Compassion is an innate human quality, according to researchers. Therefore, we are all born with the tendency to be generous and kind to others.
However, as we age, all of us face challenging circumstances and feel emotional pain at one time or another. These experiences can stand in the way of our natural compassion. That’s because it’s hard to feel love and compassion for others when we feel empty ourselves.
The good news is that compassion is like a muscle that can be strengthened with practice. And more good news: it has proven mental health benefits.
“Compassion reduces our fear, boosts our confidence, and opens us to inner strength.”
—The Dalai Lama
What Is Compassion?
Compassion is defined as the ability to understand the emotional state of another person. Moreover, it encompasses understanding our own emotional state.
As a result, compassion motivates us to help and support others—and ourselves. It inspires us to do what we can to ease another person’s suffering. In fact, compassion literally means, “to suffer together.”
Many people confuse compassion with empathy. And they are closely related. Empathy refers to our ability to imagine ourselves in someone else’s place. Therefore, we experience the emotions of the other person. Compassion goes beyond empathy. Consequently, compassion involves feeling the desire to help.
Living a Compassionate Life
We can learn to become more compassionate in the ways that we think and act. Author and spiritual teacher Deepak Chopra says that living a compassionate life includes the following:
- Letting go of judgment
- Becoming more accepting of others
- Appreciating how other people feel
- Trying to help in difficult situations
- Acting as a sympathetic listener
- Renouncing anger and aggression
- Working to maintain a harmonious, peaceful atmosphere at home and at work.
Along with cultivating more compassionate behavior, we can strengthen our “compassion muscle” in other ways.
A Meditation for Compassionate Presence, with Jona Genova
Jona Genova is an energy healer and meditation teacher at Newport Academy. Jona brings more than 20 years of devoted study and practice to her teaching and healing work. In addition, she has a background in brain-mapping research.
In this video, Jona offers a meditation for compassionate presence. Before you begin watching, find a comfortable place to sit. Then take a couple of moments to meditate with Jona’s guidance. Just two minutes of meditation can have lasting effects throughout the day.
The Link Between Mindfulness and Compassion
Meditation practices like the one in the video increase compassion, according to research. In one study, some participants meditated while others did not. Then they were put in a waiting room. Next, an actor entered on crutches, pretending to be in great pain. As a result, the participants who had been meditating were 50 percent more likely to help the person in pain.
The link between mindfulness and compassion is clear. Mindfulness means that you are experiencing greater awareness of what’s happening in the present moment. Thus, you notice everything that is happening around and inside you. As a result, you can more easily access your emotions, including compassion.
This is one of the reasons why mindfulness meditation is an integral part of Newport Academy’s holistic treatment philosophy. Mindfulness creates a foundation of calm. And it also encourages self-reflection. When a therapy session begins with meditation, adolescents participate with greater intent, comfort, and ease.
The Benefits of Meditation
Moreover, meditation has other benefits. In fact, a study at John Hopkins University found that meditation had the same effect on symptoms of anxiety and depression as antidepressants. Meditation has also been proven to
- Decrease “wandering mind,” which is associated with unhappiness
- Increase empathy
- Decrease symptoms of ADHD
- Boost concentration and attention.
Furthermore, a practice known as loving-kindness meditation (LKM) has been proven to increase feelings of compassion and love.
A Compassion-Building Meditation Practice
A study at Stanford’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education found that LKM successfully improved the ability to express compassion. Moreover, it increased participant’s ability to receive compassion from others. In addition, the practice helped people to be more self-compassionate.
Furthermore, another study compared the brains of people who had practiced LKM for at least 10,000 hours with people who were new to meditation. As a result, researchers found that LKM meditators showed more activity in the insula and the temporal parietal juncture. These are two parts of the brain responsible for the ability to empathize.
In addition, researchers at Stanford University found that just seven minutes of LKM increased participants’ feelings of social connection toward others. “These results suggest that this easily implemented technique may help to increase positive social emotions and decrease social isolation,” the study authors wrote.
How to Practice Loving-Kindness Meditation
These instructions for loving-kindness meditation come from Gil Fronsdal of the Insight Meditation Center in Redwood City, California, and the Insight Retreat Center in Santa Cruz, California.
- Sit in a comfortable and relaxed manner.
- Take three deep breaths with slow, long, and complete exhalations. Let go of any concerns.
- Next, imagine the breath moving through the center of your chest, in the area of your heart.
- Since we often have difficulty loving others without first loving ourselves, begin by focusing well wishes on yourself. Thus, sitting quietly, mentally repeat, slowly and steadily, the following or similar phrases: May I be happy, May I be well, May I be safe, May I be peaceful and at ease.
- While you say these phrases, allow yourself to sink into the intentions they express. Furthermore, allow any feeling of warmth, love, and happiness to grow.
- Subsequently, bring to mind a loved one or someone else in your life that you are deeply connected to. Then slowly repeat phrases of loving-kindness toward them: May you be happy, May you be well, May you be safe, May you be peaceful and at ease.
- As you continue the meditation, bring to mind other loved ones, as well as neighbors, acquaintances, strangers, and even animals. Finally, send loving-kindness toward people with whom you have difficulty. You can use the same phrases, repeating them again. Or you can make up phrases that better represent the loving-kindness you feel toward these beings.
- Sometimes during loving-kindness meditation, seemingly opposite feelings, such as anger, grief, or sadness may arise. Take these as signs that your heart is softening, revealing what is held there, and direct loving-kindness toward these feelings. Above all, remember that there is no need to judge yourself.
Wired for Compassion
Research by Kiley Hamlin at the University of British Columbia suggests that we come into the world wired for kindness and compassion.
In one study, Hamlin found that toddlers exhibit greater happiness when giving treats to others than when receiving treats themselves. Furthermore, children displayed greater happiness after engaging in “costly giving”—forfeiting their own resources—than when giving the same treat at no cost.
The researchers see these findings as support for the theory that humans experience positive feelings when we help each other. Therefore, we are wired for cooperation. Such cooperation helped us survive and flourish as a species. For early man, cooperation was necessary when hunting, building shelter, and doing other tasks necessary for survival.
Today, we do not rely as much on cooperation with others to ensure our survival. However, positive social connections are still vital for our physical and mental health and well-being.
Why Compassion Is Good For Us
Research has documented the positive impact of compassion. Here are some of the evidence-based effects of compassion.
“The warm glow”: Compassionate action—such as giving money to charity—activates pleasure circuits in the brain. In addition, it stimulates the release of oxytocin, known as “the love hormone.”
“Helper’s high”: Moreover, engaging in acts of kindness toward others has been shown to increase well-being. In one study, participants who were randomly assigned to spend money on others experienced greater happiness than those assigned to spend money on themselves.
“The carryover effect”: Extending compassion toward others shifts the brain toward a more positive orientation. As a result, when we are compassionate, we tend to notice the positive things happening around us.
A chain reaction: Social scientists at Harvard proved that helping others is contagious. Thus, witnessing acts of kindness and compassion inspires others to be their best selves.
“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”
—The Dalai Lama
Why Self-Compassion Matters
In addition to offering compassion to others, we need to offer it to ourselves. Research on self-compassion shows that it has multiple positive benefits, including
- Increased happiness
- Greater optimism
- More positive mood
- Decreased stress
- Stronger personal initiative
- A sense of curiosity and exploration
- Better ability to relate to others.
How to Cultivate Self-Compassion
Self-compassion is different than self-esteem. Self-esteem depends on our accomplishments and on others’ opinions of us. However, self-compassion involves a consistent attitude of acceptance and kindness toward ourselves, no matter what.
To practice self-compassion, begin by noticing how you talk to yourself. If you notice that your thoughts are usually critical, negative, or judging, examine how you can shift them. Imagine speaking to yourself as you would speak to someone you love and want to comfort.
Directing LKM toward oneself is another way to enhance self-compassion.
A Daily Affirmation to Enhance Mindfulness and Compassion
Setting an intention each day is another way to cultivate compassion. Here is an intention offered by Thupten Jinpa, the Dalai Lama’s English-language translator and author of A Fearless Heart: How the Courage to Be Compassionate Can Transform Our Lives.
This day, I will make my day meaningful.
I will as much as possible try to bring conscious intention into my interaction with others. I will as much as possible, when the opportunity arises, be kind to others and at least refrain from harming others.
I’ll be more mindful.
I’ll be caring and concerned for other people in my life.
In this way, I’ll make my day meaningful.
Recognizing Our Commonalities
Remembering the similarities between others and ourselves helps us cultivate compassion. When we focus on what we have in common, we feel closer to one another. Therefore, compassion comes more easily.
This five-step exercise can be done internally, while focusing on another person—a friend, stranger, or even someone with whom you have a difficult relationship.
1: “Just like me, this person is seeking happiness in their life.”
2: “Just like me, this person is trying to avoid suffering in their life.”
3: “Just like me, this person has known sadness, loneliness and despair.”
4: “Just like me, this person is seeking to fill their needs.”
5: “Just like me, this person is learning about life.”
In conclusion, there are many powerful ways to boost compassion and self-compassion. These approaches might take some practice, but the mental health benefits are worth it.
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