What is compassion?

We are currently living in a time where society encourages people to compete against each other, rewards self-absorption via social media, and promotes greediness. At the same time, we live in a world with high inequality, poverty, exploitation and destruction of nature. Compassion is an emotional response that includes a genuine desire to help that occurs when you observe suffering. Compassion is different to empathy or altruism: empathy is the emotional experience of another person’s feelings (e.g. putting yourself in someone else’s shoes), and altruism is an act that benefits another person, with or without any emotional experience.

Why should I be compassionate?

Compassion may have a positive effect on our well-being because it can broaden our perspective beyond ourselves. In depression and anxiety, a large proportion of your attention is fixated on yourself, constantly worrying about how you are acting or performing as an individual. Demonstrating compassion towards somebody else, however, causes your attention to shift away from “me, myself, and I”. You may have experience this yourself from time-to-time – you were feeling down and then suddenly a friend or relative calls for help regarding a problem. You may recall that as your attention shifts to helping them and meeting their needs, your mood lifted. You may have felt energised to help, to make them feel better again. You may even have gained some perspective on your own situation too.

Compassion can change the world. Why are the lives of people like Mother Teresa and Gandhi so inspiring? Research suggests that seeing someone helping another person creates a feeling of ‘elevation’ (Haidt, 2003). Think about animal rescue stories, or disaster scenes on the news where you might see volunteers helping to look for survivors all day and night. The feeling of elevation we experience motivates us to help too – and this can trigger a chain reaction of compassionate behaviour.

Corporate leaders who engage in self-sacrificing behaviour create feelings of elevation in their employees, and yield greater influence over their employees – who become more committed and may also act with more compassion in the workplace (Haidt, 2003).

Other physical and health benefits of compassion include:

  • Lower levels of cellular inflammation, which is the root of cancer and other diseases (Fredrickson, et al., 2013)
  • Buffers against stress
  • Combats symptoms of depression
  • Increases a sense of connection to other people
  • Cultivates positive emotions
  • Boosts immune response (Pace, et al., 2009)

How can I be compassionate?

With practice, compassion can be learned. To help facilitate compassion, it may be of use to practice upon individuals and instances with a more personal connection, then expanding towards that which may be more difficult and unfamiliar. Compassion requires focus, mindfulness, and flexibility in perspective.

Steps to becoming more compassionate:

1. Lay the foundations: It is important to develop the core features underlying compassion (e.g. love and kindness), so as to ensure compassion is sincere and easily expressed.

2. Find a comfortable position and location. Since focus and awareness are important in facilitating compassion, it is important to be in a physical and mental state that supports positive feelings toward the self and others. Whether it be sitting in a chair, lying down, or standing up, finding a place that is comfortable and without distraction will assist in enhancing feelings of compassion.

3. Make it part of your daily routine. Practicing or even thinking about compassion over the course of the day can help to increase awareness and serve as a reminder to be compassionate. It might be something you think of first thing in the morning,  or something you reflect back on just before you go to sleep. Making compassion a task, like any other throughout the day, can help to increase mindfulness and the subsequent tendency for compassion.

4. Commonality practice. It may be important to develop a sense of relatedness and commonality with others. To enhance these feelings, instead of highlighting differences, it may be of use to emphasise similarities.

5. Empathy and suffering practice. Useful to direct your attention towards those who have experienced misfortune or suffering (e.g. loss of a loved one, injury). Often those that will come to mind first are those with which you feel the most empathy. Try to imagine their situation; the event that happened, how that might have impacted that person, how that then affected family and friends, and become immersed with the thoughts and feelings of the experience. With these in mind, either verbally or non-verbally, imagine their suffering to be relieved and that they are to recover. You may say things like “may their health improve soon.” Language may help to generate feelings of compassion, however this is not essential.

6. Let go of barriers. Compassionate training helps to become aware of thoughts and feelings. Not surprisingly, some of these thoughts may be difficult and unwanted. As such, it becomes a skill of tolerating reactions to these thoughts, rather than avoiding them altogether or becoming too submerged in them.