The Eternal Force of Compassion
It permeates our lives.
“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”- Dalai Lama
Although violence and war have often marked the history of human civilization, there have always been people who have sought to highlight the positive aspects of humanity. One of these positive elements—and the topic of our article—is compassion.
Since ancient times, different religious systems from all around the world have emphasized the crucial role of compassion in our day-to-day life. From Jesus and Muhammad to Buddha and other iconic figures, they’ve all taught and practiced compassion as a way to bring their followers closer to each other and inspire unity.
For a relatively extended period, compassion has been mainly associated with spirituality and religion. In other words, Western cultures have shown little to no interest in the unexpected benefits of this practice. However, as soon as mindfulness became popular, people began changing their perspective.
All of a sudden, concepts like compassion, empathy, and kindness have caught the attention of researchers and mental health professionals. After nearly fifty years of research, compassion has not only gained increasing popularity but also become the foundation of a new therapeutic approach.
What is compassion?
According to the Merriam-Webster, compassion is “the sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.” As this definition illustrates, compassion implies not only showing sympathy towards other people’s pain and suffering but also having the desire to provide comfort and relief. In other words, a compassionate attitude can often inspire action which is why many believe this practice can drive positive changes at both a personal and social level.
Some experts believe that, in a way, compassion is about being actively involved in someone else’s pain and suffering. It’s about having a non-judgmental attitude that allows you to provide comfort, understanding, emotional aid, without labeling or criticizing the other person.
Before we can discuss benefits and further implications, first we need to look at what compassion is and how it works.
From an evolutionary perspective, compassion facilitated the cooperation and protection of the weak and those who suffer. In a way, we could argue that humans are genetically and biologically programmed to express compassion.
Compassion is a complex emotion that lies at the crossroads between love and sadness. It involves empathy and can motivate altruistic, pro-social behaviors. When we approach other people’s problems with compassion, we also experience a change in perspective. In other words, instead of labeling their suffering as self-inflicted, we attribute it to external factors (bad luck, karma, etc.).
According to a recent paper on the relationship between empathy and compassion, it seems that the two are closely tied. In fact, compassion is a sophisticated form of empathy (Singer & Klimecki, 2014). As the authors point out, “empathy refers to our general capacity to resonate with others’ emotional states irrespective of their valence—positive or negative. Compassion, on the other hand, is conceived as a feeling of concern for another person’s suffering which is accompanied by the motivation to help.”
Whenever we empathize with another person’s problems, there are usually two ways in which we can react: (1) we can either experience empathic distress (we find it challenging to contain another’s emotions that we choose to withdraw from the situation) or (2) show compassion. In other words, just because we’re empathetic towards other people’s pain and suffering doesn’t mean we’re also compassionate.
In a nutshell, compassion is accepting everything and everyone with kindness and an open mind. Judging by the current scientific findings, many researchers and mental health professional believe this concept has tremendous implication on well-being and mental health. In fact, some experts have even begun to implement self-compassion programs successfully. (Neff & Germer, A Pilot Study and Randomized Controlled Trial of the Mindful Self-Compassion Program, 2013)
Regarding effectiveness and real-world applications, compassion and self-compassion are among the most valuable subjects of modern psychology.
From compassion to self-compassion
In its original sense, compassion means to be empathetic and suffer for the pain of those closest to us. Of course, that doesn’t mean we should exaggerate in our attempt to resonate with people’s suffering. It’s enough to understand them and be close to them.
Self-compassion means to give up on our unrealistic expectations and the struggle for perfection that often make us feel insecure and ‘incomplete.' When we begin to practice unconditional kindness and self-understanding—accepting pain and difficulties as part of life—we avoid falling into destructive patterns that lead to fear, negativity, disappointment, and frustration. Self-compassion encourages an overall positive attitude towards ourselves, others, and life in general, thus leading to positive personal, professional, and social outcomes.
As one scientific work points out, “over the past decade self-compassion has gained popularity as a related and complementary construct to mindfulness, and research on self-compassion is growing at an exponential rate.” (Neff & Dahm, 2015) In fact, some experts believe that mindfulness and compassion represent not only the foundation of positive psychology but also the driving force behind greater well-being. (Huppert, 2017)
One of the most comprehensive and clear conceptualizations of self-compassion was given by Kristin Neff, Associate Professor at the University of Texas and the first researcher to study this concept thoroughly. In one of her early papers, she argues that self-compassion can be broken down into three main components:
“self-kindness - being kind and understanding toward oneself in instances of pain or failure rather than being harshly self-critical,
common humanity - perceiving one’s experiences as part of the larger human experience rather than seeing them as separating and isolating, and
mindfulness - holding painful thoughts and feelings in balanced awareness rather than over-identifying with them.” (Neff K. , 2003)
Regarding gender differences, it appears that males have a slightly higher level of self-compassion than females. However, as the authors highlight, “this difference was larger in samples with a higher percentage of ethnic minorities.” (Yarnell, et al., 2015)
From a physiological perspective, self-compassion can lower cortisol levels. That led researchers to believe that individuals high in self-compassion may have healthier responses to stress. (Breines, Freeman, Thoma, & Rohleder, 2014) In a recently published paper, two authors argue that self-compassion has indirect positive effects on physical health. (Homan & Sirois, 2017) The fact that self-compassion lowers stress and also helps us take a kind and accepting stance toward our failures and hardships leads to behaviors that impact both our physical and mental health in a positive way.
Overall, there’s a significant body of research indicating that self-compassion is an ideal candidate in terms of strategies for increasing health and well-being. To learn compassion, the first and most important person to practice on is us.
How does compassion impact our work environment?
According to a recent paper, the practice of compassion is often overlooked by managers and leaders. Most of us tend to associate compassion with our personal life while disregarding the potentially beneficial effects on our professional life. (Dutton, Workman, & Hrdin, 2014)
Integrating the practice of compassion in an organizational setting allows leaders and managers to treat employees as whole individuals who experience and display emotions in the workplace (Dutton, Worline, & Frost, Explaining Compassion Organizing , 2006), thus creating an opportunity to implement further interventions designed to improve the collective capability for compassion. Creating a compassion-friendly environment leads to “high-quality connections and a norm of dynamic boundary permeability.” (Lilius, Worline, Dutton, Kanov, & Maitlis, 2011) As a result, employees become more aware of and responsive to their coworker’s suffering which, of course, contributes to a healthier and more positive work environment.
On a sad note, the corporate capitalism that characterizes many First World countries is often in contradiction with the idea of compassion. In the United States, corporate capitalism “is an ideology that emphasizes, among other things, the pursuit of self-interest, competition, market exchange, consumerism, and using a profit/loss criterion to make decisions in organizations.” (George, 2013)
In a sense, implementing a compassion-based system that allows employees to offer and receive support during stressful situations (emotionally speaking) means going against a well-grounded paradigm. But perhaps the future holds a more optimistic perspective.
Compassion-focused therapy: a game-changing approach
Compassion-focused therapy is an interdisciplinary approach that “draws from evolutionary, social, developmental and Buddhist psychology, and neuroscience.” (Gilbert, Introducing compassion-focused therapy, 2009)
The main idea behind compassion-focused therapy is that negative emotions such as self-criticism and shame are the root of many emotional problems. Those who experience such dysfunctional emotions can find it difficult to make themselves feel safe and relieved.
The primary goal of compassion-focused therapy is to help clients accept their emotions (positive and negative) and develop compassion-based cognitions (thoughts, beliefs, etc.) that activate the brain’s self-soothing systems. Similar to cognitive-behavioral therapy, this approach draws attention to the negative thoughts that fuel one’s negative emotions. However, the main difference is that compassion-focused therapy focuses heavily on thoughts and beliefs that generate shame and self-criticism. Furthermore, this approach seeks to cultivate positive emotions through visualization and personal affirmations, as opposed to disputing the thoughts that cause negative emotions.
This revolutionary approach that has been built around the concept of compassion has shown promising results in promoting emotional recovery from psychosis (Braehler, et al., 2012), helping individuals with personality disorders improve their condition (Lucre & Corten, 2012), and even reducing the negative consequences of eating disorders (Corinne, Gilbert, Read, & Goss, 2012).
The emergence of this new therapeutic approach is proof that compassion holds a lot of potential for the future of mental health.
Towards a more compassionate society
Based on current research, we know that compassion is a stronger emotion than empathy because it consists of imagining the suffering of others at a deeper level; therefore, compassion is more likely to stimulate action.
Compassion is a complex emotion that lies at the crossroads between love and sadness. It involves empathy and can motivate altruistic, pro-social behaviors. (Gilbert & Procter, 2006) When we approach other people’s problems with compassion, we also experience a change in perspective. In other words, instead of labeling their suffering as self-inflicted, we attribute it to external factors (bad luck, karma, etc.). Since it involves an empathic attitude towards the pain and suffering of another, this emotion might be the key to building a better society.
Imagine a world where every person is educated on the practice of compassion. A society where individuals are capable of providing emotional support to those in need. By implementing mindfulness- and compassion-based programs in schools and organizations, chances are we might achieve this challenging goal.