Decades of clinical research has focused and shed light on the psychology of human suffering. That suffering, as unpleasant as it is, often has a bright side to which research has paid less attention: compassion. Human suffering is often accompanied by beautiful acts of compassion by others wishing to help relieve it.
What led over 12 million Canadians to volunteer in 2013? What propels someone to volunteer serving food at Haven Toronto, pull over on the highway in the rain to help someone with a broken-down vehicle, or feed a stray cat?
What is Compassion?
The definition of compassion is often confused with that of empathy. Empathy, as defined by researchers, is the visceral or emotional experience of another person’s feelings. It is, in a sense, an automatic mirroring of another’s emotion, like tearing up at a friend’s sadness.
Altruism is an action that benefits someone else. It may or may not be accompanied by empathy or compassion, like making a donation for tax purposes. Although these terms are related to compassion, they are not identical.
Compassion often does, of course, involve an empathic response and an altruistic behaviour. However, compassion is defined as the emotional response when perceiving suffering and involves an authentic desire to help.
Is Compassion Natural or Learned?
Though economists have long argued the contrary, a growing body of evidence suggests that, at our core, both animals and human beings have what Dacher Keltner at the University of California, Berkeley, coins a “compassionate instinct.” In other words, compassion is a natural and automatic response that has ensured our survival.
Research has demonstrated that even rats are driven to empathize with another suffering rat and to go out of their way to help it out of its quandary. Studies with chimpanzees and human infants too young to have learned the rules of politeness, also back up these claims.
Scientists in Germany have found that infants and chimpanzees spontaneously engage in helpful behaviour and will even overcome obstacles to do so. They apparently do so from intrinsic motivation without expectation of reward.
It is not surprising that compassion is a natural tendency since it is essential for human survival.
The term “survival of the fittest,” often attributed to Charles Darwin, was actually coined by Herbert Spencer and Social Darwinists who wished to justify class and race superiority. A lesser known fact is that Darwin’s work is best described with the phrase “survival of the kindest.”
Darwin argued that “communities, which included the greatest number of the most sympathetic members, would flourish best, and rear the greatest number of offspring.” Compassion may indeed be a naturally evolved and adaptive trait. Without it, the survival and flourishing of our species would have been unlikely.
One more sign that suggests that compassion is an adaptively evolved trait is that it makes us more attractive to potential mates. A study examining the trait most highly valued in potential romantic partners suggests that both men and women agree that “kindness” is one of the most highly desirable traits.
Compassion’s Surprising Health Benefits
Compassion may have ensured our survival because of its tremendous benefits for both physical and mental health and overall well-being. Research by Ed Diener, a leading researcher in positive psychology, and Martin Seligman, a pioneer of the psychology of happiness and human flourishing, suggests that connecting with others in a meaningful way helps us enjoy better mental and physical health and speeds up recovery from disease. It has even shown that it may lengthen our life spans.
The reason a compassionate lifestyle leads to greater psychological well-being may be explained by the fact that the act of giving appears to be as pleasurable, if not more so, as the act of receiving.
A brain-imaging study showed that the “pleasure centres” in the brain, i.e., the parts of the brain that are active when we experience pleasure are equally active when we observe someone giving money to charity as when we receive money ourselves. Giving to others even increases well-being above and beyond what we experience when we spend money on ourselves.
In a revealing experiment by Elizabeth Dunn, at the University of British Columbia, participants received a sum of money and half of the participants were instructed to spend the money on themselves; the other half was told to spend the money on others. At the end of the study, participants who had spent money on others felt significantly happier than those who had spent money on themselves.
Why is Compassion Good For Us?
Compassion may serve as a buffer against stress. A study conducted on a large population (more than 800 people) and spearheaded by the University at Buffalo’s Michael Poulin found that stress did not predict mortality in those who helped others, but that it did in those who did not.
One of the reasons that compassion may protect against stress is the very fact that it is so pleasurable.
Motivation, however, seems to play an important role in predicting whether a compassionate lifestyle exerts a beneficial impact on health. Sara Konrath, at the University of Michigan, discovered that people who engaged in volunteerism lived longer than their non-volunteering peers — but only if their reasons for volunteering were altruistic rather than self-serving.
Another reason compassion may boost our well-being is that it can help broaden our perspective beyond ourselves.
Research shows that depression and anxiety are linked to a state of self-focus, a preoccupation with “me, myself, and I.” When you do something for someone else, however, that state of self-focus shifts to a state of other-focus.
Finally, one additional way in which compassion may boost our well-being is by increasing a sense of connection to others.
One telling study showed that lack of social connection is a greater detriment to health than obesity, smoking, and high blood pressure. On the flip side, strong social connection leads to a 50 percent increased chance of longevity. Social connection strengthens our immune system, helps us recover from disease faster, and may even lengthen our life.
People who feel more connected to others have lower rates of anxiety and depression.
Moreover, studies show that they also have higher self-esteem, are more empathic to others, more trusting and cooperative and, as a consequence, others are more open to trusting and cooperating with them.
Social connectedness, therefore, generates a positive feedback loop of social, emotional, and physical well-being.
Why Compassion Really Does Have the Ability to Change the World?
Research suggests that seeing someone helping another person creates a state of “elevation.” Have you ever been moved to tears by seeing someone’s loving and compassionate behaviour? That elevation then inspires us to help others — and it may just be the force behind a chain reaction of giving.
Corporate leaders who engage in self-sacrificing behaviour and elicit “elevation” in their employees also yield greater influence among their employees — who become more committed and in turn may act with more compassion in the workplace.
Indeed, compassion is contagious. Social scientists demonstrated that acts of generosity and kindness beget more generosity in a chain reaction of goodness. Our acts of compassion uplift others and make them happy. We may not know it, but by uplifting others we are also helping ourselves; happiness spreads and if the people around us are happy, we, in turn become happier.
The Compassionate Mind
By Emma Seppala
Association for Psychological Science
One small act can make one big difference in a day, in a life.
We created 'The Power of 1', a FREE eBook, to encourage others to make a difference. The Power Of 1 is about changing your world and, in the process and for the better, changing the world for those around you. It's about achievable change, beginning inside oneself and building outward. Think of it as GIGO 2.0; Good In, Good Out.
From free to priceless, inside the book, 'The Power Of 1' are 101 ways that you can make a real difference in your life and the lives of others. Read 'The Power Of 1" now.