What Is Compassion?

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According to recent statistics by the U.S. Department of Labor, nearly 30 percent of American adults volunteer their time to help other people each year. What is it that moves a person to give up their time, money, and even safety to relieve another person's suffering?

Compassion is the key.

Human suffering is inevitable, but our ability to understand and sympathize with the plight and circumstances of other people can play a major role in whether we take action to relieve this suffering.

 Compassion is also a highly valued quality. Religions stress the importance of compassion, while people often list characteristics such as "kind" and "compassionate" as what they look for in a potential partner.

What Exactly Is Compassion?

Compassion is much more than just concern or empathy. Empathy involves the ability to feel the emotions that another person must be experiencing, but compassion is fueled by wanting to actually take action to help the other individual. One definition of compassion suggests that it is a "deep feeling for and understanding of misery or suffering and the concomitant desire to promote its alleviation."

While debate has long centered on whether compassion is an inborn or learned tendency (the age-old nature versus nurture debate), recent research suggests that compassion is an innate tendency. Why? Perhaps because compassion aids in survival of the species. If we did not feel concern for others and feel compelled to help, humans might not have survived long as a species.

Why Do We Feel Compassion?

So what exactly does it take to feel compassion? Why do we experience such feelings for some people, but not for others? Cassell (2009) suggests that there are three requirements:

  • The problem must be serious
  • The individual's problems cannot be self-inflicted
  • The observer must be able to identify with the victim's suffering

    In other words, we must believe that there is a real problem, but we must not feel like the victim is to blame for his or her situation. And perhaps most importantly, we must be able to picture ourselves in the same or similar situation.

    One study by Cordon and DeSteno (2011) found that when participants felt compassion for one person, they were less likely to punish another participant for bad behavior.

    "It seems, then, that the Dalai Lama is right: the experience of compassion toward a single individual does shape our actions toward others," DeSteno suggested in an article for The New York Times.

    Compassion also plays a pivotal role in psychtherapeutic practices, particularly the client centered approach developed by humanist psychologist Carl Rogers. According to Rogers, unconditional positive regard is a central part of the therapeutic relationship. The therapist is not just there to guide the client; he or she must also have genuine care and concern in a way that is both active and nonjudgmental.

    The Benefits of Compassion

    Compassion can obviously benefit those who are the recipients of kind or altruistic actions, but researchers have also found that compassion can have a wide range of psychological benefits for those experiencing this emotional response.

    Some of the major benefits to the self include:

    • Increased immunity: One study demonstrated that people who had practiced compassionate meditation had a better immune response to stress.
    • More prosocial behaviors: Researchers have found that people who receive short-term compassion training are more likely to engage in helpful, or prosocial, behaviors toward others.
    • Greater empathy for others: Even a short period of compassion training can help people experience greater empathy, or emotional understanding, of others.
    • Increased happiness: Compassionate meditation has also been shown to help people become happier and healthier. Those who practiced this type of meditation rated themselves as happier and more satisfied with their lives.

    Compassion Can Be Learned

    So is compassion an innate human response or is it something we learn from our family, society, and culture at large? Evidence suggests that compassion is indeed an innate human trait, but research also suggests that it is something that can be cultivated through learning and experience.

    One study demonstrated that a short-term training course using compassionate meditation could increase feelings of compassion and lead to greater altruistic behavior. Following the training, the participants in the study were more compassionate towards others who were suffering, were more likely to engage in altruistic behavior, and even showed greater activity in areas of the brain associated with empathy, emotional regulation, and positive emotions.

    “It’s kind of like weight training," suggested the study's lead author, Helen Wang. "Using this systematic approach, we found that people can actually build up their compassion ‘muscle’ and respond to others’ suffering with care and a desire to help.”


    • "Although the capacity for compassion likely evolved within the context of caregiving relationships, its generalizability to other targets, once evoked, may represent a spandrel with benefits aimed at countervailing the negatives associated with increasing punishment. As such, it may function to balance social systems so as to prevent escalating tit-for-tat aggression and downward spirals of prosocial behavior."
      (Cordon & DeSteno, 2011)
    • "Compassion also may come more naturally to the person from a collectivist culture than to someone from an individualist culture. On this point, researchers have argued that a collectivist culture may breed a sense of compassion in the form of its members' prosocial behaviors. When a group identity has been formed, therefore, the natural choice may be group benefits over individuals ones."
      (Snyder, C. R., Lopez, S. J., & Pedrotti, J. T., 2011)


    Cassell, Eric (2009). Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology (2 ed.). New York, New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 393–403. ISBN 978-0-19-518724-3.

    Condon, P. & DeSteno, D. (2011). Compassion for one reduces punishment for another. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47, 698-701.

    Dean, J. (2014). 8 wonderful psychological effects of being compassionate. Psyblog. Retrieved from http://www.spring.org.uk/2014/02/8-wonderful-psychological-effects-of-being-compassionate.php

    DeSteno, D. (2012, July 14). Compassion made easy. The New York Times. Retrieved from www.nytimes.com/2012/07/15/opinion/sunday/the-science-of-compassion.html

    Fredrickson, B. L., Cohn, M. A., Coffey, K. A., Pek, J., & Finkel, S. M. (2008). Open hearts build lives: Positive emotions, induced through loving-kindness meditation, build consequential personal resources. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95(5), 1045-1062.

    Mascaro, J. S., Rilling, J. K., Negi, L. T., & Raison, C. L. (2013). Compassion meditation enhances empathic accuracy and related neural activity. Social and Cognitive Affective Neuroscience, 8(1), 48-55.

    Pace, T. W. W., et al. (2009). Effect of compassion meditation on neuroendocrine, innate immune and behavioral responses to stress. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 34(1), 87-88.

    Paiano, A. M. (1999). Rose of compassion: A theological, depth psychological, and clinical consideration of the relation between personal suffering and the suffering of others. Doctoral Dissertation, Union Theological Seminary, New York.

    Snyder, C. R., Lopez, S. J., & Pedrotti, J. T. (2011). Positive psychology: The scientific and practical explorations of human strengths. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.

    Weng, H. Y., Fox, A. S., Shackman, A. J., Stodola, D. E., Caldwell, J. K. Z., Olson, M. C., Rogers, G. M., & Davidson, R. J (2013). Compassion training alters altruism and neural responses to suffering. Psychological Science, 24(7), 1171-1180 . DOI: 10.1177/0956797612469537

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