Compassion can be hard to find these days. Many fail to understand how essential kindness is to our survival and happiness as human beings. For some, compassion isn’t valuable at all. It might even be scorned. It’s seen as a weakness and opportunity to be taken advantage of. In the words of the Dalai Lama, “Compassion and tolerance are not a sign of weakness, but a sign of strength.” Compassion improves individuals’ health and lives, fuels positive change in societies, and supports the most vulnerable.
Humans are naturally geared toward compassion
Research shows how compassion affects our brains. When someone feels compassion, their heart rate slows down. The brain releases hormones like oxytocin, which is often called the love hormone. It may have benefits such as easing depression and anxiety symptoms. Compassion also increases brain activity in areas associated with caregiving, empathy, and pleasure. This activity encourages humans to act on their feelings and help others. Dacher Keltner, author of Born To Be Good, states that traits like generosity and self-sacrifice are found in evolutionary processes. It only follows that humans would develop emotions like compassion.
This natural inclination to compassion isn’t limited to modern-day humans. According to a 2018 analysis of Neanderthal healthcare, evidence suggests that Neanderthals cared for their peers without considering what they could get in return. This goes against the common belief that Neanderthrals were brutal and heartless compared to homo sapiens. Even animals like monkeys, elephants, and dogs show kindness to one another. This suggests compassion is a vital part of survival for many species outside of humans.
Compassion makes us happier and healthier
If humans are naturally compassionate, what are the benefits? When most people feel compassion and help others, they report feeling happier. We can see evidence of this in scientific research. In one brain-imaging study, the parts of the brain associated with pleasure lit up when the person received money and when they saw a charity getting money. In another experiment involving money, participants actually felt happier when they spent money on other people instead of themselves. Compassion and happiness are linked.
How does health play into this? It makes sense that happier people tend to be healthier. Research suggests that connecting with others in a positive way – which requires compassion – leads to faster healing and even a longer lifespan. On a biological level, this could be because compassion contributes to lower levels of inflammation. Inflammation is the root cause (or at least a major contributor) to many health problems. People who are stressed and unhappy tend to have high inflammation. Living life with a greater purpose that involves helping others could lead to less stress and therefore less inflammation.
Compassion towards self has many benefits
When talking about compassion, we can’t ignore the importance of self-compassion. Self-loathing and low self-esteem negatively impact a person’s entire life. Research suggests that constantly criticizing yourself increases your risk of depression. If you expect perfection, you’ll always be disappointed. That’s no way to live. On the other hand, practicing compassion toward yourself and acknowledging your humanness benefit your life. It’s associated with a lower risk of anxiety and depression. Kindness towards self mitigates the effects of stress and actually changes the body’s chemistry. On a biological and emotional level, self-compassion leads to healing and thriving.
Many people find self-compassion more challenging than compassion for others. In recent years, there’s been more focus on this area. This interest has created lots of resources for anyone struggling to feel kind towards themselves. Therapy with a qualified professional is a great way to build positive habits and change negative thought patterns. Mindfulness exercises and journaling are also common frameworks. Compassion is like a muscle – it gets stronger the more you work it out.
Compassion means seeing outside yourself and taking action
Many people use compassion and empathy interchangeably. They are slightly different. Empathy is the ability to see another’s perspective and understand what they’re feeling. Empathy, by itself, doesn’t necessarily lead to any type of response. Compassion is what you get when you combine empathy with action. Compassion drives people to do something about another person’s situation. It motivates them to help others, especially the most vulnerable in society, without expecting a reward.
If the world was made up of people who only cared about themselves, we would be in a constant state of conflict, destruction, and tragedy. We already get a taste of that since we live in a world where societal institutions and laws are frequently developed without compassion. Things only get better when people step outside themselves and put kindness into action.