Why Does Compassion Feel So Good?
At the lowest points in our lives, the presence and care of one supportive person can be life-changing. Our pain or loss may be just as real, but we suffer less knowing we’re not alone.
Coming together in this way works in 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.
One wonders about compassion: What is it? What are the benefits? How can we foster it? Here is why compassion is a good thing:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Compassion requires tolerating uncomfortable feelings. While there are benefits to being compassionate, it’s also not easy. Connecting emotionally with another’s pain activates our stress response (fight-or-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.
- 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 have little. Recent studies suggest that compassion is not a fixed trait; it can improve with treatment, which in turn leads to other benefits.
Those who practice compassion experienced a range of additional benefits, including:
- Greater personal presense. Compassion requires our presence and our acceptance, so it’s not surprising that the treatments led to increases in this dimension.
- Better mood and lower anxiety. Compassion prectice is effective at lowering 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.
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
So 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:
- Loving and kindness drills. A common practice to enhance compassion is the loving-kindness drills. 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.
- 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.
- 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.