The science of compassion
—Daniel Goleman, Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships
What is compassion?
Emotion researchers define compassion as the feeling that arises when we are confronted with another’s suffering and feel motivated to relieve that suffering. Compassion is different than empathy and altruism. Empathy allows us to take the perspective of (cognitive empathy) and feel the emotions of (affective empathy) another person. Compassion is when those feelings and thoughts include the desire to help. And altruism is the well meaning, selfless behavior that is often, but not always, prompted by feelings of compassion.
Compassion can improve our lives in a number of ways:
- Compassion can reduce risk of heart disease by boosting the positive effects of the Vagus Nerve, which helps to slow our heart rate
- Compassion makes people more resilient to stress and strengthens the immune response
- Compassionate people are more socially adept, making them less vulnerable to the negative health effects of loneliness
- 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 happiest societies
Source: Greater Good Science Center
Recent research on compassion reveals that compassion isn’t something we’re either born with or not. Compassion is a skill that can be strengthened through specific exercises and practice. Our friends at UC Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center launched a new website called Greater Good in Action, which hosts a variety of science-based practices to help you cultivate more compassion in your life. Get started with this simple writing exercise to increase feelings of connection and compassion.
University-backed compassion training programs, such as those at Stanford University and Emory University, are helping us understand how to increase feelings of compassion in ourselves and others. Here are a few tips from these programs:
- Find similarities: Seeing yourself as similar to others increases feelings of compassion. One recent study shows that simply tapping your fingers to the same rhythm as a stranger increases compassionate behavior.
- Encourage cooperation over competition: One study showed that describing a game as a “Community Game” increased players levels of cooperation and sharing behavior, while calling the same game the “Wall Street Game” made the players more ruthless and less honest.
- See people as individuals rather than abstractions: When asked to support an anti-hunger charity, people were more likely to give money after reading a story about one particular starving girl than after reading statistics on starvation.
- Believe in your power to do good: When we believe we’re able to make a difference, we’re less likely to suppress our feelings of compassion.
- Notice how good compassion feels: Studies show that compassion and compassionate action activate the brain's reward center.
- For parents, teachers, and caregivers: Research suggests that compassion is contagious, so if you want to help teach and cultivate compassion in children, the best practice is to lead by your own example.
Source: Greater Good Science Center
Explore more about the scientific, evolutionary, and spiritual roots of compassion through lectures from some of the world's most influential thinkers and leaders.
Thupten Jinpa, Ph.D.
The Science of Compassion: Origins, Measures, and Interventions
Dacher Keltner, Ph.D.
The Evolutionary Roots of Compassion
Amma and Dr. James Doty
Conversations on Compassion with Amma
Daniel Siegel, Ph.D.
Interpersonal Neurobiology: Why Compassion is Necessary for Humanity
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Looking for more? Our friends at Stanford's Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education have more lectures and videos on their YouTube channel.