In a world where adversity and misfortune can often cause suffering, compassion is what drives us to lend a helping hand or offer emotional support. From spiritual leaders to healthcare professionals, almost everyone can agree that cultivating compassion can have benefits for the body and mind.
But cultivating compassion can be difficult when you aren’t in contact with your inner self. In fact, it’s impossible to be compassionate with a friend or colleague in need, without exercising self-compassion first.
The Definition of Compassion
To understand and cultivate compassion, let’s start to learn about human suffering and about why embracing it is (paradoxically) the secret to a happier life.
Psychology of Human Suffering
Whether we like it or not, life is full of ups and downs. Our existence is sprinkled with different experiences and emotions. We can cherish the moments when we celebrate spectacular achievements and we can despair about the dark times when we feel like we’ve lost all hope.
No matter how much you try to control every little aspect of your day-to-day life, there’s just no way around adversity and suffering.
The only way to maintain your sanity is through self-compassion which builds the resilience you need to keep on hustling through thick and thin.
Compassion vs. Empathy
A lot of people think that compassion and empathy are the same things. And who could blame them? Both words convey similar emotions and they are both commonly attributed to situations characterized by sadness and mourning. In cases like these, people generally use empathy or compassion in an effort to identify with a particular individual (or group) who has been affected by a tragedy.
But while these two words have relatively similar meanings, there are some notable differences between being compassionate and being empathetic. While empathy conveys feelings of sympathy or sorrow towards someone, compassion helps us to put ourselves in other people’s shoes and share their emotions. Compassion also, generally, includes the desire to help.
To a certain extent, empathy and compassion are overlapping concepts in the sense that you can express them separately and simultaneously.
Achieving True Happiness
Whether compassion and empathy are separate concepts or two sides of the same coin, one thing is certain: both contribute to our overall sense of happiness. This is something that humankind has witnessed ever since the dawn of civilization.
In fact, various religious movements have emphasized the role of compassion in building a unified society where individuals can thrive and achieve happiness.
From an evolutionary standpoint, compassion is a highly useful psychological mechanism as it motivates members of a group to support each other and grow as a community.
The Importance of Compassion in Relationships
Who better to receive your compassion than the person you love and cherish the most?
Cultivating compassion in your relationship builds mutual trust. It also creates an environment where both partners feel safe and supported. In other words, letting your partner know that he/she has someone to share the burden during tough times will strengthen your relationship.
However, keep in mind that compassion contributes to the health of your relationship only when both partners manifest it. Otherwise, one partner ends up giving more than the other and that can lead to tension in the relationship.
Does Compassion Come Naturally to Everyone?
It seems like we need to call on the “nature vs. nurture” debate.
Since compassion is a complex phenomenon, no one really knows for sure whether human beings have this mechanism coded in their brains.
In a way, we could argue that humans are instinctively driven to recognize the suffering of their kin and that they somehow know about providing support in times of need. Since this mechanism was (and still is) highly adaptive, it makes sense for humans to possess innate abilities that allow them to manifest compassion.
At the same time, humans can learn compassion from their day-to-day interactions as a socially desirable behavior.
Developing the Skill
Regardless of whether compassion does or doesn’t have inborn features, one thing’s sure: You can always learn how to cultivate compassion towards yourself and towards others.
Cultivating Compassion: 7 Tips to Follow
Here are some tips on how to develop compassion that will help you become a healthier, happier human.
Start With Yourself
Before you can show compassion to someone in need, first you need to develop self-compassion.
According to a recent article published in Self and Identity, self-compassion is a complex phenomenon characterized by kindness, reduced self-judgment, decreased isolation, and a mindful attitude towards yourself.
This basically means that a kind, mindful, and non-judgmental attitude towards yourself can cultivate compassion and it can heal your emotional wounds.
Be Present In Every Situation
There are times when we become so caught up in our lives that we forget about the pain and suffering of the people around us.
If you wish to be more compassionate towards others, start by living in the “here and now.” That way, you will develop the presence and awareness you need to understand the problems of others.
Learn to Listen
Listening is one of the most crucial features of compassion. It’s almost impossible to resonate with someone’s problems if you can’t even pay attention to his/her story.
When a friend, colleague, or family member is opening up to you; make sure that he/she has your undivided attention. Otherwise, you will be yet another person who doesn’t understand what he/she is going through.
Make an effort to really listen to what the other person has to say and compassion will flow naturally.
When someone is dealing with a problem, we sometimes tend to offer solutions or unsolicited personal opinions. We tend to overlook their emotional needs and, instead, focus on a more practical approach.
But while an insightful piece of advice is often the rational way to go, keep in mind that it might not be what the other person needs at that point in time.
Compassion is about understanding other people’s pain. The way to achieve this is by exercising control over our own needs and wants and prioritizing theirs.
Cultivating compassion involves finding the courage to forgive yourself and others. Without forgiveness, you will forever struggle with the internal conflict generated by the “bad” things you hold yourself (or someone else) responsible for. As a result, you won’t be able to realize that anger and frustration won’t get you anywhere.
If you wish to cultivate compassion, make peace with your past and find the courage to forgive others as well.
Try Compassion Meditation
Did you know that meditation is a powerful tool that you can use to cultivate compassion?
There’s even a specific form of meditation dedicated to developing this attitude and it’s called “compassion meditation”. In a nutshell; it involves developing care, connection, and understanding by repeating phrases like: “May I be free of guilt and shame” or “May I be empathetic and caring.” You can even create your own messages.
A recent study, published in PLOS ONE, revealed that people who practice compassion meditation for prolonged periods could even rewire the areas of the brain that are responsible for emotions.
So find a comfortable position, close your eyes, think about someone you care about (you can even choose yourself) and repeat the messages.
Become Someone People Can Look Up To
Aside from kindness, empathy, and understanding; compassion also involves wisdom. You could say that you need to be emotionally mature enough to put the other person’s feelings first.
This is the kind of attitude that results from being the “bigger man” and learning to forgive others for their mistakes. It’s the kind of mentality that grows stronger the more we focus on self-awareness and personal growth.
Add good listening skills to everything mentioned above, and you have a person that people can look up to. A person who can cultivate compassion and contribute to their own well-being and the well-being of those around them.
Why is Compassion Good For You?
Cultivating compassion can greatly benefit your mind and your mental health.
Benefits For Your Mind
As you’ve probably figured out by now, cultivating compassion creates a win-win situation. Both you and other people can benefit from something that improves your overall health and well-being.
A 2016 study, published in the Journal of Health Psychology, revealed that self-compassion has a positive effect on physical health as well. When we are compassionate towards ourselves, we feel motivated to engage in health-promoting behaviors that keep our bodies and minds in great shape.
In short, compassion can be the driving force behind a happier and healthier lifestyle.
The Importance of Compassion For Mental Health
Ask any expert in the field and he or she will tell you that social support plays a crucial role in mental health and one key aspect of social support is compassion. Having someone there who’s emotionally available and understands your pain can significantly improve your depressed or anxious mood.
One recent article, published in the Journal of Pain and Symptom Management, highlights the crucial role of compassion in healthcare practices. The way in which patients experience compassion can help experts develop new strategies to improve the quality of healthcare services.
Compassion Can Change Your Life!
Compassion means letting life simply take its course. People can suffer, celebrate, be happy, or get depressed. Your purpose isn’t to change them but to accept them just the way they are and to guide them towards introspection.
Cultivate compassion and enjoy a happier, more fulfilling life!
- E. Seppala, “The Compassionate Mind,” Association for Psychologicl Science, 30 April 2013. [Online]. Available: https://www.psychologicalscience.org/observer/the-compassionate-mind.
- K. Bluth and K. D. Neff, “New frontiers in understanding the benefits of self-compassion,” Self and Identity, vol. 17, no. 6, pp. 605-608, 2018.
- A. Lutz, J. Brefczynski-Lewis, T. Johnstone and R. J. Davidson, “Regulation of the Neural Circuitry of Emotion by Compassion Meditation: Effects of Meditative Expertise,” PLOS ONE, vol. 3, no. 3, 2008.
- S. Dunne, D. Sheffield and J. Chilcot, “To understand and cultivate compassion, let’s start with human suffering and why embracing it is (paradoxically) the secret to a happier life.,” Journal of Health Psychology, vol. 23, no. 7, 2016.
- S. Sinclair, S. McClement, S. Riffin-Bouchal, T. F. Hack, N. A. Hagen, S. McConnell and H. M. Chochinov, “Compassion in Health Care: An Empirical Model,” Journal of Pain and Symptom Management, vol. 51, no. 2, pp. 193-203, 2016.