving in their lives.
Outside of Stanford, other groups have created structured programs to cultivate compassion. Some solely focus on enhancing self-compassion; others have been shown to be effective with youth. Some preliminary data even suggests that compassion practices can improve physiological responses to stress. Brief bouts of compassion training seem to influence kind and helpful behavior and have been shown to increase activation in brain regions associated with positive emotions and affiliation. Brief compassion trainings may even act as a form of emotion regulation by increasing our tolerance for suffering while also decreasing activation in brain regions typically associated with fear, anxiety, and empathic distress. With my colleagues Laura Kray at UC Berkeley and Goldin at UC Davis, I have even examined the feasibility of enhancing compassion in business school students and Silicon Valley tech employees—and while preliminary, we are finding that training seems to have a meaningful impact.
What do these programs look like? Most are several weeks in length and invole some combination of a lecture, small and large group discussions, one-on-one practices, and individual journaling and reflection, as well as in-class meditation practices, which range from 20-30 minutes in length. Most programs also include out-of-class “homework” that includes regular meditation practice, as some research suggests a dose response to these benefits. Like most things, the more you do it, the more you will likely benefit from it.
However, as with physical exercise, something is better than nothing. For example, if the goal is to take 10,000 steps a day, taking 5,000 or 8,000 steps is still better for your health than only taking 3,000 steps. Meditation is similar. If you can’t find 30 minutes for meditation, ten minutes will still likely have an impact, according to some research. More than that, you are maintaining your intention and routine of practicing.
So—can we train people to be more compassionate? The answer so far seems to be yes, but there is a lot we still don’t know about compassion training. With all of the positive coverage of meditation programs (including compassion), it’s easy to assume that such programs are a panacea for any ailment. That’s not true—and here’s a list of scientific caveats about these training programs that we need to remember.
- Generalizability of findings: There is still a lot that we do not know about compassion training programs due to the relatively homogenous background of the participants in the research: primarily Caucasian, women, middle-aged, middle class, educated, and from the United States. Thus, there is still much to be learned about if and how compassion can be trained in minorities, men, young and older adults, people from low-income backgrounds, various cultures, and so on. In addition, it will be important to understand whether any modifications to the existing standardized compassion training programs would need to be made in order to better fit more diverse groups.
- Longer-term benefits: Most of the preliminary research on compassion training programs has examined the immediate benefits of engaging in compassion practices. What is still unknown is whether these compassion practices have longer-term benefits for the practitioner. We also need follow-up data to know whether the practitioner actually continues with the informal and formal compassion practices after the structured course has concluded. If compassion is a muscle, it stands to reason that—without continual practice—the muscle will atrophy over time, though this is an empirical question worthy of examination.
- Self-report and self-selection bias: While there are some exceptions, much of the research on compassion training programs has included self-reported measures of outcomes—which means that we don’t yet have a lot of objective measures of the impact on participants. And because all research of this type requires that participants “opt in” to the compassion training course by signing up and agreeing to participate, it is possible that these highly motivated participants are skewing the results in a favorable direction. Future research should utilize non-self-report measures as well as randomization to a variety of programs (rather than compassion or meditation specifically), which will help us to better understand the impact of self-selection bias.
- Beneficial compared to what? Relatedly, most research on compassion training has either not used a comparison group or even a wait-list group. For example, future research will benefit from randomizing participants to an active comparison condition such as other types of meditation programs (e.g., MBSR) or other non-meditation programs (e.g., aerobic exercise) that have been shown to be effective.
- Researcher bias: Some recent data suggests that teacher or researcher bias may be playing a role in these programs. Ideally, these programs are beneficial regardless of the researcher’s or teacher’s involvement in the research. Future research on compassion training should consider pre-registration of the study, utilizing open data practices, and, to the degree possible, keeping all parties involved blind to the specific hypotheses and dependent variables.
- Dark side of compassion? Do we want to be more compassionate with everyone, all the time? As with most things, context matters. There can be times when compassion isn’t the right response. Additionally, Willoughby Britton’s work at Brown University is beginning to document how meditation can adversely affect some individuals. But that being the case, sometimes it is simply our own self-interest or shortsightedness that limits our ability to truly be compassionate in a given situation. The “dark side” of compassion is an important area for future research to investigate.
While most compassion-cultivation practices are thousands of years old, our scientific understanding of them is still in its infancy. That said, the preliminary data is encouraging and the accessibility of these practices continues to grow across the world. So, if you’re intrigued by the latest news coverage touting the benefits of compassion, or are considering signing up a family member, significant other, or colleague for a compassion program, try first gathering your own evidence to see if it supports some of the claims being made about compassion practices. You can test this question: With practice, can I move the needle, even ever so slightly, on my capacity to be more compassionate?