The Dalai Lama once said, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” His remarks capture a simple truth: Despite popular belief that happiness depends solely on you, the way to achieve it may not lie just within yourself, but in your relationships and interactions with others.

Compassion literally means “to suffer together.” Emotion researchers define compassion as the feeling that arises when we are confronted with suffering and feel motivated to relieve that suffering. Compassion is different than empathy and altruism. Compassion is when those feelings and thoughts include the desire to help the physical, mental, or emotional pains of another and themselves; allowing ourselves to be moved by suffering and experiencing the motivation to help alleviate and prevent it. Some of the qualities of compassion are patience and wisdom; kindness and perseverance; warmth and resolve.

Compassion can improve our lives in a number of ways:

  • Compassion can reduce the risk of heart disease by boosting the positive effects of the Vagus Nerve, which helps to slow our heart rate
  • Compassion makes people more resilient to stress and strengthens the immune response
  • Compassionate people are more socially adept, making them less vulnerable to the negative health effects of loneliness
  • Compassionate societies—those that take care of their most vulnerable members, assist other nations in need, and have children who perform more acts of kindness—are the happiest societies


University-backed compassion training programs, such as those at Stanford University and Emory University, are helping us understand how to increase feelings of compassion in ourselves and others. Here are a few tips from these programs:

  • Find similarities: Seeing yourself as similar to others increases feelings of compassion. One recent study shows that simply tapping your fingers to the same rhythm as a stranger increases compassionate behavior.
  • Encourage cooperation over competition: One study showed that describing a game as a “Community Game” increased players levels of cooperation and sharing behavior, while calling the same game the “Wall Street Game” made the players more ruthless and less honest.
  • See people as individuals rather than abstractions: When asked to support an anti-hunger charity, people were more likely to give money after reading a story about one particular starving girl than after reading statistics on starvation.
  • Believe in your power to do good: When we believe we’re able to make a difference, we’re less likely to suppress our feelings of compassion.
  • Notice how good compassion feels: Studies show that compassion and compassionate action activates the brain’s reward center.
  • For parents, teachers, and caregivers: Research suggests that compassion is contagious, so if you want to help teach and cultivate compassion in children, the best practice is to lead by your own example.

Source: Greater Good Science Center

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