Compassion Defined

What Is Compassion?

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.

For more: Learn about self-compassion and compassion fatigue. Read Dacher Keltner’s essay on “The Compassionate Instinct” and Paul Ekman’s “Taxonomy of Compassion,” which reviews different types of compassion.

 

What are the Limitations?

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Why Practice It?

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.

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How Do I Cultivate It?

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 our new site 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.

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