The Science of Compassion

In my doctoral studies, I had the honor of working on a research study on conjugal bereavement with Dr. Dacher Keltner. Dr. Keltner, in addition to prolific work in a wide range of areas, has developed the science of compassion and empathy into a multidisciplinary field. In short, the study I co-authored found that in a study of individuals who had lost a long-term partner, and who ultimately showed greater psychological health over a five-year span after the loss, were those who received ongoing empathy and social support in response to their vulnerability, as the primary variable related to mental health and adjustment.

(Bonanno, G. A., Siddique, H. I., Keltner, D., & Horowitz, M. J. (1996). Correlates and consequences of dispositional repression and self-deception following the loss of a spouse. The Catholic University of America, Washington, DC).

Dr. Keltner runs a compassion-based research studies program at UC Berkeley. He writes prolifically about the importance of compassion for psychological health, social justice, and even the survival of our species.

Compassion literally means “to suffer together.” Among emotion researchers, it is defined as the feeling that arises when you are confronted with another’s suffering and feel motivated to relieve that suffering.

Compassion is not the same as empathy or altruism, though the concepts are related. While empathy refers more generally to our ability to take the perspective of and feel the emotions of another person, compassion is when those feelings and thoughts include the desire to help. Altruism, in turn, is the kind, selfless behavior often prompted by feelings of compassion, though one can feel compassion without acting on it, and altruism isn’t always motivated by compassion.

While cynics may dismiss compassion as touchy-feely or new age-y, neuropsychologists have started to map the biological basis of compassion, suggesting a deeper evolutionary purpose. This research has shown that 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 care for other people.

Compassion makes us feel good: Compassionate action activates pleasure circuits in the brain, and compassion training programs, even very brief ones, strengthen brain circuits for pleasure and reward and lead to lasting increases in self-reported happiness.

Being compassionate—tuning in to other people in a kind and loving manner—can reduce risk of heart disease by boosting the positive effects of the Vagus Nerve, which helps to slow our heart rate. A recent study found that people who have a greater level of empathy live 9 to 10 years longer than others, controlling for other factors. 

One compassion training program at Stanford has found that it makes people more resilient to stress; it lowers stress hormones in the blood and saliva and strengthens the immune response. Compassion training may also help us worry less and be more open to our own and others’ negative emotions. In short, people who are more compassionate tend to be less avoidant of the range of emotions.

Compassion could improve our mental health: One research review found that practicing compassion meditation improved participants’ emotional life, positive thinking, relationships, and empathy. Brain scans during loving-kindness meditation, which directs compassion toward suffering, suggest that, on average, compassionate people are happier.

Practicing compassion could make us more altruistic. In turn, it may also help us overcome empathic distress and become more resilient in the face of others’ suffering. Too often, we hear people say, I can’t watch the news because it’s just too much for me. Instead, the practice of compassion makes people more able to tolerate the pain of others, and yet provide support.

Compassion helps make caring parents: Brain scans show that when people experience compassion, their brains activate in neural systems known to support parental nurturance and other caregiving behaviors.

Compassion helps us be better friends and partners: Compassionate people are more optimistic, forgiving, and supportive when communicating with others.

Compassion helps make better doctors: Medical students who train in compassion feel less depressed and lonely, and avoid the typical declines in compassion that sometimes happen during medical school.

Employees who receive more compassion in their workplace see themselves, their co-workers, and their organization in a more positive light, report feeling more positive emotions like joy and contentment, and are more committed to their jobs. A compassionate workplace culture is linked to less burnout, greater teamwork, and higher job satisfaction.

Compassionate people are more socially adept, making them less vulnerable to loneliness; loneliness has been shown to cause stress and harm the immune system.

Compassion is contagious. According to Dr. Keltner’s “the greater good project”, based out of UC Berkeley, compassionate behavior rubs off on other people.

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