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A New Understanding of the Power of Compassion

Recent research proves that being nice isn’t just good for your mind and spirit, but also for your health.

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Compassion is not always championed as relevant currency in today’s secular society, where material success and achievement often rule ahead of human virtues and social consciousness. Compassion has long been a central tenet in many major spiritual traditions, espoused as a powerful virtue by thought leaders including Jesus, Ghandi, Mother Theresa, and the Dalai Lama. Only recently has scienfitic evidence emerged showing that compassion can also play a vital role in our health and happiness.

By definition, compassion is the sympathetic awareness of others’ distress, coupled with a desire to alleviate suffering. It’s empathy plus prosocial action to improve the condition of others. To be compassionate requires attention, insight, and engagement, says Joan Halifax, Ph.D., a Zen Buddhist nun and researcher. Interestingly, while the practice of compassion is inherently about helping others, emerging science shows that it can also help improve the physical health and psychological well-being of the person doing good.

Research demonstrates that compassion plays a key role in social connection and that this conscious interconnectivity can protect us from stress, affecting the heart rate and cortisol levels, among other positive results. Studies have also shown that when we are focused on ourselves, we experience less happiness. This means that when we are giving of ourselves, we tend toward greater pleasure. The potential to positively affect health and longevity has been revealed in those who actively engage in altruistic volunteerism.

It may sound contradictory to focus on what one potentially gains through altruistic acts. If you are concerned with how you will benefit is that really compassion? But the larger implications of our understanding of happiness, and the essential nature of doing good could lead to broader change. If compassionate behavior is viewed as something that promotes the well-being of society as a whole, then this could prompt improvements not only in individual behavior but also in the healthcare system, corporate culture, and government policies.

The University of Virginia School of Nursing Compassionate Care Initiative is one program aimed at cultivating empathy and kindness, specifically in medical workers. The curriculum incorporates mindfulness, breathing exercises, yoga, and reflective writing.

“We know that in order to be truly empathetic, which means being able to put yourself in the shoes of another person, you first have to be able to be in tune with who you are,” says Susan Bauer-Wu, Ph.D., R.N., the director of the Compassionate Care Initiative. “Nurses and doctors who have been in practice for a long time think the best way to cope is to distance themselves and to put up walls because they don’t want to get too close; they don’t want to get hurt. If you distance yourself you actually lose the meaning that brought you to this sacred work.”

Through the daily practice of mindfulness and compassion, healthcare workers become more resilient emotionally and mentally, and the quality of patient care improves, says Bauer-Wu. A recent scientific review found that compassionate care in medical settings reduces pain and the duration of illness, and can dramatically increase the rate of healing in patients.

Researchers at Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE), have played a major role in pushing forward this area of study. James Doty, Ph.D., a professor of neurology at Stanford University, founded the center in 2008, with support from the Dalai Lama. CCARE’s mission is to investigate methods for cultivating compassion and promoting altruism within individuals and society through rigorous research, scientific collaborations, and academic conferences.

Emma Seppälä, Ph.D., is the Science Director of CCARE. Seppälä studies compassion and its effects on our culture. “A brain-imaging study headed by neuroscientist Jordan Grafman from the National Institutes of Health revealed that ‘’pleasure centers’’ in the brain reflect the same activity when one witnesses someone donating money to charity as when one actually receives money,” says Seppälä. “The implications of our findings subvert conventional notions of happiness associated with security and creature comforts, implying that what is truly satisfying is not receiving but giving.”

In addition to improved life satisfaction and better health, practicing compassion can also lead to deeper spiritual growth. “When we are feeling compassion, our stress level goes down, and this in turn reduces the negative impact of stress. But in the deepest way, cultivating compassion allows us to inhabit a fuller sense of our own potential. It helps us open our hearts and learn to love without holding back,” says Tara Brach, a psychologist and well-known American Buddhist practitioner and teacher. Brach has written numerous books on the practice of compassion, self-acceptance, and meditation, and she lectures around the world.

To help you develop more compassion in your daily life, start with these simple practices from Brach.

  1. Meditate. Meditating daily allows you to nurture a well of quiet within that can fortify your mental state and provide a sense of ease. Here is a simple exercise from Brach: “Bring to mind someone you care about. Reflect on what life is like for this person, how they are struggling. Mentally whisper a wish for their well-being, that their suffering be eased. You can also do this for yourself, and if you want to make the self-compassion very powerful, explore gently placing your hand on your heart as you offer yourself a message of kindness and comfort.”
  2. Let go of negativity. We have a strong evolutionary negativity bias, meaning we tend to look for what is wrong in things. For this reason, cultivating compassion requires clear intention and practice. Brach explains, “The process of awakening our hearts begins with a capacity to be mindful of suffering—to be aware of the vulnerability, fear, hurt, or shame that we and others are experiencing. If you can open yourself to the realness of suffering, the tenderness of compassion will naturally arise.”
  3. Embrace kindness. “When we start regarding ourselves and those in our life with increasing kindness, we feel more connection. Our fears start fading, and we are free to enjoy our life, to be spontaneous and creative, and to discover a genuine sense of intimacy with our world,” says Brach.

Simple practices of self-forgetting and interconnectivity can offer significance for individual contentment and health along with igniting social change. As the famous quote from Aesop reveals, “No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.”

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