The Health Benefits of Compassion
Why Compassion Matters More Than Ever (Having Empathy)
The science of compassion says the desire to relieve the suffering of others helps us feel better too. So if you’re looking for motivation to start a heart-opening practice, perhaps appealing to your own best interests is a good way to begin.
Compassion is empathy in action, it is the desire to relieve the suffering of another. To be compassionate requires we have empathy, or the capacity to sense what another is feeling. But beyond that, compassion entails that we take steps toward helping others, be it in the form of a wish or by taking action.
Although research indicates humans are naturally compassionate beings, we can all benefit from intentionally cultivating greater compassion. Our compassion (including self-compassion) is often limited by a culture that emphasizes competitiveness, criticism, or extreme self-reliance as the keys to success. We may have learned to put ourselves above all others or that compassion should only be reserved for a close few who we deem most deserving.
Because of these mistaken beliefs, we tend to fear that opening our hearts and training in compassion will weaken us. Thousands of years of Buddhist wisdom, and the latest research, teach us this couldn’t be further from the truth.
The Benefits of Compassion
We all intuitively know a more compassionate world is the type of world we’d like to live in. Yet we still have our reasons why we just can’t offer compassion to that one person, or to ourselves. What will it take for us to feel personally responsible for creating the compassionate universe of our dreams? Appealing to our me-first desire to live longer, healthier, happier lives is one way.
The science says expressing affection, promoting meaningful connections, and modeling altruistic behavior benefit us in very concrete ways.
Compassion and social connection are deeply related. Those who are most compassionate are also more comfortable receiving support. This trait, the ability to give and receive care, is a meaningful predictor of health and well-being. When we are comfortable acting compassionately toward others, and receiving this expression of affection in return, we experience less loneliness and a greater sense of safety. We also become less reactive to stress.
Compassion as a means of expressing affection is significant for the giver, whether or not the recipient is aware of the compassionate act. Researchers hypothesize that stepping out of our self-focused habit is just one mechanism by which compassion minimizes anxiety and depression.
Those who score high on compassion and self-compassion also rate life as having more meaning. They tend to be less experientially avoidant, and are more positive in the face of suffering, be it from stress, aging, or simply boredom. Assigning meaning to life also helps us live longer.
A study on volunteers found those with other-focused motives live longer than those who volunteer for self-interested reasons. Even among seniors who rate themselves as ‘happy,’ those whose happiness is tied to meaning live longer than those who define happiness as pleasure.
Inspiring Acts Of Kindness
Studies find that patients have better outcomes when their caregivers express more kindness and empathy. Compassion also makes the body more resilient to stress, strengthening immune response. Kindness could also save your life. In general, stress increases mortality, but not among those who help others.
Self-compassion matters, too, so be kind to yourself. Those with greater self-compassion are less likely to be lonely, depressed, or anxious, are more resilient to setbacks, and more likely to learn from their mistakes.
How to Cultivate Compassion
Compassion can be developed with compassion meditation such as loving-kindness meditation, the four immeasurables, and other contemplative practices. The real practice is acting more compassionately out in the world.
We can expand our hearts over time by mindfully stretching our capacity to be generous, kind and caring as opportunities to help others present themselves. We can also practice extending compassion to ourselves and receiving compassion from others.
The research says compassion is contagious, as is the resulting happiness. As we experience real benefit from acting more kindly in the world, a positive feedback loop is generated in which we feel more resourced, more capable of helping others, and increasingly more satisfied with our lives.