Why Compassion Is the Foundation For Success
By Christopher Kukk, Ph.D
What is compassion? Compassion is a holistic understanding of a problem or the suffering of another with a commitment to act to solve the problem or alleviate the suffering. Understanding a problem or the suffering of another can happen instantaneously or it can develop over time. But the most important thing to know about compassion is that it involves a commitment to act. This is what distinguishes compassion from empathy. Empathy is understanding what another person is experiencing, but for compassion understanding isn’t enough. Compassion means actually doing something to help.
Being compassionate is not about trying to be a saint or being so kind that you become a doormat for other people. Being compassionate is not a sign of weakness. In fact, it’s the exact opposite. It takes strength to remain caring and rational when the easiest thing to do is to stop caring or give in to anger. And it takes bravery to act, when it is much easier to do nothing.
Given the definition of compassion, you might think it is more emotionally and physically taxing than empathy, but that’s not the case. Tania Singer, director of neuroscience at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, has found that compassion and empathy “are two different phenomena associated with different brain activity patterns.” When we think compassionately, we use the same neural pathways as love, but when we think empathetically we use the brain regions associated with pain. The constant use of the brain’s pain neural pathways leads to feelings of burnout; empathy is not sustainable. Because compassion is connected to feelings of love, we are nourished and the brain is primed for achievement. Research focused on a dopamine-processing gene known as DRD4, for instance, has shown that the more compassionate a classroom environment becomes, the greater the level of learning that occurs.
Compassion is commonly accepted as a quality of a “good” person, but only recently have we begun to make the connection between compassion and success. I started to make the connection when I was a counterintelligence agent for the military. During my service, I noticed that the best agents were the ones who made time to help other agents. Because they assisted
fellow agents, they had a large network of colleagues who would in turn help them and “have their back” even in the most difficult situations. By helping others, these compassionate agents built trust with the members of their team, and that helped them to make better tactical decisions. Over time, compassion has become the focus of my professional and personal life, and scientific research has confirmed what I had anecdotally realized: compassion is the foundation for success.
Success is defined as the accomplishment of an aim or purpose, and being successful means different things to different people. Whether you are trying to get a promotion, reach a financial milestone, complete a degree, or help a child learn to read, compassion will help you to accomplish your goal more efficiently and effectively, and it will make the achievement more enduring, fulfilling, and rewarding. Compassion is win-win. It will help you to be successful, and it will help solve problems and create opportunities for others. The ripple effect takes over from there, spreading success throughout the community. I call people who achieve success by helping others compassionate achievers. It is never lonely at the top if you are a compassionate achiever.
Adapted from The Compassionate Achiever: How Helping Others Fuels Success by Christopher Kukk, Ph.D. Copyright ©2017 by Christopher Kukk, Ph.D, published by HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.