In this cut-throat world, where most people judge their success by their position, wealth and power, compassion may appear to be a hindrance or even a weakness. But did you know that not only does compassion play an essential role in our mental and physical health, it has also been key to our survival as a species?
What exactly does having or practicing compassion mean? The definition of compassion is the feeling of deep sympathy when you are confronted with another’s suffering and have a strong desire to relieve that suffering. So why is this important? Well, for one, practicing compassion makes us feel good. Acts of kindness, helping, and giving to others activates the “pleasure centers” in our brain. When we feel compassion, our heart rate slows down, we secrete oxytocin, a “bonding hormone”, and the areas of our brain associated with empathy, care-giving, and feelings of pleasure light up. In short, feeling compassion results in a happier you.
If simply being a happier person is not enough to encourage you to a more compassionate way of life, you may be interested to know that practicing compassion also does wonders for your physical well-being. Research has found that people who are more compassionate have lower risks of heart disease, have lower levels of stress hormones in their blood and saliva, are more resilient to stress, and have stronger immune systems. All these factors may contribute to the fact that people classified to be “more compassionate” also live longer.
If that is still not enough to convince you, did you know that compassion is one of the defining characteristics of human kind that ensured the success of our species? During the course of human evolution, we ended up creating offspring that are defenseless and completely dependent on their parents for survival in their initial years of life. In fact, our species produce the most vulnerable babies on the entire planet! Even Charles Darwin had concluded that sympathy must be our strongest instinct. For if we were not kind and compassionate, our children would not have survived, and human kind would have perished. He argued that “the most sympathetic members, would flourish best, and rear the greatest number of offspring.” Hence, it is not simply survival of the fittest, but also, survival of the kindest!
So how could we cultivate compassion?
- Many compassion and “loving-kindness” meditations based from Buddhist practices may develop and strengthen compassion in our lives.
- Simply be kind. Be kind to yourself and be kind to others. Apply your energy to building kind thoughts on the people around you rather than negative ones.
- Search for commonalities instead of differences between yourself and others.
- Promote cooperation over competition.
These are just a few examples of simple things we could incorporate into our daily lives to foster compassion. If you are interested in learning more about this, here is a great article with a step-by-step guide to help you reach your goals in becoming a more compassionate and happier you. For the more scientific-minded audience whom are interested in some of the research and findings relating to compassion and its benefits, I could recommend this site and this article.
Compassion is inherent in all of us. However, in this day and age it seems that we need to be reminded of its importance. So let’s be reminded that our acts of kindness and compassion inspirit others and in doing so we also inspirit ourselves. In the words of the wise Dalai Lama – “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”