Compassion doesn’t just make you a better person. It may make you happier and healthier, too.
Most religions preach compassion, but science has been late to the game. Recently, however, a spate of studies have attested to the virtues of this virtue. In research, greater compassion has been linked to less stress, anxiety, and depression. It has also been related to having a stronger bond with others and being less harshly self-critical.
Now, taking their cue from spiritual teachers, some mental health professionals are starting to focus on helping people develop greater compassion, both for others and for themselves. Here are three compassion-building tips with proven payoffs.
In one style of meditation, people fully focus their awareness on compassionate thoughts or feelings. For example, they may focus on wishes to be freed from suffering or feelings of kindness and caring. This approach is variously known as loving-kindness (metta), mind-training (lojong), or compassion meditation.
There are several ways of doing it. In one, you start by silently repeating phrases such as, “May I be happy and peaceful,’ “May I be free from pain and suffering.” Then you visualize specific individuals in your life—say, a close friend or a difficult coworker—and direct the same thoughts toward that person: “May you be happy and peaceful,” “May you be free from pain and suffering.” Finally, you extend the same thoughts toward everyone, everywhere.
For a study at Emory University, volunteers were randomly assigned to participate for six weeks in either a compassion meditation class or a health discussion group. Those in the meditation class who practiced regularly had a calmer immune response when put under stress, compared to those who didn’t practice much. They also reported feeling less upset.
Contemplating death can sometimes be life-affirming. According to a recent article in Personality and Social Psychology Review, thinking about the fact that you won’t be around forever may nudge your behavior in a more caring direction here and now.
Death is better known for its dark side. Certainly, very intense or frequent thoughts of death can fuel trauma, anxiety, and depression. But according to the article’s authors, led by Kenneth Vail at the University of Missouri-Columbia, deliberately reflecting on mortality once in a while may prompt you to reassess your goals and strive to live a better life.
Even subconscious reminders of mortality can have this effect. In one especially clever study, researchers watched people who were either passing through a cemetery or walking a block away. Some of these unwitting participants first came across a stranger—actually, a confederate of the researchers—chatting on a cell phone about the value of helping. Then they encountered a second stranger, who “accidentally” dropped a notebook while struggling with a backpack. Those at the cemetery were 40 percent more likely to lend a hand than those out of eyesight of the graves.
It’s easier to feel compassion for people when you have something in common with them. A study in the journal Emotion illustrated this point quite nicely. Volunteers, who believed they were taking part in a study of rhythmic ability, were paired up with a partner, who was actually a confederate of the researchers. Both were then asked to listen to tones through earphones and keep time by tapping on sensors. In some cases, they heard the same tones and tapped out the same beat. In others, they heard different tones, so the tapping was out of sync.
Then the study got really devious: Volunteers saw their partner appear to be unfairly saddled with completing a stack of difficult word problems. Meanwhile, the volunteers were told that they were finished, but they could stick around and help out their partner if they wished. Those who had tapped the same tempo as their partner, making them feel more in sync, were more likely to offer help.
According to study coauthor David DeSteno, a psychology professor at Northeastern University, looking for any common bond can serve as a compassion booster. Writing for the New York Times, DeSteno gives the example of intentionally thinking about a neighbor as a regular at the same local diner rather than as a member of a different ethnic group.
When you cultivate compassion, you not only notice the pain and misfortune of others, but also feel a strong urge to relieve it—and that feeling increases the odds that you’ll actually do something to help. The obvious results range from better personal relationships to a better society. The less obvious ones may include a calmer, happier, healthier you.
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