Cutthroat competition, greed and income inequality, violence in the news, road rage all around us. Is life becoming meaner and nastier by the day?
A recent New York Times article asks how parents can raise kinder and more compassionate children (Grant, 2014). The larger question is: How we can all be more compassionate?
Research reveals that our capacity for compassion can be shut down by stress (Darley & Batson, 1973) as our system shifts into fight or flight survival mode. But a promising study has shown that our capacity for compassion can be increased by only eight weeks of meditation (Condon, Desbordes, Miller, & DeSteno, 2013).
In this study, researchers in Boston randomly assigned 39 young men and women to either a either mindfulness or compassion meditation group or a wait-list control. Eight weeks later, they called participants into their research lab for testing. One at a time, the participants entered a waiting room with three chairs and young women sitting in two of them. After a participant sat down in the empty chair, another young woman came limping into the room on crutches, sighing as she leaned against the wall. Participants’ compassion was measured by whether or not they offered their seat to the woman on crutches.
Remarkably, the participants in the meditation groups offered their chairs to the victim more than five times more often than the controls. The participants’ gender made no difference, nor did the form of meditation. Thus, after only eight weeks of meditation, people became significantly more compassionate.
Previous research has shown that people who meditate have higher levels of empathy, emotional maturity, moral and cognitive development. They respond to stress with significantly lower anxiety, hostility, and depression, and are significantly healthier (Walsh & Shapiro, 2006). Research has also shown that meditation increases self-compassion (Neff, 2011), and that compassion for others includes compassion for ourselves, for both forms of compassion involve the same brain regions, the insula and temporo-parietal junction (Hölzel et al., 2011).
We can apply this research to our own lives and begin creating a more compassionate world by:
- Managing our stress levels with a regular meditation practice, and
- Practicing self-compassion: being kinder to ourselves and stopping all that negative self-talk.
We can also participate in an international campaign to promote compassion by signing the charter for compassion at http://www.charterforcompassion.org
Condon, P., Desbordes, G., Miller, W. B., & DeSteno, D. (2013). Meditation increases compassionate responses to suffering. Psychological Science, 24, 2125-2127.
Darley, J. M. & Batson, C. D. (1973). “From Jerusalem to Jericho”: A study of situation and dispositional variables in helping behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 27, 100-108.
Grant, A. (2014, April 13). Raising a moral child. The New York Times, pp. B1,B6-B7.
Hölzel, B. K., Lazar, S. W., Gard, T., Schuman-Olivier, Z., Vago., D. R., & Ott, U. (2011). How does mindfulness work? Proposing mechanisms of action from a conceptual and neural perspective. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 6, 537-559.
Neff, K. (2011). Self-compassion: Stop beating yourself up and leave insecurity behind. New York, NY: William Morrow.
Walsh, R., & Shapiro, S. L. (2006). The meeting of meditative disciplines and western psychology: A mutually enriching dialogue. American Psychologist, 61, 227-239.
Diane Dreher is a best-selling author, personal coach, and professor at Santa Clara University. Her latest book is Your Personal Renaissance: 12 Steps to Finding Your Life’s True Calling.
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