In the spring of 2014 I wrote out “Love Trumps Bummers” on my late grandpa’s Oldsmobile bumper. The creation of the bumper sticker grew out of a personal inquiry: what trumps bummers?

I inherited my Grandpa’s car after my aunt followed him as he drove around town. By his eighties he had lost much feeling in his right foot due to peripheral neuropathy, and he was effectively colorblind. My aunt witnessed a number of ‘curb checks’ and failures to stop, and decided it was time for Grandpa to stop driving. In the last years of his life, he cried frequently while talking about World War 2. He had never really talked openly about his experience of the war until that point.

Six months after creating the bumper sticker shown in the photo above, I loaded up the car to head out to Madison, Wisconsin to go to graduate school. I packed all of my belongings in the trunk and began the drive out of the clear mountain desert, across the great plains, into the north woods. Unfortunately, the car broke down five miles outside of town. At the time it seemed like ‘Love Trumps Bummers’ was not blessed.

How do we make sense of suffering? A few months after the car broke down I googled ‘Love Trumps Bummers’ and stumbled on a blog, created by people I had at the time never met. They had used a photo of my grandpa’s car, which they saw at the grocery store shortly after they moved to town, as the title for their blog. The message had resonated with them, and after sitting down to meet them just the other night, it occurred to me that I should unpack ‘Love Trumps Bummers’ a bit more.

Self-Esteem Versus Self-Compassion

In terms of bummers, how we view ourselves and others plays a tremendous role in creating or mitigating suffering. Hatred is one obvious extreme, but arguably more pernicious, more fundamental, than the hatred of others is the corrosive, often unconscious way we view ourselves. Depression causes approximately 60% of suicides, and in most years suicides kill more people than war and homicide combined. Self-esteem is purported as an important part of the psychological architecture of depression.

In studying mental health, I’ve always felt a little uncomfortable with the subtext for self-esteem: although sometimes it does seem to refer to respect, more often it seems to refer to us in terms of worth. When we implicate ourselves as existing fundamentally within a framework of worth, don’t we mistake calculations as being more fundamental than the radical gift of the experience of life? If our lives are freely ours, appearing before us at every moment in an undeniable statement of deep freeness, how could our psyche orbit around worth? A meta-analysis conducted by Laura Barnard and John Curry reviewed the psychological traits, both positive and negative, that correspond to measurements of self-compassion vs. self-esteem. The chart below offers information that points toward an interesting possibility.

This chart shows that based on a comparative analysis of studies conducted on self-esteem and self-compassion, self-compassion was more negatively associated than self-esteem with narcissism (self-esteem was positively correlated with narcissism); self-rumination; anger; catastrophizing; personalizing; negative affect; and anxiety. The chart also shows that compassion is positively correlated with (it is comparable to self-esteem on these measures) equanimity; happiness; optimism; and positive affect. In other words, this study suggests that self-compassion more accurately predicts important characteristics of well being than self-esteem.

So why parse words between esteem and compassion? Ultimately, how we act and behave in relation to our fellow human beings and the world depends on how we perceive ourselves. If we exist within a conceptual field that constructs us in terms of worth, wouldn’t that affect, perhaps subtly but overall profoundly, all of the thoughts and actions of our lives? For example, thoughts about how to suffer less would be implicitly tethered to ‘worth’ which exists within a conceptual framework in which we get ‘more’ or ‘less’. In this paradigm, we set our hearts and brains up to ride a boom and bust cycle. This is not the only way that our implicit notions of self and other determine our well-being.

Compassion as a Remedy for Social Dominance Orientation

Social Dominance Orientation is a personality measure that is used in the field of social psychology to predict social and political attitudes. SDO, which shares some similarities with Right Wing Authoritarianism, another personality measure used to predict social and political attitudes, refers to how we construct our in-group and out-group (SDO is the level of one’s wish that one’s in-group dominate and be superior to one’s out-group). Some researchers attribute a lack of affection during development to the development of beliefs that social relationships (i.e. the world) are fundamentally cut-throat, and that forms of competition that involve one party losing and one party dominating are inevitable.

The article ‘Multiple Facets of Compassion: The Impact of Social Dominance Orientation and Economic Systems Justification’ describes how Social Dominance Orientation mediates our justification of economic inequality, and the role that compassion plays in creating new alternatives. The authors state: “ SDO is a competitive and hierarchical worldview and belief-system that ascribes people to higher or lower social rankings…Research suggests that SDO may be linked to lower levels of empathy.” Unsurprisingly, research also shows that well educated conservative politicians score more highly on SDO measures than less well educated, albeit politically conservative, people. SDO also predicts appreciation of diversity, equal pay, and many other issues related to valuing the welfare of ‘out-groups’. In the words of Cornel West, ‘Justice is what love looks like in public.’ The reverse also seems true: injustice is what the lack of love looks like in public.

The authors go on to state that compassion training offers a way forward. Training in compassion progressively sensitizes us to suffering, importantly including our own suffering as well as that of others, and broadens our in-group, with concomitant growth in well-being (and as research on self-compassion shows, greater mental health). By bringing this in to the workplace, the authors provide a trojan horse for cut-throat economics—it is compassion that will make your business function better: “Compassion facilitates workplace performance by lowering levels of litigation, easing stress, and facilitating cooperation”. Yet, compassion doesn’t penetrate the sphere of business in order to ‘win a war’, but instead to offer a way of progressively replacing anti-social beliefs with pro-social beliefs, neglect with affection, that allows for a titration from rampant self-interest towards a flourishing that only occurs in the context of other-interest. Ultimately, it gives what was wanted all along—love—the lack of which is at the core of systems that produce disparity.

Given that Social Dominance Orientation is both an implicit and explicit curriculum of much business and economics schooling, I wonder if we could also develop an education that supports a prosocial orientation? And would educating students in compassion provide different outcomes for economic behavior? Recent research indicates that yes, educating students in compassion affects them in a number of significant and positive ways, including the way in which they distribute their resources.


Richard Davidson, Founder of Center for Investigating Health Minds

Lisa Flook, Simon Goldberg, Laura Pinger, and Richard Davidson at the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds recently researched the implementation of a ‘Kindness Curriculum’ in Madison Public School district. They included a randomized control, and showed that basic contemplative training in prosocial behavior (compassion and kindness) improved students social competence, grades, health, and social and emotional development, while the control group displayed increased selfish behaviors over time. The study also showed, as have other studies, that those children who were lower in measures of social competence and executive function made the largest gains. In other words, it was good for all of the students but especially for those who needed it most.

This study also included a measurement that quantified sharing behaviors. The measurement was determined by the amount of stickers the students distributed to other members of their class before and after the intervention. The categories for the distribution of stickers (kid money, basically) included the child’s best friend, the peer they liked least, an unfamiliar child, and a child who was sick. Prior to the implementation of the Kindness Curriculum the students distributed heavily in favor of their in-group, namely, their best friend. Post “Kindness Curriculum”, students who received the intervention distributed their stickers evenly across categories of others. This was not true of the control group. The study showed that a relatively short, low-intensity training for preschoolers in compassion significantly shifted the way in which children distributed their resources. These changes were also correlated with increases in measures related to health, as well as to grades and social competence. Striking, no?

Thus it seems that in the same way that we can reinforce Social Dominance Orientation through education, so too can we nudge ourselves in a more compassionate direction, probably especially at an early age. And perhaps the subtle ways that we view others, when imbued with slightly more compassion than competition, has significant implications for the way that we order our society and our world.

I would argue that these studies point toward a possibility that love is a central, adaptive and intelligent capacity for dealing with the complexity that characterizes our world, and the basic inclination of our psyche. This isn’t meant so much to be a dogmatic assertion, as a general orientation —supported by hard-nosed research—that gives us a way of viewing ourselves, each other, and our collective situation in terms of affection.

How we view ourselves influences how we implicitly construct others, both in our psyche and our economics. When we view ourselves and others in terms of affection as opposed to worth, we respond differently to suffering.

Grandpa Jim

I don’t know how my Grandpa would respond to the statement ‘Love Trumps Bummers’ on the bumper of his Oldsmobile. As someone who witnessed and was called to be involved in the deadliest conflict in human history, I wonder if he would have seen it as naive, bizarre even. But I know for a fact that I appreciated every bear hug, every trip to Steak and Shake, and every Neco Wafer he and my Grandma dished out to us as his grandchildren. And I also know that for all of the lives lost, the wars won and lost, human suffering continues, and I can’t help but wonder what is at the core of it. Maybe he more than anybody—having traversed cold, cutting loss—would understand.

Author: Devin Coogan is a graduate student in clinical social work at University of Wisconsin Madison

Photos and Mixed Media by Devin Coogan


Barnard, L. K., & Curry, J. F. (2011). Self-compassion: Conceptualizations, correlates, & interventions. Review of General Psychology, 15(4), 289–303. doi:10.1037/a0025754

Flook, L., Goldberg, S. B., Pinger, L., & Davidson, R. J. (2015). Promoting Prosocial Behavior and Self-Regulatory Skills in Preschool Children Through a Mindfulness-Based Kindness Curriculum, 51(1), 44–51.

Martin, D., Seppala, E., Heineberg, Y., Rossomando, T., Doty, J., Zimbardo, P., … Zhou, Y. (2014). Multiple Facets of Compassion: The Impact of Social Dominance Orientation and Economic Systems Justification. Journal of Business Ethics. doi:10.1007/s10551–014–2157–0

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