When I was a lot younger, in my teens at school, I came home late in frustration after receiving a detention. That day in my English class, the teacher was struggling to keep us quiet and focused. She decided that to teach the class a lesson, she would hold us all back after school. I was furious as I didn’t feel I had played a part in the disruption and when I got home, I let my mum know exactly how annoyed I was. As was always the case, my mum refused to see things from just my perspective but said that I should appreciate the position the teacher was in. This made me even more annoyed, “Why does she never listen and see things from my point of view?” This became somewhat of a frustration many times over. However many years later, I realise my wise mother, who could have more easily taken my side and complained about the injustice to her son, was teaching me to be more compassionate for the plight of others. I am grateful to have this added perspective, which I believe crucial and hard-wired into me, has benefited me personally and professionally. I still need to remind myself and do better, so here are some insights to help us all.
What is Compassion?
It may help to start by clarifying which elements demonstrate compassion. Compassion is similar to empathy but with the additional desire to do something to help the sufferer. A lot of definitions of compassion sound very similar to empathy, focusing on the emotional response alone. If we also consider that altruism, giving or service is different again and can be given with or without any emotional empathy to the receiver. Compassion brings both empathy and action together.
“Compassion is the recognition of another’s suffering and a desire to alleviate that suffering…”Dr James Doty
How Does It Answer My Challenges?
Did you know that the term ‘survival of the fittest’ which we attribute to Charles Darwin, was actually borrowed from Herbert Spencer and the Social Darwinists of the 19th century who wished to use Darwin’s science to justify the social inequality of the classes at the time? Darwin’s work is perhaps best described by the phrase “survival of the kindest”. Darwin argued strongly in favour of “the greater strength of the social or maternal instincts than that of any other instinct or motive.” [D Keltner, University of California, Berkeley]. Perhaps kindness and compassion are critical for us to survive and thrive both individually and as communities.
The health benefits, both physiological and psychological have been thoroughly researched over the last 30 years. When we are less focused on our own troubles, our own stress levels are reduced and our own health is improved.
“The unique quality of compassion, is that its benefits extend to the one who offers it, the one who receives it, and all those who witness compassion in action.”Dr. Kelly McGonigal
Our Relationships: Psychologist Ed Diener (Positive Psychology) and Martin Seligman (Psychology of Happiness) argue that simply connecting with others in a meaningful way helps us enjoy better mental and physical health and speeds up recovery from disease. Further research by Stephanie Brown, at Stony Brook University, and Sara Konrath, at the University of Michigan, has shown that it may contribute to living for longer.
Our Own Wellbeing: A brain-imaging study headed by neuroscientist Jordan Grafman at the US National Institute of Health showed that the “pleasure centres” in the brain, are equally as active when we observe someone else giving money to charity as when we receive money ourselves! Many other studies have found that our well-being increases much more when we give to others compared to when we spend money on ourselves. Results published in the academic journal Science showed that those who spent money on others experienced significantly more happiness.
Our Health: In all of us there is a desire for social connection and belonging. Loneliness is one of the largest threats to mental health in our society. Compassion brings us to interact positively with others and boosts our sense of belonging. There are many studies that have found health benefits to us having a positive connection with others. These include: improved self-esteem, less stress and anxiety and improved immune system.
Finally: A recent 2012 study by Professor Steve Cole [University of California] and Barbara Fredrickson [University of North Carolina] revealed significant clues to the health benefits. This 2012 study evaluated the levels of cellular inflammation in people who describe themselves as “very happy.” Inflammation is at the root of cancer and other diseases and is generally high in people who live under a lot of stress. We might expect that inflammation would be lower for people with higher levels of happiness. Cole and Fredrickson found that this was only the case for certain “very happy” people. They found that people who were happy because they lived the “good life” (sometimes also know as “hedonic happiness”) had high inflammation levels but that, on the other hand, people who were happy because they lived a life of purpose or meaning (sometimes also known as “eudaimonic happiness”) had low inflammation levels. A life of meaning and purpose is one focused less on satisfying oneself and more on others. It is a life rich in compassion, altruism, and greater meaning.
In summary, being more compassionate helps us to feel genuine pleasure in kind acts. It helps us to focus less on our own problems and more on those around us. Compassion also serves in giving us opportunities to connect with others, building friendship and relationships. Our history is full of inspiring examples of great people who showed compassion for others, forcing a change in the societies they lived in. The examples of people like Jesus Christ, Mohammed, Mother Theresa have inspired us for many years, see further reading below [5 Empathy Heroes] for less well-known examples.
How Do I Become More Compassionate?
1. Take Time To Look A Little Deeper
When I first moved to France, I struggled sometimes with the abrupt and brash way the locals responded, Someone said to me to not be put off by this, “The French are like their baguettes. They may be tough and crusty on the outside, but when you get to know them, they are warm and soft on the inside.” For lots of reasons, our lives are busy and we can end up living on the headlines, taking the shortcut, looking only at the summary, the highlights and when it comes to others, we rely on first impressions and pre-judgements. I do it all the time! But we know that headlines are often misleading and prejudices are incorrect. We need to dig deeper, beyond the tough exterior to get to know people.
Just walk a mile in his moccasins
Before you abuse, criticize and accuse.
If just for one hour, you could find a way
To see through his eyes, instead of your own muse.
I believe you’d be surprised to see
That you’ve been blind and narrow-minded, even unkind.
There are people on reservations and in the ghettos
Who have so little hope, and too much worry on their minds.
Brother, there but for the grace of God go you and I.
Just for a moment, slip into his mind and traditions
And see the world through his spirit and eyes
Before you cast a stone or falsely judge his conditions.
Remember to walk a mile in his moccasins
And remember the lessons of humanity taught to you by your elders.
We will be known forever by the tracks we leave
In other people’s lives, our kindnesses and generosity.
Take the time to walk a mile in his moccasins.
Poem by Mary T. Lathrap, 1895 (full poem here)
2. Associate With Compassionate People
As research has found, simply witnessing others act compassionately (not necessarily towards us) can be beneficial to us and can increase our desire to be compassionate. So spending time with others who are compassionate towards others has got to be good. Start by being someone that other empathetic people will want to be around. Be more thoughtful towards others, listen more in conversations and do things spontaneously for others. Next, evaluate your news and online media consumption as this may not be helping. Set a time limit on checking the news, follow a wide variety of uplifting channels.
3. Try Something Each Day
OK, so this all sounds incredible doesn’t it, and this is the coach in me coming out. How much do you want compassion to be a part of your life? How much effort are you willing to put in to make it happen? Well, I have good news because you just need to commit to practising compassion once each day. To practice compassion, you must demonstrate your empathy in some tangible form that others will recognise. It is not the size of the gesture that matters but the daily discipline of doing something expressly for someone else. It could be a big gesture, charitable service or a small act in calling someone, sending a message to say you’re thinking of someone.
4. Be Grateful
Compassion and Gratitude seem to follow each other around so if you want to find more compassion, focus also on being more grateful and you will find compassion is close to hand. Firstly, gratitude helps us to recognise the compassion shown towards us by others. Practitioners now prescribe Gratitude Journals where people are instructed to record five things they experienced in the day or week that they are grateful for. This can be especially powerful if you recognise what life would be like without the things you are grateful for.
5. Start By Being Kind To Yourself
“Remember you have been criticising yourself for years and it hasn’t worked. Try approving of yourself and see what happens.”Louise Hay
True compassion does not discriminate or choose its recipient. This means that you have to include yourself in the list of people to show compassion towards. Recognise that you may have adopted an inner voice that is critical or harsh on you and that you need to practice compassion towards yourself too if you are going to be truly compassionate. Research shows that practising self-compassion reduces incidences of depression and anxiety. Of course, as our own confidence and self-assurance rise, our relationships with others become more fulfilling. Being kind to ourselves means that we are more supportive and understanding as opposed to being critical and judgemental when we make mistakes.
Even if you consider yourself a compassionate person, you can still look deeper to be more understanding of others. We often find it easier to be compassionate towards strangers than close friends or family.
Compassion is not just some soft and weak response to life’s challenges. It is a very real and powerful way to change the world. It is often a hard thing to “walk in the other person’s moccasins” and appreciate life from their perspective. But we are fortunate as researchers suggest that we can learn to be more compassionate like any other skill, with patience and practice.
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The Science of Compassion by Dr James Doty – My Grandfather owned a magic/trick shop so I guess I like even more his book and story of The Magic Shop.
Empathy Heroes: 5 People Who Changed the World By Taking Compassion to the Extreme – Love these examples that fed into recent changes in our society.
Six Habits of Highly Compassionate People – Berkeley Uni – More science backed information on Compassion
Heart Warming Examples of Kindness – You may not have heard of all of these, they demonstrate true humanity.