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The Compassionate Route to Becoming a Happier Person

New research suggests the benefits of compassion for your health and happiness.

The desire to help other people can take many forms. In some cases, the help involves showing concern to a stranger. You can fight off the urge toward diffusion of responsibility, and lend a hand to someone who’s tripped on the crack on a crowded sidewalk. Perhaps you notice that someone seems lost and so, in a tactful way, you offer to provide instructions. Maybe someone doesn’t seem to need help now, but will if that very loose sneaker shoelace comes untied, as it could at any moment.

When it comes to helping people you know, that urge to help would be more likely to involve acting in a way that will benefit them in a larger sense. A younger sibling is going through a rough time at work, and so you arrange for the two of you to meet over a cup of coffee so you can offer some advice (if not direct help). A neighbor may seem to be struggling with hauling out a large bag of recycling, so you go over and help get the bundle where it needs to be.

Helping people may also be part of your job. In retail work, you may be paid to help customers find the best products or resolve a complaint. People who work in health care help alleviate the pain, both mental and physical, of their patients. Being able to listen and then do something to assist those in need is arguably one of the most rewarding features of their work, even though it can be taxing.

Research on helping behavior tends to focus on such qualities as empathy and altruism rather than compassion itself. In calling for the need for more research on compassion, Aino Saarinen and colleagues (2019) of the University of Oulu in Finland note that unlike empathy, which involves being able to share other people’s positive and negative feelings, compassion refers to “concern for other’s suffering and a desire to alleviate it” (p. 1).

Within the framework of positive psychology, there is reason to expect that having a compassionate nature should theoretically promote well-being, but the area remains relatively unexplored in research. The Finnish authors note that correlational studies support the existence of a relationship between compassion-like concepts and higher life satisfaction, happiness, positive mood, and social connections. These compassion-like concepts include kindness, altruism, empathy, and altruism or prosociality. Higher self-compassion, or acceptance of oneself, is also related to better well-being, but compassion toward yourself is not exactly like compassion toward others, as the Finnish research team points out.

There is a bit of conundrum in the prior research on compassion-like qualities and well-being. If you are too empathic and altruistic toward others, you may actually be at risk of depression. As they suggest, “practicing empathic resonance to human suffering increases negative affect because of increased stress levels, whereas practicing compassion decreases negative affect and increases positive affect” (p. 2). In other words, feeling other people’s pain, but not doing anything to alleviate it, could cause you to focus on the negative aspects of your own experiences. In compassion, furthermore, you’re doing something to help rather than sitting by passively and watching as the other person suffers.

Think back now on the last customer service agent who helped talk you through a tech issue with your internet connection. You were frustrated, perhaps to the point of tears, when you began the call, and even more frantic after having been placed on hold before this person came on the line. Imagine if the agent began to rant and rave with you, tearfully letting you know how terrible the situation is. It’s doubtful that the agent would feel particularly useful or satisfied in the moment. Imagine, instead, that the agent began to ask you diagnostic questions that pinpointed the cause of the issue, eventually leading to a solution. You certainly feel better now, and it’s likely that your tech-savvy agent also seems glad to have contributed to the happy outcome.

Saarinen and his fellow researchers expanded the study of compassion and well-being not only by examining this relationship directly, but by using a longitudinal design to track the course of changes in compassion as they relate to changes in well-being. The authors used data from a nationally representative sample known as the Young Finns Study, which began in 1980 with 3,596 participants (over 6 age subgroups) randomly selected from 6 age cohorts born between 1962 and 1972. The study covered the three time points of 1997, 2001, and 2012, with data on between 1312 and 1699 participants (depending on the measures analyzed). By the final testing, in 2012, the participants were between the ages of 35 and 50.

The study design allowed the authors to track the development of compassion in relation to well-being measures obtained at the same testing points. The authors tested their model by analyzing changes in compassion scores over time, changes in positive and negative affect and changes in support. In this model, compassion scores in 1997 were tested as predictors of affect and social support in 2001, and the 2001 compassion scores were tested as predictors of these outcome measures in 2012. The authors were also able to control for demographic variables within this overall model.

To measure compassion, Saarinen and colleagues used a subscale of cooperativeness on a personality inventory which had ratings scales of items such as: “It gives me pleasure to see my enemies suffer” (reverse-scored), “It gives me pleasure to help others, even if they have treated me badly,” and “I hate to see anyone suffer.” The measures of so-called “affective” (emotional) well-being included scales of positive affect (“generally, I feel happy”) and negative affect (“I have fewer fears than other people my age”—reverse scored). A separate scale of so-called “cognitive well-being” tapped into perceived social support (“my friends always help me when I need help”), life satisfaction (“how satisfied are you with your life?”), subjective health (“what is your health like compared to others your age?”), and optimism (“during uncertain times, I believe that things will usually be resolved in the best possible way”).

You might wonder whether the people who remained in the study over that long interval were any different than those who dropped out before the study’s end. In fact, analysis of drop-out effects showed that those who did remain in the study were older than those who dropped out, had more positive affect, and came from families with higher social class and education. This loss of participants over time is unfortunately one of the drawbacks of long-term follow-up studies, as quite often the participants who are initially more able and motivated are the ones who stick it out for the entire period of an investigation.

The test of the model showed that, as the authors predicted, people higher in compassion showed patterns of continued high levels of both affective and cognitive well-being, with higher positive and lower negative affect, higher life satisfaction, greater optimism, and higher ratings of social support. Additionally, although to a lesser extent, high compassion scores even predicted higher subjective ratings of health. Based on these findings, then, you can see that being the type of person who not only can listen, but who is able to help, is one key factor in helping to maintain your well-being.

The effect of high compassion on social support is also of interest given how important social support is to overall psychological health. Tracing the pattern of social support over time for those participants who were low, medium, and high in compassion, the authors observed that the highly compassionate were initially higher in social support and continued to increase over time to retain their superiority to the other two groups. Indeed, as the authors point out, “compassionate individuals have more affiliative goals in social relationships,” (p. 8), which makes sense given the definition of compassion as including a desire not to see even your enemies suffer. When you think of the people you like to be with, it is most likely the ones who seem truly “nice,” who will listen sympathetically and then try to help, and who don’t seem to harbor angry feelings toward even the people who aren’t that nice to them. You may not want to be best friends with a helpful customer service agent, but you wouldn’t mind receiving that person’s help the next time you have a problem.

To sum up, having a compassionate disposition appears to provide people with key psychological benefits that include not only better mood, but also better health (self-rated), and a broader network of friends and supporters. If you don’t feel that you’d receive high marks on that compassionate index, the items themselves provide you with guidance about how you could nudge up your scores. Over time, if this study’s findings are any indication, you’ll be able to reap the benefits in your long-term fulfillment.

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Saarinen, A. I. L., Keltikangas-Järvinen, L., Pulkki-Råback, L., Cloninger, C. R., Elovainio, M., Lehtimäki, T., … Hintsanen, M. (2019). The relationship of dispositional compassion with well-being: A study with a 15-year prospective follow-up. The Journal of Positive Psychology. doi:10.1080/17439760.2019.1663251