What Is Compassion?

Compassion helping hands
(Last Updated On: January 2, 2018)

Why do some people choose to give up their time, money, or even safety to help other people? According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 30 percent of adults in the United States spend some time volunteering to help others each year. According to many psychologists, it is compassion that drives people to reach out and try to alleviate the suffering of other people.

So why is compassion so important? While suffering and pain and sometimes simply and unavoidable part of life, it is our own ability to sympathize with other people that plays a critical role in whether we try to help others.

But compassion is not just an important characteristic of prosocial behavior – it is also a quality that people tend to respect and admire. Many religions, for example, place a high emphasis on compassion and helping others in need.  Compassion for other people is also a quality that people often rank as an important thing they look for when seeking a life partner.

What Is Compassion? A Definition

When you think of compassion, words such as empathy, concern, and kindness probably come to mind. But compassion actually encompasses much more than that. Empathy is defined as the ability to place yourself in another person’s shoes and feel their pain. Compassion goes beyond that and involves feeling a compulsion to actually take steps to relieve the other person’s suffering. One definition of compassion suggests that it is a “deep feeling for and understanding of misery or suffering and the concomitant desire to promote its alleviation.”

So is compassion a learned tendency or are some people simply born more compassionate than others (the age-old nature versus nurture debate)? According to some recent research, compassion may be an innate tendency.

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Why would compassion be an inborn quality? Possibly because it might in survival of the species. If we did not feel concern for others and feel compelled to help, humans might not have survived long as a species.

Why Do We Feel Compassion?

So what exactly does it take to feel compassion? Why do we experience such feelings for some people, but not for others? Cassell (2009) suggests that there are three requirements that help drive feelings of compassion:

  • The problem must be serious
  • The individual’s problems cannot be self-inflicted
  • The observer must be able to identify with the victim’s suffering

In other words, we must believe that there is a real problem, but we must not feel like the victim is to blame for his or her situation. And perhaps most importantly, we must be able to picture ourselves in the same or similar situation.

One study by Cordon and DeSteno (2011) found that when participants felt compassion for one person, they were less likely to punish another participant for bad behavior.

“It seems, then, that the Dalai Lama is right: the experience of compassion toward a single individual does shape our actions toward others,” DeSteno suggested in an article for The New York Times.

Compassion also plays a pivotal role in psychtherapeutic practices, particularly the client centered approach developed by humanist psychologist Carl Rogers. According to Rogers, unconditional positive regard is a central part of the therapeutic relationship. The therapist is not just there to guide the client; he or she must also have genuine care and concern in a way that is both active and nonjudgmental.

The Benefits of Compassion

Compassion can obviously benefit those who are the recipients of a kind or altruistic actions, but researchers have also found that compassion can have a wide range of psychological benefits for those experiencing this emotional drive.

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Some of the major benefits to the self include:

  • Increased immunity: One study demonstrated that people who had practiced compassionate meditation had a better immune response to stress.
  • More prosocial behaviors: Researchers have found that people who receive short-term compassion training are more likely to engage in helpful, or prosocial, behaviors toward others.
  • Greater empathy for others: Even a short period of compassion training can help people experience greater empathy, or emotional understanding, of others.
  • Increased happiness: Compassionate meditation has also been shown to help people become happier and healthier. Those who practiced this type of meditation rated themselves as happier and more satisfied with their lives.

Compassion Can Be Learned

So is compassion an innate human response or is it something we learn from our family, society, and culture at large? Evidence suggests that compassion is indeed an innate human trait, but research also suggests that it is something that can be cultivated through learning and experience.

One study demonstrated that a short-term training course using compassionate meditation could increase feelings of compassion and lead to greater altruistic behavior. Following the training, the participants in the study were more compassionate towards others who were suffering, were more likely to engage in altruistic behavior, and even showed greater activity in areas of the brain associated with empathy, emotional regulation, and positive emotions.

“It’s kind of like weight training,” suggested the study’s lead author, Helen Wang. “Using this systematic approach, we found that people can actually build up their compassion ‘muscle’ and respond to others’ suffering with care and a desire to help.”

Observations About Compassion

“Although the capacity for compassion likely evolved within the context of caregiving relationships, its generalizability to other targets, once evoked, may represent a spandrel with benefits aimed at countervailing the negatives associated with increasing punishment. As such, it may function to balance social systems so as to prevent escalating tit-for-tat aggression and downward spirals of prosocial behavior.” (Cordon & DeSteno, 2011)

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“Compassion also may come more naturally to the person from a collectivist culture than to someone from an individualist culture. On this point, researchers have argued that a collectivist culture may breed a sense of compassion in the form of its members’ prosocial behaviors. When a group identity has been formed, therefore, the natural choice may be group benefits over individuals ones.” (Snyder, C. R., Lopez, S. J., & Pedrotti, J. T., 2011)

References

Cassell, Eric (2009). Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology (2 ed.). New York, New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 393–403. ISBN 978-0-19-518724-3.

Condon, P. & DeSteno, D. (2011). Compassion for one reduces punishment for another. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47, 698-701.

Dean, J. (2014). 8 wonderful psychological effects of being compassionate. Psyblog.  

DeSteno, D. (2012, July 14). Compassion made easy. The New York Times.  

Fredrickson, B. L., Cohn, M. A., Coffey, K. A., Pek, J., & Finkel, S. M. (2008). Open hearts build lives: Positive emotions, induced through loving-kindness meditation, build consequential personal resources. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95(5), 1045-1062.

Mascaro, J. S., Rilling, J. K., Negi, L. T., & Raison, C. L. (2013). Compassion meditation enhances empathic accuracy and related neural activity. Social and Cognitive Affective Neuroscience, 8(1), 48-55.

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