3 Ways to Keep Sane and Find Happiness at Work and Home
Compassion is not just for caregivers. It nourishes us at work and home.
Posted September 18, 2019 | Reviewed by Hara Estroff Marano
If you hang out at a hospital long enough, sooner or later you'll hear the words "compassionate care." Those who have the job title "Compassionate Care Manager" are in the business of making compassion a real-world concept in hospice and other treatment centers. Yes, compassion is about suffering—in fact, it actually translates as to be with suffering —so it makes perfect sense to include it as essential care for the sick.
But what about the rest of us leading our ordinary lives? Can't we, too, benefit from compassion? Turns out we can, and there's a ton of research showing the benefits.
Compassion seems to be built into us by turning on the brain's anterior cingulate gyrus, which integrates emotions and thought to help us pause and process our experiences. It also lights up when we see others suffering.
This fundamentally connects to mindfulness because, at its core, mindfulness teaches us to notice the varieties of suffering to which all humans are subject. This includes everything from subtle forms of attachment, such as desire and craving, to more obvious forms of harm related to greed, hatred, delusion, and aversion.
Deepening our awareness and recognition of suffering matters because it directly impacts us in daily life. A study in the Journal of Happiness Studies showed several benefits of a compassion cultivation training program. Those in the program were rated according to three domains of compassion. These included, 1) compassion for others, 2) receiving compassion from others, and 3) self-compassion. The study found that all three types of compassion were significantly increased.
You might think of these results as opening the tender heart or enlarging one's compassion container. Why does this matter? Let's consider three scenarios of how compassion can broaden your perspective and increase your happiness as a result:
Scenario 1: It's a sunny day and you're jamming to your favorite music in the car when someone cuts you off, causing you to swerve and barely avoid a horrible accident. If you're not tuned into the compassion channel, you might react in a number of ways. You could, for example, escalate the event by chasing after the offender. Or, you might carry negative emotions with you throughout the entire day, replaying the event in your mind along with an angry, running commentary.
Conversely, if you were to take a compassionate perspective, you might stop and think about how the other driver's actions were likely due to suffering—such as being late for work, being inattentive, or being self-centered. In this case, you more easily calm yourself down, let go of negativity, and come back to the present moment. You might even send thoughts of loving-kindness to the other driver.
Scenario 2: You're at work and just finished a project that you are proud of when a co-worker says something uncharacteristically harsh. You could let this criticism deflate your mood, or you could think about the stress or concerns that a person is experiencing—which may be totally unrelated to the workplace. You decide to forbear and to send loving and compassionate thoughts to your co-worker.
Scenario 3: You have just spent an hour in the kitchen preparing a fabulous dinner. But your partner enters the house ready to explode from toxic levels of anger and stress at their workplace. You show compassion but are completely ignored. Instead of stewing and getting angry in response, you could transform the moment by sending self-compassion toward yourself as a way to reset and prepare to re-engage later with your partner.
Each of the above scenarios illustrates how compassion can dramatically shift one's perspective, and not in a phony or false way. This is a genuine and honest way of understanding suffering for what it is, and then trying to help alleviate it. After all, aren't most people are trying to do the best they can under the circumstances?
Acceptance for the uncontrollable and unpredictable nature of life recalls another important key benefit of compassion, as explored in an article published the journal Mindfulness : The ability to regulate affect or mood. Mood regulation is critical when dealing with stresses that cannot otherwise be avoided. Compassion is a healing salve that gives ourselves, as well as others, a second chance at finding relief.
Growing compassion is a big part of all my workshops. While this article can't guide you through the experiential aspects of sitting in compassion with another person, the three practices below will help to keep you sane and happy in our often stress-filled and chaotic world.
3-Steps to Deepen Connections with Compassion
Reflect on Suffering. Look with a penetrating awareness at whatever (or whoever) is causing you suffering. If you are in a human body and have a human mind you will experience grief, loss, and sadness. Those things that you strongly grasp onto or try to avoid are also forms of suffering. Let the truth of suffering soften your heart. This universal truth of suffering binds you more closely to others than the differences that you imagine separates you from others.
Send Compassion Inward. Recognition of suffering naturally grows compassion. So practice noticing your own times of suffering or dissatisfaction. This could be your own feeling that you don't measure up, your sense of wanting things to be different from the way they are, or whatever sadness you carry with you on your life journey. Then, sit in a quiet place and be with yourself in a kind, caring, hospitable and gentle way. You might even place your hands over your heart, holding it with care. Or, wrap your own arms around your shoulders in a hugging and loving embrace of your whole being.
See the Uniqueness of Each Being. Imagine you had the X-ray power to look through someone's eyes and see directly into their brain. There, you would find 100 billion neurons, each one with connections to up to 50,000 other neurons. The sum total of all these connections? It's actually greater than the number of all the stars in the universe. This vast 'innerverse' as I refer to it, is what makes you (and every person you meet today) the most unique human being in all the universe.
With the next person you meet, sit in wonder and with a tender and vulnerable heart. If it helps, temporarily let go of your assumptions or opinions about this person. Be curious as you sense the commonality that binds you together. In this way, you can invite compassionate presence to the precious one who is right at your side.