The Psychological Benefits of Compassion

How empathy and understanding can improve your wellbeing

Reed Rawlings
Apr 10 · 5 min read

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be a good friend. What are the qualities I love in other’s that I would want my friends to say about me? Over and over I come to the same conclusion — the people in my life that matter most are the ones who offer near-unconditional support.

They are there for you when you need them, they are kind, and most importantly, they are compassionate. When they see me frustrated or in pain, they help me find my center and give me space to calm down.

It’s because of this that I’ve been seeking opportunities to offer that same support to those around me. I figure the best way to learn to be compassionate is to practice it.

But to do so, we have to ask the question — what actually is compassion? In its simplest terms, it’s a commitment to relieving or preventing the suffering of others. That’s it. It isn’t predicated on familial bonds or longstanding friendships. And it doesn’t ask me to burden myself with others’ emotions.

The Buddhist tradition puts it this way:

“Just like me, you want to be happy; just like me, you want to be free of suffering.”

I like this quote because it puts an emphasis on our common humanity. We can all recognize that no one starts a day hoping it will turn sour, but that outcome is often inevitable. Compassion asks us to ease the hurt in others — and to do the same for ourselves.

Compassion and Self-Improvement

Compassion isn’t merely a way to help others. There are numerous interpersonal and psychological benefits for compassionate individuals.

In Chade-Meng Tan’s, “Search Inside Yourself” he expounds on the importance of compassion for highly-effective leaders. He believes, at its core, leadership is the act of focusing on others instead of yourself.

A compassionate person does exactly this. Their goal is seeing others achieve. They shun the thought of accumulating power and prestige for themselves. This is the exact trait Jim Collins says is the source of exceptional leadership in his book, “Good to Great.”

A 2019 study showed that listening to a positive inner-dialogue tape, ‘reduces negative self-bias and activates a content and calm state of mind.’

Also, participants’ physiological responses changed after the 11-minute recording. Their heart rates dropped, rate variability improved, and a lower sweat response was recorded — all signs of being in a safe, calm environment. All it took to reach this altered state was a short meditative exercise.

Self-compassion is a critical response to goal failure. I’ve written before about self-criticisms’ impact on goal-attainment, and it bears repeating. When we admonish our abilities, it triggers a defensive, judgemental attitude. It brings past failures to light that only serve as a distraction.

Instead of taking a step back and motivating ourselves, we fixate on the past. In the end, we convince ourselves that we aren’t capable of reaching our dreams.

Psychologists are only just beginning to uncover the physical and mental benefits of compassion. And yet, even at this early stage, its roles in stress relief and self-improvement are clear.

A Word of Warning

By no means does compassion’s simple definition or seemingly immediate benefits imply that it is easy to master.

Feeling compassion towards loved ones is simple. But the act becomes arduous when expressed towards those we disagree with or dislike. Likewise, the harder life has been for you, the harder you may find it to show compassion. You may believe that life is unfair. After all, if you haven’t been treated with kindness, why should others deserve it?

Perhaps you don’t practice self-compassion. You find it difficult to love yourself, so extending love to others is nearly impossible.

If any of these circumstances apply to you, you may believe compassion isn’t for you. Or, that without significant help, attaining a compassionate mindset is out of reach.

That couldn’t be further from the truth.

Cultivating Compassion

Research shows we can learn to become more compassionate. Across multiple studies, psychologists have seen the same positive results. Short-term, practical exercises increase prosocial behaviors, altruism, and personal well-being.

In one study, participants were split into two groups. The first group took a two-week course learning to cultivate compassion. The other group learned to reappraise stressful events from their past.

They based the training on the Buddhist practice of loving-kindness. In essence, participants expressed compassion towards themselves, loved ones, and casual acquaintances.

After the training, the compassion-focused group had a higher sensitivity to suffering and responded with more altruism. But more than just their behavior changed.

Participants underwent an fMRI before and after the training. The researchers were also able to observe a change in the inferior parietal lobe. Neuroscientists associate this section of the brain with imitation; the root of empathy. And, while empathy and compassion are distinct concepts, the overlap between them is immense.

The lead researcher, Helen Wang concluded,

“Purely mental training in compassion can result in observable altruistic changes toward a victim even when individuals are not explicitly cued to generate compassion.”

Professor Paul Gilbert advocates a similar strategy his clinical patients. He believes it helps guide them towards a compassionate mindset. It’s based, in part, on the Buddhist idea that our minds are like gardens. And, our emotions are the seeds we plant and cultivate. With emotions like anger, we often let our mind wander from one negative memory to another. Gilbert believes the way to subvert this is through intentional thoughts of kindness.

He asks his clients to, “remember, remember, remember, notice, notice, notice kindness — and then to build upon those remembrances.” In this way, we grow seeds of kindness. In the same vein, if we’re guided by impulse and selfishness, we end up cultivating that as part of our character.

Unfortunately, our mental state is often guided by our habitual thinking. The way our mind shifts from one negative emotion to another is ingrained in our being. To overcome this, we must practice mindfulness.

We have to be able to understand that our mind fixates on certain emotions. We’re bent towards negativity because that’s how we avoid similar situations in the future.

However, once we start to notice what our mind pays attention to, we gain a valuable tool for personal growth. Focusing on the positive aspects of our lives allows us to subvert the vicious cycle of negativity. In doing so, we build the foundation for compassion — kindness, self-love, and caring.

My biggest takeaway from these studies isn’t how quickly behavior changes, it’s that it can change at all. We’re taught, from a young age, that our personality is fixed.

That we are “born lazy, difficult, or impulsive” and there is nothing to do about it. In reality, we can change. Through intention, training, and planning.

Mind Cafe

Relaxed, inspiring essays about happiness.

Reed Rawlings

Written by

I focus on self-regulation — goals, compassion, motivation, focus, stress, and the tools to support them.

Mind Cafe

Mind Cafe

Relaxed, inspiring essays about happiness.

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