“Compassion is the basis of morality.” Arthur Schopenhauer
Suffering is an integral part of our human existence. As challenging as it might be, suffering also has a bright side - beautiful acts of compassion. All major religions and decades of clinical research have explored the psychology of human suffering and compassion as a virtue that has the power to change the world. This idea is also articulated by the Dalai Lama, who points out that every individual act of compassion radiates outward increasing harmony and healing for all human beings.
A nearly decade ago, an American psychologist Dacher Keltnerinitiated initiated a debate on human compassion in his article “The Compassionate Instinct,” and proposed that compassion is “an evolved part of human nature, rooted in our brain and biology.” Since then neuroscientists and psychologists from around the globe joined this scientific movement confirming that compassion is an evolved part of our nature, vital to good health and the survival of our species.
What is compassion? Compassion is usually defined as the emotional response to perceived pain that involves a genuine desire to help relief that suffering. It’s a natural and automatic response not only to us humans but also to other creatures. German scientists at the Max Planck Institute, have found that chimpanzees spontaneously engage in helpful behaviour from intrinsic motivation without expecting a reward.
Researchers at Harvard University have shown that our first impulse is to help others, not compete with them. The similar finding comes from Stanford’s University showing that people tend to restrain their natural impulse to help when they worry that others may think they are acting out of self-interest.
Compassion has the power to heal. Compassion is immensely beneficial for both our physical and mental health and wellbeing. Research by Professor Martin Seligman, suggests that connecting with others in a fulfilling and meaningful way helps us stay well and speeds up recovery from disease. The reason may be that the act of giving is as pleasurable as the act of receiving.
Neuroscientists at the National Institutes of Health have shown that the pleasure centres in the brain were equally active when people were giving as when they were receiving. These findings were confirmed in a newly published international study at Simon Fraser University. Researchers have shown that across 136 countries, the amount of money people spent on others rather than on themselves was highly correlated with personal wellbeing, regardless of their levels of income, social support, or perceived freedom.
The interesting new research comes from the University of North Carolina. Scientists were looking at how the levels of cellular inflammation may be associated with the level of happiness. The study found that people who perceived themselves as very happy but lived a life of pleasure had significantly higher inflammation levels than those who were happy because they lived a life of purpose and meaning rich in compassion, altruism and commitment to something larger than themselves.
This stress protective power of compassion may be explained by the pleasure and motivation it gives when we are engaged in meaningful and giving activities. Scientists at the University of Michigan discovered that people who frequently volunteered lived longer than their non-volunteering peers, but only if their reasons for volunteering were purely altruistic rather than self-serving.
Another reason compassion improves our wellbeing is that it broadens our horizons and takes us beyond our ego. Depressed and anxious people are usually in a state of self-focus and preoccupation with the “me.” Thinking, or actually doing something for others shifts our perception from “me” to “we” and naturally boosts our energy level.
One of the most powerful manifestations of compassion is a sense of connection to others. It’s been well documented that lack of social connection has a greater negative impact on health and wellbeing than obesity, smoking, and high blood pressure combined.
The benefits of warm and fulfilling relationships are endless. Social connection raises our self-esteem, trust and the capacity for empathy, strengthens our immune system, helps us recover faster from diseases, and lowers the risk of anxiety and depression.
Compassion is contagious Researchers at New York University, suggest that seeing someone compassionate helping others creates a state of so-called elevation, a warm, uplifting feeling we experience in the presence of amazing or moving situations. This elevation state inspires us to act the same way initiating a chain reaction of giving. This study has shown that leaders who act with compassion, curiosity and self-sacrifice naturally induce elevation state in their employees which increases the level of trust, loyalty, and commitment.
Cultivating compassion Although compassion is beautiful and naturally evolved virtue, many of us may need a little assistance to reconnect with this state and cultivate it. In our western culture, we are being conditioned to evaluate frequently and compare ourselves to others. Internalising our natural way of being in the world creates subconscious fears. Some fear that compassion may be perceived as weakness or softness. Others worry that it may undermine the rational, tougher side preventing them from succeeding in a highly competitive society.
A number of studies have now shown that meditation derived out of traditional Buddhist practices may help cultivate compassion. A study at Stanford University, for example, has shown that as little as seven-minute of meditation was enough to increase feelings of connection with self and others.
The benefits of compassion for health and wellbeing are well understood and empirically validated. To cultivate compassion however we need to start from ourselves, as self-compassion probably more than anything else allows us to create a healthy life of joy and meaning.