At the lowest points in our lives, the presence and care of just one supportive person can be transformative. Our pain or loss may be just as real, but we suffer less knowing that we're not alone.
Coming together in this way works a sort of alchemy, transforming one person's pain into a shared feeling of uplift. Indeed, compassion is the opposite of a zero-sum game in which there are winners and losers: Both giver and receiver benefit.
Psychology researchers have begun developing a science of compassion: What is it? What are the benefits? How can we foster it? Based on a review of studies on compassion, here's what it is, and why it's a good thing:
1. Our suffering is recognized and acknowledged.
Compassion starts with a willingness to see someone else's pain. Rather than looking away, denying the pain, or choosing to ignore it, we acknowledge the person's experience. This acknowledgment makes us feel less alone in our suffering.
2. We understand the universality of human suffering.
Part of compassion is knowing that at some point, everyone hurts. In this way the pain is relatable. While pain is a personal experience, it is also a common and unavoidable part of what it means to be human. Thus we feel a further joining with others in the shared recognition that pain is part of existence.
3. There is an emotional response to our suffering.
Compassion is not simply knowing that another person is in pain; there is an emotional component, a "feeling with," as the etymology of compassion suggests. It's comforting to feel another person's heart go out to us.
4. Compassion requires tolerating uncomfortable feelings.
While there are benefits to being compassionate, it's not easy. Connecting emotionally with another's pain activates our stress response (fight, flight, or freeze). It takes emotional work to stay with a person's pain, rather than fleeing or trying to deny it in some way (e.g., by blaming the person for their distress). When we see that a person isn't running from our pain, we're better able to withstand our own discomfort.
5. There is a motivation to alleviate our suffering.
Compassion involves feelings, but not just feelings. We would probably not feel much compassion from someone who acted sad for us, but was unwilling to help. When we respond with compassion, we're moved to act. As a result, another person's compassion can improve our situation, and we feel better just knowing someone is trying to help us.
You can probably think of people you know who seem to have a lot of compassion, and others who appear to have little. Recent studies suggest that compassion is not a fixed trait; it can improve with treatment, which in turn leads to other benefits.
A recent study by a research team in Australia summarized the effects of compassion-focused psychological treatments. Here's what they found:
First, the treatments were effective in increasing compassion. The average increase was considered "moderate," meaning we would likely notice that the person was a better version of themselves.
Those who received training in compassion experienced a range of additional benefits, including:
- Greater mindfulness. Compassion requires our presence and our acceptance, so it's not surprising that the treatments led to increases in this dimension. As we'll see below, it also makes sense given that some of the specific interventions were explicitly mindfulness-based.
- Better mood and lower anxiety. Compassion training was effective at lowering the symptoms of depression and anxiety, which is a remarkable finding. By focusing on alleviating others' suffering, we alleviate our own in the process.
- Enhanced overall well-being and lower distress. Along with greater compassion came an overall sense of wellness and ease in life. These findings again underscore that compassion is helpful all around.
A crucial finding from the review by Kirby and colleagues was that compassion training could also increase our capacity for self-compassion. Psychologist Kristin Neff, who has led the way in research on self-compassion, defines it as:
"...being touched by and open to one’s own suffering, not avoiding or disconnecting from it, generating the desire to alleviate one’s suffering and to heal oneself with kindness. Self-compassion also involves offering nonjudgmental understanding to one’s pain, inadequacies and failures, so that one’s experience is seen as part of the larger human experience."
Self-compassion is the antidote to our tendency to ignore our own needs and be critical of ourselves when we most need love and support.
Practices to Raise Compassion
How can we increase our ability to show compassion for ourselves and others? The review by Kirby et al. noted that the treatments involved some combination of these steps.
- Guided Meditation. A common practice to enhance compassion is the loving-kindness meditation. It involves deliberately fostering a sense of warmth and care for others and oneself, starting with those who are easy to love and moving gradually to more complicated relationships. Ready to give it a try? Here's an example: The Befriending Meditation from Finding Peace in a Frantic World.
- Education. Simply learning more about compassion can increase our ability to enact it. For example, it can be helpful to learn about the benefits to ourselves and others of greater compassion, and to distinguish it from other experiences, like pity or, in the case of self-compassion, being self-indulgent. We may find that just by being more aware of the concept, we're better able to practice it. Neff's book is an excellent starting point.
- Self-Reflection. When we take time to think about our own experiences of compassion, we might discover things that can get in the way. For example, we might find that being overextended lessens our access to compassionate responses, or that overly harsh expectations of ourselves make it hard to be self-compassionate. This reflection can help us discover ways to remove these blocks.
- Imagery. We often resist compassion from ourselves and even from others. It takes practice to open ourselves to receiving love and care, and that practice can begin through imagery. For example, one study asked participants to "imagine a ‘compassionate being’ expressing compassion to them." Over time, we can become more comfortable with being on the receiving end of compassion — which can also increase our ability to extend compassion to others.
- Writing. Some studies had participants write a letter to themselves from the perspective of a compassionate friend, since for some reason it's much easier to be compassionate with others than with oneself. With practice, we can begin to internalize greater compassion for ourselves. Writing (as opposed to just thinking compassionate thoughts) may be particularly beneficial, because we can be more deliberate and explicit about the words we use; it can also make it easier to commit the practice to memory so we can access it when we need to.
Have you wanted to improve your relationships and express more care and concern for the people in your life? Are you tired of beating yourself up and ready for an alternative? Consider giving one of these approaches a try.
Kirby, J. N., Tellegen, C. L., & Steindl, S. R. (2017). A meta-analysis of compassion-based interventions: Current state of knowledge and future directions. Behavior Therapy, 48, 778-792.
Neff, K. (2003). Self-compassion: An alternative conceptualization of a healthy attitude toward oneself. Self and identity, 2, 85-101.
Neff, K. D., & Pommier, E. (2013). The relationship between self-compassion and other-focused concern among college undergraduates, community adults, and practicing meditators. Self and Identity, 12, 160-176.
Strauss, C., Taylor, B. L., Gu, J., Kuyken, W., Baer, R., Jones, F., & Cavanagh, K. (2016). What is compassion and how can we measure it? A review of definitions and measures. Clinical Psychology Review, 47, 15-27.
Wong, C. C., & Mak, W. W. (2016). Writing can heal: Effects of self-compassion writing among Hong Kong Chinese college students. Asian American Journal of Psychology, 7, 74-82.