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On Compassion

There was a lot of talk at last year’s Wisdom 2.0 conference about compassion + mindfulness being more powerful than mindfulness alone. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately as I’ve been trying to find time and space to quiet my mind and worrying that it’s selfish to take this time away from my family or my other relationships or other responsibilities, and decided to dig a bit deeper into the research around compassion.  I found a great summary of the emerging data on UC-Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center’s site.  It’s way more thorough than anything I’d put together myself, so I thought I’d post the highlights here:

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

If you’re interested in this research and want to find out how compassionate you are, the Greater Good site has a simple quiz you can take, and if you decide you’d like to work on becoming more compassionate, here are a few of my favorite tips from this article:

  • 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.
  • 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, lead by example.
  • 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.

If you have any experiences or resources to share about self-compassion or compassion toward others, I’d love to learn from you!

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