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What Are the Benefits of Compassion?

Compassion can lead to powerful changes personally and in our relationships.

Key points

  • Compassion gives you purpose, is contagious, and is good for mental and physical health.
  • To survive and thrive as humans, we need to show up with compassion for ourselves and each other.
  • We have a natural capacity to feel and care for others' pain, and when we receive care from another, it regulates our distress.

Compassion is like water. It can flow over hard rocks and into tight places and softens them over time. And just as water can create the Grand Canyon, compassion over time can lead to powerful changes inside ourselves and in our relationships. Dr. Paul Gilbert describes the Three Flows of Compassion:

  1. Giving compassion: Offering support and care to another person or group who is suffering
  2. Receiving compassion: Taking in care and help when you are struggling
  3. Inner compassion: Giving compassion to yourself when you are in pain

When you consider these three flows of compassion, which come more easily to you? Which are more challenging?

To survive and thrive as humans, we need to show up with compassion for ourselves and each other.

Why Is Compassion Important?

We were born to connect. We have a natural capacity to feel and care for others' pain, and when we receive care from another, it regulates our distress (Jinpa 2015). We have a fundamental human need to join with others and a fundamental need to care for ourselves. It is through this flow of compassion that we can find purpose and meet life’s stressors with strength. There are thousands of studies on compassion, and, together, these studies show hands down that compassion is one of the most powerful agents for health and well-being (Neff 2021; Ferrari et al. 2019; Kirby, Tellegen, and Steindl 2017).

  1. Compassion gives you purpose: There’s nothing better than feeling useful. With compassion, you step out of self-focus and find a greater sense of meaning that extends beyond just you. Having a sense of purpose helps you live longer and supports a greater quality of life (Alimujiang et al. 2019). Having compassion for yourself also motivates you to change unhealthy behaviors and step out of environments and relationships that are harmful to you. Instead of trying to strong-arm yourself to change with self-criticism, with self-compassion, you make changes because you inherently care for your own well-being.
  2. Compassion is good for mental health: When we realize that we aren’t carrying our pain alone, we feel our burdens lift a little. Research into compassion shows that it is related to greater happiness and lower depression (Shapira and Mongrain 2010), promotes social connection (Seppala, Rossomando, and Doty 2013), and bolsters stable feelings of self-worth (Neff and Vonk 2009). When we offer kindness for ourselves and forgiveness for our mistakes, we can step out of anxiety, rumination, and shame. For example, something as simple as writing a compassionate letter to ourselves has been found to help us better deal with distressful life events (Leary et al. 2007).
  3. Compassion is good for physical health: Compassion helps us feel more connected and less stressed and may protect against the health consequences of loneliness (Jinpa 2015). A study of more than 2,000 people out of the University of Chicago found that extreme loneliness was twice as likely to cause death as obesity or high blood pressure (Cappiopo 2015). With compassion, you feel part of something bigger, and you feel supported in carrying life’s burdens. For example, compassion reduces physiological markers of stress (Breines et al. 2014), and individuals who score higher on compassion are better able to receive social support, which leads to a more adaptive stress response (Cosley et al. 2010). This type of connection also promotes positive aging (Phillips and Ferguson 2013) For example, volunteers live longer than nonvolunteers, but only those who volunteer for other-oriented reasons and not self-oriented reasons (Konrath et al. 2012).
  4. Compassion is contagious: Compassion inspires what Johnathan Haidt calls “elevation.” Seeing someone engaging in acts of human goodness and kindness creates a warm, uplifting feeling that motivates others to do the same. Compassion leads to an upward spiral of collective good. When we are compassionate, it releases the bonding hormone oxytocin and activates areas of our brain associated with pleasure (Esch and Stefano 2011). Compassion feels good because we are wired to connect.

As Thich Nhất Hạnh writes in The Art of Living, “When we can generate understanding and compassion in our way of being and working together, everyone we interact with feels that energy right away and is able to profit from it” (Hạnh 2017 p. 64).

To learn more about compassion and how to bring it into your daily life, listen to Dr. Diana Hill’s podcast Your Life in Process.

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