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How to Activate Your Brain’s Caring Center: Compassion
June 13, 2017
The quality of cultivating and expressing compassion is central to just about every religion on Earth, and also a major focus in the field of psychology. Concepts like “mindfulness” or “loving-kindness meditation” have been steadily growing in popularity for several decades, and today a large body of evidence supports the belief that compassion has benefits related to both mental and physical health. But despite what you might think about compassion, it’s not merely about just being nicer or more agreeable.
Rather than requiring that you agree with everyone you engage with, compassion means showing up more honestly, being more present and unplugged, remaining open to feedback and really listening. The Harvard Business Review calls compassion “a better managerial tactic than toughness.” (1) And recently on an episode of National Public Radio, an expert on Emotional Intelligence spoke about the importance of cultivating more compassion specifically for things like developing more honesty in relationships and even becoming more productive at work.
Speakers on the NPR episode relate compassion to the idea of “emotional correctness,” or acting emotionally appropriate toward others. Compassion is tied to emotional intelligence/correctness because it brings attention to the tone and body language we use when speaking with others, how we show respect, handle feedback or criticism and the way we make others feel when they’re being vulnerable around us.
No one is perfectly compassionate all the time, of course, but those who make an effort to purposefully act more compassionately tend to have stronger relationships, feel happier and more confident, experience better moods, maintain a healthier lifestyle and bounce back from adversity more effectively.
Here’s the good news: Regardless of where you may fall on the compassion versus judgement/criticism spectrum right now, you can develop more compassion. Research suggests that mindfulness interventions, particularly those with an added loving-kindness component, have strong potential to increase both compassion toward others in need, and also self-compassion.
Through practices like meditation (which actually helps grow your brain!), engaging in perspective-taking, opening up about your insecurities and volunteering to help others, you may notice a serious increase in positive emotions and your quality of life. (2)
What Is Compassion?
The definition of compassion is “sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others.” (3) What exactly does it mean to be more compassionate? Other ways we commonly describe compassion include showing empathy, sympathy, care, concern, sensitivity, warmth or simply love. What would the opposite of compassion look like? Indifference, cruelty and harsh criticism.
Some compassion experts describe being compassionate as “suffering along with.” This can mean suffering along with another person or even with yourself in the case of self-compassion. In other words, it means stopping judgement/evaluation and resisting the act of labeling people (including ourselves) as either “good” or “bad.” Compassion simply means accepting with an open, kind heart and recognizing that everyone has strengths and weaknesses.
Compassion seems to have evolutionary roots, which is why biologists believe we are all born with it. It’s primary function seems to be “facilitating cooperation and protection of the weak and those who suffer.” Compassion has also been shown to increase behavior related to caregiving patterns including touch, non-threatening postures and vocalization of feelings. (4)
Is Our Compassion Declining?
Much of the debate regarding the need for increased compassion has to do with concerns about whether living in the “digital age” may be impacting our ability to be empathetic, vulnerable with others and nonjudgemental. One clear impact is that many people now suffer from nomophobia, or fear of being without your smartphone. Considering the use of cell phones for texting, video calls for communicating and social media for “socializing” are unprecedented in human history, these forms of interaction can basically be viewed as a large social experiment.
Researchers are now digging into the important questions regarding the use of social platforms that require less face-to-face time and our levels of happiness. We’re left wondering if it’s possible that these convenient, omnipresent forms of digital communication may be greatly stifling our compassion and well-being.
Several studies have indicated that the prolonged use of social networking sites (SNS) such as Facebook may be related to signs and symptoms of depression. (5) Experts believe there are several reasons why digital communication and social media use may lower compassion and positive feelings: they increase comparison among social classes, make it harder to understand feedback accurately and distort our accomplishments, priorities and/or values.
For example, the use of social media makes it easy to compare ourselves to the successes of others and makes it feel like we aren’t doing things right. And when we can’t use body language and tone to communicate via text or email, we may be more easily misunderstood or likelier to be harsh or bold when communicating.
Aside from the use of digital devices, our social class also seems to influence feelings of compassion toward people who are suffering. Studies have found that less affluent individuals are more likely to report feeling compassion toward others. Research discussed in Scientific America also suggests the opposite is true: As people climb the social ladder and acquire more wealth, their compassionate feelings toward other people tend to decline. (6)
Upper class individuals have been found in studies to be worse at recognizing the emotions of others, less likely to pay attention to people they are interacting with and less likely to take care of people who are vulnerable. Why so? It seems that wealth and abundance “give us a sense of freedom and independence from others. The less we have to rely on others, the less we may care about their feelings.”
Meanwhile, the more that we can work, shop and carry on all from the comforts of home without actually interacting with others face-to-face, the worse these problem may get. To make matters worse, the more we glorify and showcase our own successes across the web for all to see, the more insecure and anxious we may be making others who are less accomplished feel.
Can You Develop Compassion? Yes! And Here’s How
Fortunately, research suggests that it is possible to increase compassion, both toward other people and toward one’s self (known as “self-compassion,” which is touched upon more below). Even if you don’t physically rely on many people online or even in your community to have your basic needs met, you can still benefit from improving perspective taking and feeling more connected.
We can, in fact, relearn compassion that may have been lost due to factors like experiencing high amounts of stress, gaining financial independence or going through emotional trauma or betrayal. This pays off by teaching us to treat people with more respect, forgiveness and understanding.
Here are several ways research suggests that we can improve our compassion:
One of the best ways to develop more compassion is to practice guided meditations that focus on qualities like forgiveness, love and kindness. Loving-kindness meditation reminds us that we all seek and deserve. We deserve no more and no less than anyone else, as we are all driven by an inner desire to avoid suffering and find peace. Using meditation to increase compassion makes it become a habit in daily life, allowing you to establish a healthier way of relating to yourself and others. (7)
Once you’re familiar with how loving-kindness meditation works, you can practice on your own without any recordings, videos or books and still reap the benefits of compassion within just 10–20 minutes spent meditating per day. Regularly meditating on compassion will help you understand how your continual self-judgment may be harming you, holding you back and diminishing satisfaction in your relationships.
2. Allowing yourself to be more vulnerable
It might seem counterintuitive, but people tend to be drawn to others who are more vulnerable and open about their problems. When you’re honest with others about difficulties, it helps build trust and loyalty. Becoming comfortable with vulnerability may mean taking more risks at work, meeting new people, trying new hobbies where you feel “our of your element” or comfort zone and not putting off difficult conversations. All of these novel situations allow you to recognize that we all have sources of fear and uncertainty and that that’s okay.
3. Practicing gratitude (toward yourself and others)
When you become more aware and appreciative of the good things that either you or other people do, it’s usually easier to accept the unfavorable things too. Expressing gratitude for your own strengths, accomplishments, relationships, mentors and good intentions makes it easier to cope with harder times and weaknesses. The same can be said for appreciating others.
Gratitude and compassion play off one another because they both recognize that things or people are usually never black-or-white, but somewhere in the middle and always changing. Studies have found that gratitude and spiritual well-being are related to better mood and sleep, less fatigue and more self-efficacy through decreased stress. (8)
Helping others is one of the surest ways to almost instantly feel happier and more connected. A growing evidence base highlights the supreme importance of compassion in driving high-quality, high-value care for those who volunteer with or professionally work with people in need, including doctors, nurses and emergency responders. Volunteering for those in need or who are going through a tough time can make you feel more appreciative, helpful and supportive while giving life a sense of greater purpose. (9)
The Little-Understood Importance of Self-Compassion
It might seem like “being hard on ourselves” would be a good way to motivate us to change for the better, but research actually suggests the opposite is true. If we’re in a difficult or stressful situation, we rarely take the time to step back and recognize how hard it is to be in that moment. Instead, we may turn toward beating ourselves up, denying the problem exists altogether, blaming others or just feeling hopeless.
Dr. Kristin Neff, one of the leading experts on self-compassion, said that “one of the downsides of living in a culture that stresses the ethic of independence and individual achievement is that if we don’t continually reach our ideal goals, we feel that we only have ourselves to blame.” Dealing with society’s pressure can cause some to develop signs of narcissism when they aren’t able to take responsibility for failures, or to experience depressive bouts during hard times.
Practicing self-compassion means letting go of unrealistic expectations or striving for perfection that makes us feel insecure and dissatisfied. Instead it opens the door to real and lasting satisfaction, along with more honesty and appreciation. By giving ourselves unconditional kindness and comfort while embracing difficulties and disappointments, we avoid destructive patterns of fear, negativity and isolation. Self-compassion also tends to increase positive mind-states that are beneficial for those around us, such as satisfaction and optimism, while reducing stress levels.
Related: What Is an Internal Monologue? (And Does Everyone Have One?)
5 Benefits of Compassion
1. Less Anxiety & Depression
Insecurity, anxiety and depression are now incredibly common problems in many industrialized societies, especially in the U.S. Experts believe that much of this is due to constant comparison and self-judgment, or beating ourselves up when we feel we aren’t “winning in the game of life” or stacking up well enough against our peers. Because self-judgement feeds anxiety and depression, while also raising cortisol levels, becoming more compassionate toward yourself can have major protective effects and benefits.
Being more self-compassionate means treating yourself with the the same kindness and care that you would show to a good friend, or even a stranger for that matter. And although it might seem like one, this isn’t a selfish act. Sharon Salzberg is one of the world’s experts on loving-kindness meditation; she explains that self-compassion is not the same thing as narcissism, self-centeredness or selfishness. Salzberg says that “compulsive concern with ‘I, me and mine’ isn’t the same as loving ourselves. Loving ourselves points us to capacities of resilience and understanding within.” (10)
When we better understand that everyone deals with problems, has certain insecurities and character weaknesses and experiences setbacks, we realize we aren’t alone or even necessarily to blame for all of our problems. This helps us view our circumstances more clearly, feel less need to deny or run from problems in our lives and start opening up to others in order to feel more supported and accepted.
2. More Meaningful, Honest Relationships
Psychologists use the term “downward social comparison” to describe our tendency to see others in a negative light so that we can feel superior by contrast. A lack of self-compassion can lead us to act harmfully toward other people, as a way of protecting our own egos from criticism. (11)
Dr. Neff explains that “the desire to feel special is understandable. The problem is that by definition, it’s impossible for everyone to be above average. How do we cope with this? Not very well. To see ourselves positively, we tend to inflate our own egos and put others down so that we can feel good in comparison. But this strategy comes at a price — it holds us back from reaching our full potential in life.”
While it’s very common to look for flaws and shortcomings in others as a way to feel better about ourselves, the habit of downward social comparison actually harms rather than helps us by decreasing relationship satisfaction. Lack of compassion closes us off to feedback and makes it hard to recognize that sometimes our own weaknesses are the cause of disagreements. Letting go of the hope for perfection in ourselves and others helps us view character weaknesses as “part of the shared human experience.” This helps us stay flexible and honest, feel more connected to others and able to view our family, friends and coworkers as equally flawed and vulnerable as we are.
3. Improved Productivity at Work
At work, whether you’re the employer or the employee, compassion can help get the company better results by opening up more honest dialogue among coworkers and making more room for coaching, relationship building and feedback exchange. It’s been found that bosses who suspend judgement, anger or frustration when handling employees’ mistakes and instead take a compassionate and curious approach are able to make a greater impact overall. It seems that when employees feel less attacked and judged, they are more willing to be honest, take responsibility for their actions and correct their mistakes.
Studies have also found that compassion, recognition and curiosity increase employee loyalty, job satisfaction and trust. Research conducted by the Association of Accounting Technicians, for example, found that reported feelings of “warmth and positive relationships” at work have a greater say over employee loyalty than the size of their paycheck! (12)
Work factors and attitudes that were found to outweigh the importance of one’s paycheck include relationships with colleagues, feeling of self-worth and the nature of the job itself. Because relationships at work were found to be the single most important predictor of job happiness, it makes sense that one-third of people surveyed had left a high-paying job when they didn’t feel understood, appreciated or supported.
4. Less Anger, Blame & Conflict with Others
Displaying the opposite of compassion — things like anger, blame, criticism or frustration — tends to weaken relationships, erode loyalty and promote secrecy, mistrust and embarrassment. Maintaining strong relationships has been found to be one of the most protective factors for health and important aspects for happiness and longevity. Therefore it makes sense that ongoing self-criticism, and also judgement toward others, can lead to increased emotional stress and many health problems that go along with it.
The judgements we make of other people not only harm them, they harm us. The more critical we are, the more unsafe we feel our environment is overall. When we feel safer, our brain’s stress response is lower; therefore, expressing compassion helps us live with more ease and peace of mind.
5. Improved Health & Immunity
Self-compassion involves wanting health and well-being for yourself, which leads to proactive behavior that usually betters your situation. One of the most beneficial things about compassion is that it helps resolve internal “distortions,” including rationalizing or denying our problems. Feeling safe enough to let our guard down relates to improved physical health and immunity because it allows us to view the consequences of our actions accurately, work toward lasting change and handle stress better. Several studies have also found that people with health problems who have a high level of self-compassion are less depressed about those problems and are more likely to seek a doctor’s help than people with low levels of self-compassion. (13)
When we can be honest with ourselves and others about how we’re harming our health, then we can decide what to do in order to improve our habits. For example, if we frequently overeat junk foods, which leads to weight gain or smoke cigarettes, we may feel too embarrassed to discuss these problems with others or ask for help.
Showing compassion toward ourselves and knowing that everyone has areas they struggle with helps us to address the root causes of these unhealthy habits honestly, take responsibility and seek support. Self-compassion also helps us stay focused on our goals and resilient during times of setbacks or slip-ups, making us less likely to give up on improving our habits when we fall off course.
Final Thoughts on Increasing Compassion
- Compassion is “sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others.” We can be compassionate toward others and also ourselves.
- Benefits of compassion include better relationships, less stress, higher likelihood of sticking with healthy habits and enhanced work productivity.
- Habits like meditation, really listening to others, being more willing to appear vulnerable, volunteering and practicing gratitude are all helpful for increasing compassion.