Healing the world—and building your own happiness—one conversation, one breath at a time.
What drives us to selflessly care for others? Plain and simple, it all comes down to compassion, that inward emotion that leads to outward acts of kindness. It’s what moves us to help one another and heal the breaches between us. And it’s key to our survival—as people, as nations, as a planet.
“Despite what people think, ‘survival of the fittest’ is not something Darwin ever said,” says Emma Seppala, Ph.D., associate director of the Stanford University Center for Compassion & Altruism Research and Education in California. “Darwin’s message was more ‘survival of the kindest.’ ” We survive not because we’re the biggest, strongest or most intelligent beings on the planet, but because we live in a community of people who reach out to us in times of trouble.
We are amazing, compassionate creatures. It’s what makes rescuing stray dogs on the streets of Los Angeles a passion, stuffing neighborhood food cupboards in Maine a commitment, and sending Doctors without Borders to the victims of hurricanes in the Philippines and Haiti a reality.
What makes us do it? It’s part of who we are.
Empathy in Action
While we use the word “compassion” freely, we may be hard-pressed to come up with an actual definition. In its literal form, the translation of “compassion” is “to suffer together.” What it means in our daily lives is that we are compelled to relieve the suffering of others.
The Dalai Lama is among those who say compassion is essential to overall wellbeing; he calls love and compassion necessities in life, not luxuries. But compassion is more than just kindness to others—he says it is the sensitivity to the suffering of others, combined with a commitment to do something about it. In other words, it is empathy in action.
Rev. Molly F. James, Ph.D., and an ordained Episcopal minister, understands the action side of compassion: “When I was a hospital chaplain, we referred to it as ‘getting in the boat.’ It’s being where the person in pain is, doing whatever it takes to become a companion for them and letting them know that they’re not alone. It’s letting people tell you their story and concentrating on their words, rather than thinking of your solution to their problems.”
“You don’t have to be a minister to do this,” Molly says, “It’s about care and compassion—we are all born with a capacity for both.” Compassion is also a commonality among numerous religions. “Compassion is a shared value and virtue across many faith traditions,” the adjunct professor says. “It’s probably one of the strongest correlations between them.”
Witnessing others in the act of compassion can have long-term, positive effects on us. When Molly needs to gather strength in her life, she calls one particular example to mind. It took place as she was helping organize a prayer service and funeral for a victim of the Newtown, Conn., shooting. Adding to the unthinkable grief and despair of the time was a troubling rumor: Picketers would try to disrupt the funeral procession.
“I have a powerful image of the day,” Molly says. “When we reached the church, we saw a wall of people around it.” In the human circle she remembers Boy Scouts at attention—in their shirtsleeves even in the cold December weather. “There were boys not much older than the one who was killed. People formed this human wall around the church, and they stayed there the entire time. I saw the community do a beautiful, good, compassionate thing in light of the horrific tragedy of that dark week when so many hearts were broken.”
“Sometimes compassion is about being kind and understanding,” says Monica Hanson, a senior teacher for Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. “But when it’s combined in someone with a longing to make a difference in people’s lives, it becomes a fierce compassion that can change the world.”
Wired for Compassion
Today, many psychologists embrace the notion that compassion is an instinct, a natural trait that has evolved over time and helped ensure our survival. Its benefits are both physical and mental, and some believe it can speed up recovery from disease and even lengthen our life. That’s because compassion provides us with pleasure.
National Institutes of Health neuroscientist Jordan Grafman headed up a brain-imaging study proving the “pleasure centers” in our brain are activated by charitable acts. His research shows the great feeling that comes from enjoying dessert, spending time with friends or by spending money on ourselves can also be experienced by offering charitable acts to others
The benefits, however, go beyond simply feeling good. A study from the University at Buffalo says people who practice compassion tend to be less affected by stress, while other studies have shown that compassion is directly linked to stronger social connections and improved physical and psychological health.
There’s actually an underlying biological response to seeing someone in need, explains Emiliana Simon-Thomas, Ph.D., science director for the University of California at Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center. “We are exquisitely built to be sensitive to other people,” she says.
“When you encounter someone in trouble, your chest and the back of your neck tighten, your forehead rises, and you mirror the feelings of the person who’s in need,” Emiliana says. Then the brain’s circuitry triggers other neuronal networks that appraise the situation and toss in their 2 cents about what’s going on.
Dacher Keltner, also of the Greater Good Science Center and author of Born to Be Good, says we are wired for compassion. He points to studies conducted at Princeton University showing that certain areas of the brain light up when subjects were asked to contemplate harm being done to others. Study authors Joshua Greene and Jonathan Cohen concluded, based on the brain activity, humans are designed to respond compassionately to others’ suffering.
“When we feel compassion, our heart rate slows down, we secrete the bonding hormone oxytocin and regions of the brain linked to empathy, caregiving and feelings of pleasure light up, which often results in our wanting to approach and care for other people,” the Greater Good Science Center says on their website.
While compassion is as old as humanity, Dacher notes that scientific studies into how it affects us—and what triggers it—are relatively new. However, recent research has looked at the role of oxytocin, called “the cuddle hormone” or “the love hormone,” as a factor in compassion. In fact, studies into oxytocin indicate that our base level of compassion may be genetic.
Oxytocin has four types of nucleotides—A, T, C and G—and each of us receive one copy of this nucleotide from each parent. A study published in the November 2011 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences says the level of compassion an individual possesses varies based on the combination of genes, with A genes creating the least amount of empathy and compassion and G genes providing a greater amount of compassion. There are numerous combinations, but the study showed that individuals with the GG combination had a much higher level of compassion than all other subjects.
However, Dr. Heike Tost of the Central Institute of Mental Health in Germany points out that even though an individual may be genetically wired to be less compassionate, empathy is “a complicated behavior regulated by more than one factor.”
Another factor is the vagus nerve. Starting at the top of the spinal cord, the vagus nerve runs throughout the body and is interconnected with the oxytocin network. The vagus nerve has been associated with a stronger immune system and can regulate inflammation throughout the body, help regulate the activity between our breathing and heart rate, support our communication and, because of its connection with oxytocin, help us empathize and feel compassion.
In a 2012 presentation, Dacher called it “the caretaking nerve” because it reacts to both tragic and inspiring news. He found that when people indicate they are feeling compassion, the vagus nerve has a stronger response, meaning everything in the body—from our heart and breathing rates to immune activity—are affected.
“In that state of having a strong vagus nerve response, [we] feel common humanity with many different groups,” he says. “These deep ethical intuitions of common humanity are tracking a physiological practice.”
Individuals with a stronger vagus nerve response have been shown to possess increased positive emotions overall, are more resilient, more sympathetic, have stronger social networks and tend to be trusted more by strangers. In children, he says, this often shows up as “the kids who intervene when [another] kid is being bullied” or will donate time at recess to help other children with their homework.
What this proves, Dacher concludes, is that while we tend to think of compassion as a core emotional component, “it really is part of our nervous system as well.”
He adds that a higher vagus nerve response can be cultivated by actively practicing compassion and through mindful acts, such as meditation and deliberate acts of kindness. So even if compassion is, at certain levels, a genetic and biological factor, it can be enhanced and further developed through self-awareness and practice.
Creating a Compassionate Brain
Even those who don’t feel they have a naturally compassionate brain can fine-tune it to become more compassionate.
“If you take a deep breath and exhale slowly—breathing out longer than you breathe in—you can trigger the vagus nerve that runs from the brain to nearly every part of your body,” says Berkeley’s Emiliana. “It will immediately lower your heart rate, help you relax and give your brain’s caregiving and reward circuits the opportunity to come online. It will flood you with the feel-good chemicals oxytocin and dopamine—and the warm glow of heroism, motivated by compassion, will negate those feelings of discomfort.”
You’ll hear yourself say, at the deepest level, “That person is just like me.”
Few of us can remember to breathe deeply on the fly without training, so in the past few years, a bevy of researchers from Stanford and Berkeley to the University of Wisconsin and Emory have investigated whether or not we can be trained to do so—and whether or not doing so would, in fact, encourage us to become more compassionate.
At each institution, researchers turned toward meditation techniques that focus on deep breathing. In a recent study at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, for example, researchers Richie Davidson, Ph.D., and Helen Weng found that two weeks of training seemed to double study participants’ inclination to behave in a compassionate manner toward others—to reach out and help someone, even when they had to spend their own dollars to do so. What’s more, when Richie and Helen scanned study participants’ brains, they found neural changes that supported the behavioral changes, suggesting that not only are we wired for compassion, but that we can actually change our brain’s biology to increase compassion and the acts of kindness it triggers.
A second study, this one from Stanford University’s Center for Compassion, Altruism and Education Research, found that the benefits of a daily compassion meditation emphasizing deep breathing over a nine-week period enabled participants to strengthen their awareness of others’ suffering and increase their compassion. What’s more, study participants also increased a sense of self-compassion—and reported a substantial increase in happiness.
Sharing the Love
One of the many wonderful things about compassion is that it is contagious, meaning your simple act of kindness could have a greater effect than you will ever know. James Fowler, Ph.D., of the University of California, San Diego, and Dr. Nicholas Christakis, a medical sociologist at Harvard University, conducted a research project in which participants could receive large sums of money—and found that those recipients, in turn, rewarded others with generous gifts.
It’s something we’ve seen over and over: Small acts of compassion, such as paying for the coffee of the person in line behind you can start a “pay it forward” chain reaction that lasts for several hours. Beyond the physical gift it provides, there’s an uplifting psychological benefit that lets us simultaneously enjoy happiness and give it to others. And, as we see the happiness of those who receive our compassion, we become happier.
With additional reporting by Paula Felps.