- Compassion is not only about helping others, but also truly seeing others’ needs.
- Our tendency to want to avoid negative feelings can influence our compassionate response.
- Culture affects how people conceptualize compassion and how they express it.
- Compassion can help us find meaning in life and accrue well-being—not just for others, but also for ourselves.
If a group of alien tourists on a spectacular intergalactic cruise were to make a brief pit-stop on the third planet from the sun this afternoon, they would likely be left a little baffled.
So much beauty these Earthlings live with, they would shake their pointy heads, and so much pain.
Then, one of the tourists, a dilettante linguist who majored in Exotic Languages of the Milky Way in college, would remember a word from some language (German, he suspects) that would best describe the Earth’s current zeitgeist: Weltschmerz. “World pain” in its literal translation, Weltschmerz refers to the existential weariness and despair in response to the state of the world, he would explain, raising his long index finger.
Where There Is Suffering, There Is Compassion
While the alien visitors might not understand the sources of our suffering (news of Earth-bound calamities may not reach their airwaves in a timely fashion), they would soon discern another phenomenon that helps define the human condition, something that resides right next to human suffering: compassion (in Sanskrit karuṇā, in Japanese omoiyari, in Danish medfølelse, the polyglot guest adds proudly).
Decades of research have revealed fascinating insights into how the evolutionary-driven mechanism of wanting to relieve another’s suffering can have profound implications on our own well-being. Charles Darwin described compassion as one of our most noble characteristics. Albert Einstein was convinced that the way out of our self-imposed prisons of caring only about ourselves is through “widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
Zen Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh taught about inter-being—our sacred interconnectedness with each other. Just as flowers contain in them the sun, the rain, the earth, he wrote, just as the whole planet “is one giant, living, breathing cell, with all its working parts linked in symbiosis,” so are our human lives, with our ten thousand joys and ten thousand sorrows, interwoven with others, near and far.
Psychologist Birgit Koopmann-Holm studies compassion across cultures. Among her most important insights is that compassion is not just about helping others. It’s also about stepping back and truly seeing the other’s needs.
Here are 9 questions with Dr. Koopmann-Holm on compassion.
What is compassion?
Compassion is a complex emotion with multiple components. The first step involves the willingness to notice others’ suffering. The second step is the desire and motivation to alleviate their suffering.
What moves us towards compassion?
There are different models that explain why we help others in need. Some people experience personal distress from seeing others suffer. Thus, sometimes, their motivation to help may stem from their bid to get rid of their own distress. Another possibility is more altruistic and has to do with an empathic concern. That’s when people feel empathy and are therefore compelled to alleviate the suffering.
How does wanting to avoid negative feelings affect our ability to be compassionate?
In our lab, we studied how people’s wish to avoid feeling negative emotions affected their compassionate response. We presented participants across cultures with different images that depicted suffering (for example, a car accident or a homeless person) and participants indicated what they remembered seeing (for example, the homeless man or the beautiful car behind him).
We found that the more people wanted to avoid feeling negative, the less they actually reported seeing the negative aspects of the images, or even perceived negative images from ambiguous scenes. Thus, our emotional goals affect what we perceive, and consequently, how we respond. If you are not even willing to notice suffering, then you might miss the chance to be compassionate.
If our natural tendency is to avoid negative feelings, why do we lean into someone else’s suffering?
There are individual and cultural differences in how much people want to avoid feeling negative emotions. Some people are determined to avoid them at all costs. Most of us don’t ideally want to feel negative emotions—they just don’t feel good. But there’s a difference between accepting negative emotions when we do feel them and pushing them out, even at the slightest sign of anger, fear, or sadness.
I think it all comes down to human connection. When you see others suffering, you might recognize your own previous experience of pain, which then propels you towards connection and helping others to alleviate their suffering.
Our research suggests that when people are exposed to negative events in their lives, it can make them less avoidant of negative emotions. They become more OK with feeling those emotions.
It’s similar to exposure therapy. If you are afraid of snakes, you avoid them. But after enough exposure to snakes, you learn that your fear isn’t going to kill you and you start avoiding them less. If people can focus less on themselves and the negativity that they experience when they see others suffer, then maybe they’d be more compelled to help.
How does culture influence compassion?
Culture influences many aspects of compassion, including its conception, experience, and expression. What do people from different cultures think it means to be compassionate?
My colleague Jeanne Tsai and I explored this by looking at how participants in the U.S. and Germany used sympathy cards to express compassion. We found that even between those two Western cultures, there were differences in what people thought was an appropriate compassionate response.
For instance, in the United States, when responding to others’ suffering, people tend to focus more on the positive. They may send sympathy cards with messages such as, “May your memories bring you comfort.” In Germany, the focus is more on the negative. Sympathy cards may read, “Words will not lighten a heavy heart.” Furthermore, the German sympathy cards tend to be black and white, while the American cards tend to use pastel colors and living images.
In another study, we investigated what compassionate response people wished to receive when they themselves were suffering. We found that, again, for the Americans, sympathy cards that focused on the positive felt more compassionate, helpful, and comforting. The opposite was true for the Germans. For them, the cards that echoed their pain felt more comforting and compassionate.
We also did a study where we asked participants to select faces that looked most compassionate from 300 different face pairs. Our findings revealed that for the Americans, the compassionate face has a slight smile. Not a big, happy smile, but a gentle smile nonetheless—possibly to indicate that things will be fine.
On the other hand, in Germany, the conceptualization of a compassionate face is actually the mirroring of others’ distress. In fact, our study with participants from Ecuador, China, and Burkina Faso showed that for them too, similar to the Germans, a compassionate face mirrors their distress and is less positive compared to the U.S.
One explanation that accounts for these cultural differences is our preference for certain affective states. The more you want to avoid feeling negative emotions, the less you’d think that compassionate responses should include those states. If you really don’t want to feel bad and someone mirrors your distress back to you, you wouldn’t likely consider it as the most helpful response.
What is your advice for showing compassion to someone from another culture who is suffering?
Start with being humble. Don’t automatically assume that you know exactly what they need. You could ask them what you could do to help. You could watch them and try to understand their cultural context and their individual circumstances. Also, stay authentic—don’t do something that you don’t think is the right thing to do.
Are some cultures more compassionate than others?
There are cross-cultural studies on how much people help others in need, for instance when they see a blind person crossing the street. Some of these studies found that in Latin American cultures, where the term simpatia is very prevalent, or in poorer countries, people tend to be more “compassionate.” However, we should take these findings with a grain of salt, because when Western researchers decide what compassion looks like in other cultures, they might be overlooking other important forms of compassion.
How can compassion benefit our well-being?
I wish the focus of well-being would tilt more towards compassion, gratitude, and awe instead of happiness, as it’s prevalent in Western cultures. Research shows again and again that wanting to pursue happiness actually backfires unless we define happiness in an interdependent way (for example, in terms of our connection with others). This finding has been replicated across many cultures. When we step back from our own wants and think of others, ironically, it makes us happier. Thus, compassion along with other socially engaging emotions might be the key to finding meaning in life and accruing well-being—not just for others, but also for ourselves.
How can we become more compassionate?
Try being more accepting of negative emotions in general. Even if we are inclined on focusing on the positive, being less afraid of the negative can help us see others’ needs more clearly.
As the spaceship soared into the vast blackness, the passenger who had dreamt of visiting the marvelous Earth since his youth remembered another word from his textbooks. It was a word full of hope and kindness, vulnerability and responsibility (classically earthly concepts); a word that revealed that despite their differences, humans shared the sacred bond of belonging to one family. (Oh, what he would have given to be a part of that family!)
Ubuntu (in Zulu, he was certain). I am because we are.
"I’m rooting for you, Earthlings," he would mutter under his breath, peering longingly at the dazzling blue jewel getting smaller and smaller beneath him. "Look after each other, and your one, precious home."
Many thanks to Birgit Koopmann-Holm for her time and insights. Dr. Koopmann-Holm is an Assistant Professor in Psychology at Santa Clara University.
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