I was surprised to find there are many variations on the definition of compassion, but this one from Merriam Webster is my favorite. Compassion is the sympathetic consciousness of others' distress together with a desire to alleviate it. I really like the use of sympathetic consciousness here and had to stop myself from going down the rabbit hole on that set of words alone. This definition is close to how compassion is defined by emotion researchers as the feeling that arises when you are confronted with another’s suffering and feel motivated to relieve that suffering.
Compassion is often noted in discussions of empathy and altruism, and while related, compassion is its own distinct emotional state. According to the Greater Good Science Center “While empathy refers more generally to our ability to take the perspective of and feel the emotions of another person, compassion is when those feelings and thoughts include the desire to help. Altruism, in turn, is the kind, selfless behavior often prompted by feelings of compassion, though one can feel compassion without acting on it, and altruism isn’t always motivated by compassion.”
While empathy can be a state that can tire us out and be painful as we feel what others are feeling, compassion arises with a much needed separation and can exist as a joyful and giving state of being.
Compassion as a human emotional state has evolutionary origins. Research shows that when we experience compassion we secrete oxytocin, our heart rate slows and regions of the brain in the supramarginal gyrus linked to empathy, pleasure and caregiving light up resulting in our desire to care for others. The real interesting nugget in the neuroscience here is that human beings are egocentric by nature but this part of the brain, the supramarginal gyrus actually recognizes when we are lacking empathy and attempts to auto correct. But when we are forced to make quick decisions, this part of the brain that helps us differentiate our own emotional state from that of other people is compromised and our capacity for empathy and compassion is greatly reduced. Wild, right? This says a lot about our collective state right now. If we are fatigued from having to make about a million decisions in the past two years I imagine this leaves us a little depleted in the compassion department. Which is sadly ironic, as compassion is exactly one of the states that will help us recover.
The encouraging news, is that just like basically every other good for you emotional state, compassion is a skill that can be strengthened through daily practice. And strengthening this compassion muscle results in better coping, resilience, and overall capacity for stress.
In fact, Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education has created an 8 week training program specifically designed to increase compassion, improve self-compassion and reduce the fear associated with cultivating self-compassion and compassion for others.
As an everyday practice though, we can tune into compassion a number of ways. Practices like meditation, gratitude, and mindfulness can help cultivate compassion. But more specifically being intentional about experiencing compassion can be especially helpful. This does not have to look like a strict practice or even something planned into our day, but is really about taking moments of pause to consider all the connections at play in our everyday activities. This can look like thinking about all the people who play a part in mailing a letter or a package when we go to the post office. From the factory workers who constructed the cardboard box, to the designer who created the tape dispenser. The workers at the local post office, the pilot flying the package across the country and the postal worker delivering our package by hand to its destination. Maybe even the dogs the postal worker gives a treat to on their delivery route. When we are intentional about taking a moment to zoom out and consider how many people and networks make even the simplest of tasks possible, we recognize just how often we all work together successfully. Which right now, is a much needed awareness.
Thank you for being here.
Listen to this episode of JOY IS NOW here.