People show compassion when they observe or hear about someone else’s suffering or distress, and either have a desire to help, or take action to lessen the suffering. For example, your compassion for the homeless or the poverty-stricken motivates you to get up early, collect and hand out blankets or food parcels at a homeless shelter. In other words, the suffering of another human being moves and compels you into action to help alleviate the other person’s plight. The desire to help, and the actual steps you take, is what distinguishes compassion from empathy and altruism: in the former, another human being’s emotional state resonates with yours, while the latter implies selfless acts that benefit another in need of assistance. Compassionate acts are not driven by egoistic, self-seeking desires: you don’t expect, or even think about, getting rewarded, or receive praise, for your acts of compassion. The act of doing something to help alleviate suffering is, in itself, rewarding.
Are we innately compassionate beings, or it something we can learn like a skill, or an attitude that can be cultivated through practice?
Compassion as an innate phenomenon
Evidence suggests we are innately compassionate creatures. We have a natural, automatic desire to help others in distress. Even children and chimpanzees will naturally engage in compassionate behaviors to help fellow mates overcome obstacles without reward. Again, the act of helping is itself rewarding. Giving, rather than receiving, appears to be fundamentally more rewarding for the giver. It makes us feel better about ourselves and others, and is therefore beneficial for our mental and physical health. Charles Darwin noted in “The Descent of Man and Selection In Relation to Sex“ that the instinct for compassion evolved as an adaptive trait, and was a necessary factor in the growth, flourishing, and survival of the human species.
Nevertheless, one cannot help but wonder: if compassion is innate, why is there so much unnecessary suffering in the world? Why are there so many people going hungry, and why is there so much unnecessary violence, if we are supposedly naturally compassionate? This is where the issue of teaching, or developing, compassion is so crucial: we may have a natural predisposition for compassion – like we have a natural tendency to self-actualize, for example – but it needs the proper or conducive environment and circumstances to elicit and manifest these innate traits.
Learning to be more compassionate
Compassion can, and ought to be taught since we need more of its positive effects than ever before. The more compassionate we become the less self-absorbed we are. Self-focused individuals are more prone to depression and anxiety, whereas compassion helps us become other-focused, which is good for lifting the mood, and widens our perspective of life in general. Kids who receive regular, explicit instruction in compassion and kindness from educators and parents are less likely to become bullies, or show violent and aggressive behavior. Besides learning to become more compassionate so we can help reduce violence, poverty and suffering in the world, we also need it since it makes us feel better, and contributes to people living healthier, longer, and meaningful lives.
Tips on how to develop compassion
Meditation – all types of meditation helps to cultivate compassion. Regular, short sessions of meditation practice can help elicit kind, compassionate emotions very rapidly. It taps into our innate reserves for compassion, without the need for formal, verbal instruction on how to be compassionate.
Commonalities – as a conscious, daily practice, take some time and focus your attention on what you have in common with all human beings: we all want to be happy, healthy, feel loved, connected, and have meaningful friendships, for instance. Think of those who share office space with you, as well as others who live in foreign countries. It is especially challenging to do this kind of commonalities focus when people rub you up the wrong way, but it will help to engender compassion for those who might otherwise be perceived as the enemy.
Assuming the best – This is another challenging, conscious practice to perform daily. When someone has done something to upset or hurt you, assume that the person must have a good personal reason for doing so. It is unfortunate, but far too many people are apt to assume the worst about others, rather than focus on what is positive in one another. Finding out what the reasons were for why someone has done something undesirable is not the point, and is relatively irrelevant. It is the act of assuming the best in others that develops compassion, understanding, and a better world.