Compassion is as vital to life as the air we breathe. For in the absence of compassion, how many benevolent, selfless and heroic deeds would have happened throughout history?
Imagine a world without Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Jr., St. Francis of Assisi, Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, and so many others.
Imagine a world without the countless individuals who risked their own lives to save others during wartime (i.e., the thousands of Holocaust martyrs listed as the Righteous Among Nations). Imagine a world without those who’ve run into burning buildings or executed other heroic feats of rescue during times of trauma. It’s unthinkable.
And what about the concept of compassion in modern everyday life? After all, if this quality has the power to inspire courageous deeds, it must also encourage all sorts of positive behaviors that have both individual and societal benefits.
This article will address these ideas by looking closely at the concept of compassion; such as its meaning, value, psychological and other benefits, and relationship to qualities that promote coping (i.e., resilience).
Empirical research examining the impact and correlates of compassion will also be included. If compassion may be perceived as a requisite for a meaningful existence and civilized society, it is indeed a concept worthy of continued discovery. So, let’s begin our inquiry into this precious quality that is compassion.
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This Article Contains:
- The Concept of Compassion in Psychology
- Compassion and Positive Psychology
- Research and Studies
- Why is Compassion Important and Necessary?
- The Value and Power of Compassion
- 20 Proven Benefits of Compassion
- Is Compassion Linked to Resilience?
- Does Compassion Help to Deal with Stress?
- Why is Compassion Important in Society?
- Other Common Questions
- 12 Psychology Journals on Compassion
- A Take-Home Message
The Concept of Compassion in Psychology
If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.
The Dalai Lama’s words are instructive because they refer to the emotional benefits of compassion to both the giver and recipient. In other words, the rewards of practicing compassion work both ways.
But what exactly is meant by ‘compassion?’ Various definitions of compassion have been proposed by researchers and philosophers. For example, in his detailed review, Cassell (2009) reported the following three requirements for compassion:
1) “That the troubles that evoke our feelings are serious;”
2) “that the sufferers’ troubles not be self-inflicted— that they be the result of an unjust fate;” and
3) “we must be able to picture ourselves in the same predicament” (p. 3).
As such, compassion is not an automatic response to another’s plight; it is a response that occurs only when the situation is perceived as serious, unjust and relatable. It requires a certain level of awareness, concern and empathy.
Consistent with the above definition, seeing a homeless man on the sidewalk will register differently depending upon how this situation is uniquely perceived by passersby. The amount of compassion elicited by others will be dependent upon how serious his situation is deemed, as well as the perceived degree of fault attributed to him for his predicament.
This example is pertinent to a quote that is prevalent in studies of compassion: “Make no judgments where you have no compassion” (Anne McCaffrey, goodreads.com). Judging a person’s predicament in the absence of compassion amounts to little more than judgment. Compassion can be painful to feel because it requires empathy for others, but it is also necessary because it evokes positive action.
A Look at Self-Compassion
Psychologists are also interested in the role of compassion towards oneself. When individuals view their own behaviors and shortcomings without compassion, they may ruminate about their faults and inadequacies in such a way that erodes self-esteem and happiness.
Because of the importance of self-kindness and -forgiveness to mental health, the concept of ‘self-compassion’ is occurring more often in the psychological literature.
Self-compassion has been defined as involving “self-kindness versus self-judgment; a sense of common humanity versus isolation, and mindfulness versus overidentification” (Neff, 2003, p. 212). It is a way of recognizing one’s inability to be perfect and to see oneself from a comforting rather than critical perspective (Neff, 2003).
Self-compassion is gaining popularity in psychology because of its reported relationships with reduced feelings of anxiety, depression, and rumination (Neff, Kirkpatrick, & Rude, 2007), as well as increased psychological wellbeing and connections with others (Neff et al., 2007; Zessin, Dickhäuser, & Garbade, 2015).
As research emerges suggesting that self-compassion represents an important protective mechanism, increased numbers of psychological interventions are including self-compassion as a key treatment component.
Compassion and Positive Psychology
The field of positive psychology “is founded on the belief that people want to lead meaningful and fulﬁlling lives, to cultivate what is best within themselves, and to enhance their experiences of love, work, and play” (International Positive Psychology Association in Donaldson, Dollwet, & Rao, 2014, p. 2).
It is a field that encompasses an array of positive experiences such as contentment, optimism, and happiness which cover past, present and future timepoints; as well as individual (i.e., forgiveness) and group (i.e., civility) level traits (Kashdan, & Ciarrochi, 2013).
Considering positive psychology’s focus on the promotion of positive emotions, traits, and behaviors that ultimately foster positive wellbeing (Donaldson et al., 2014); the study of compassion fits in well with the interests of positive psychologists. The role of compassion in positive psychology is being increasingly supported by science.
In their comprehensive review of empirical studies within the positive psychology field between 1999 and 2013, Donaldson and colleagues (2014) identified 771 articles across 46 countries addressing the aims of positive psychology.
Wellbeing was the most prevalent topic studied. The researchers reported a number of studies indicating that compassion and gratitude were predictors of increased wellbeing (Donaldson et al., 2014).
Additionally, mindfulness was the most frequently researched intervention, and intensive mindfulness training was related to increases in several positive outcomes, including self-compassion. There is little doubt that compassion will continue to maintain its place in positive psychology as a quality meriting continued attention and research.
Research and Studies
There are a growing number of research studies examining the benefits and correlates of compassion.
The following table provides a list of 14 examples:
|Increased compassion is related to increased happiness and decreased depression||Shapira & Mongrain, 2010|
|Compassion interventions promote social connection||Seppala, Rossomando, & James, 2013|
|Compassion interacts with social support to buffer against physiological reactivity to stress||Cosley, McCoy, Saslow, & Epel, 2010|
|Compassionate love is related to long-term HIV survival||Ironson, Kremer, & Lucette, 2018|
|Compassion is reported by patients and nurses as an important motivator of cooperative behavior between patients and staff aimed at achieving important care outcomes||Van der Cingel, 2011|
|Compassion is associated with improved parent-child relationships||Duncan, Coatsworth, & Greenberg, 2009|
|Compassion for teachers expressed by colleagues is linked to increased teacher job satisfaction, organizational commitment, and sense of emotional vigor||Eldor & Shoshani, 2016|
|High self-criticism and low habitual self-compassion are related to a higher risk of depression||Ehret, Joormann, & Berking, 2014|
|Self-compassion buffers the impact of stress via self-kindness and positive cognitive restructuring||Allen & Leary, 2010|
|Self‐compassion is related to increased well‐being||Zessin, Dickhäuser, & Garbade, 2015|
|Self-compassion buffers against anxiety, and is linked to increased psychological wellbeing||Neff, Kirkpatrick, & Rude, 2007|
|Self-compassion is associated with positive aging||Phillips & Ferguson, 2013|
|Self-compassion is related to reduced PTSD symptom severity||Thompson & Waltz, 2008|
|Self-compassion is linked to reduced burn-out among medical professionals||Mills & Chapman, 2016|
Why is Compassion Important and Necessary?
Since Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi (2000) originally set the groundwork for the positive psychology movement 15 years ago, many exciting research studies have emerged within the field. Included within this research is the aim of increasing the understanding of important predictors of prosocial outcomes, such as compassion.
But why compassion? Seppala, Rossomando and James (2013) describe social connection as an underlying drive of human behavior, even at the physiological level. As we are a highly social species, fostering meaningful relationships is an essential aspect of healthy human adjustment.
Establishing such connections requires the ability to express care and concern for other people, as well as to identify with them. This latter concept has been termed ‘perspective taking’ (Kashdan, & Ciarrochi, 2013) and is an area of importance in relationship-building because being able to identify with another person’s feelings is strongly related to empathy.
Compassion and empathy are fundamental aspects of quality relationships as they enable kind and loving behavior. Compassionate behavior such as volunteer work also has been associated with positive outcomes such as increased academic aspirations and self-esteem among adolescents (Kirkpatrick, Johnson, & Beebe, et al., 1998), as well as improved mortality rates among older volunteers (Yum & Lightfoot, 2005).
Not only does showing compassion for others make us feel better about ourselves, but self-compassion also serves an important function for wellbeing. Unfortunately, people often disparage themselves over mistakes for which they would readily forgive others. Yet, when we look beyond our flaws and treat ourselves with forgiveness and understanding, we increase our psychological health and wellbeing.
In fact, self-compassion has been reported as more beneficial than self-esteem because it strongly enhances emotional resilience without also fostering some of the negative correlates that have been associated with self-esteem (i.e., ego-defensiveness; Neff, 2011).
The reported relationships between both compassion and self-compassion with various positive outcomes represent exciting findings for both researchers and psychologists alike.
The Value and Power of Compassion
According to the Dalai Lama:
Each of us in our own way can try to spread compassion into people’s hearts. Western civilizations these days place great importance on filling the human ‘brain’ with knowledge, but no one seems to care about filling the human ‘heart’ with compassion. This is what the real role of religion is.
This quote is pertinent to the field of medicine, wherein medical school training places a strong emphasis on the attainment of knowledge— with minimal attention given to the teaching of compassion.
This lack of attention to compassion in the medical field has been reported by patients, with one survey indicating that only 53% of hospitalized patients reported experiencing compassionate care (Lown, Rosen, & Marttila, 2011).
However, for those experiencing serious or traumatic healthcare issues, bedside manner makes a huge difference in terms of the patient’s emotional and physical health. Moreover, it only takes one uncaring medical professional to discourage future trips to the doctor.
Clearly, the value and power of compassion are essential within the medical field. As patients face their pain, anxiety and fear; nurturing of the soul takes on a vital role in both healing and coping.
For example, in a 17-year longitudinal study of HIV patients, researchers found that greater giving of compassionate love and compassionate love towards oneself were predictive of longer survival (Ironson, Kremer, & Lucette, 2018). This finding is a true testament to the power of compassion.
While the value of compassion in healthcare has gained increased attention among researchers, especially in the field of nursing— it remains a neglected focus of training.
In a poignant story recently posted on Facebook (Treasureside.com), the value of compassion in the nursing field is beautifully articulated. This article chronicles a woman who lost her baby during delivery; it’s a raw and gut-wrenching description of her experience. Despite her despair, the mother used social media to convey her experience as a way of honoring the compassion of nurses.
In her ‘thank you’ letter, she expressed her gratitude to her nurses by noting the many loving and compassionate acts they displayed during her trauma. Here are a few of her expressions of appreciation toward the nurses:
- “Thank you for being my advocate when I couldn’t speak up because I was too busy fighting for my life.”
- “Thank you for holding me as I wept at the burden [breast milk] I could not release. Your embrace did nothing to lighten the heaviness in my breasts, but you brought a glimmer of light into my very dark world.”
- “Thank you to the nurse in the ICU who came in to clean me up after my daughter died. Thank you for taking the time to help me wash my face and brush my hair.”
- “Thank you to the nurse who dressed my baby and took her picture. Thank you for making sure her hat didn’t cover her eyes and that her hands were positioned gracefully.” (Treasureside.com).
This beautiful letter says everything about the necessity and power of compassion among nurses, who – especially in situations such as this one— often represent the healthcare professionals who nurture patients through their worst nightmares.
The article portrays, not just one or two compassionate nurses; but a full team of caring individuals who seemed to work together in fully embracing a devastated family’s emotional, psychological, and physical needs. These skills go well beyond medical training; they reflect a depth of understanding and sensitivity that is the epitome of kindness, generosity, and love.
Compassion has been described as the “essence of nursing” (Chambers & Ryder 2009), as it requires the ability to perceive the patient’s experience while promoting healing and alleviating suffering. Training healthcare workers in compassion becomes complex because everyone expresses and receives compassion differently.
In their qualitative study of hospital patients in the United Kingdom, Bramley and Matiti (2014) explored patients’ experiences of compassion during their nursing care.
Patients defined nursing compassion in the following ways:
1) Compassion was reported as strongly connected to care, involving encouragement, plenty of time dedicated to patients, and individualized, personal care;
2) Empathy was also considered important and included the desire for nurses to understand how the lack of compassion might feel to a patient; and
3) While the value of compassion did not waver among patients, they disagreed about whether it represents a teachable quality versus an innate trait.
The authors suggest that clinical practice emphasize the importance of nursing compassion by using compassionate care activities (i.e., hearing patient stories, role-playing compassionate behavior, etc.; Bramley and Matiti, 2014). Therapeutic materials based on Mutzel’s therapeutic relationship model have also been designed to teach student nurses how to be more compassionate and empathetic toward patients (Richardson, Percy, & Hughes, 2015).
Of course, there is no reason for compassion within healthcare to be a requirement only for nurses; doctors also have a responsibility to respond to patients in a way that reduces anxiety and promotes wellness and coping— especially for patients dealing with serious illness.
One study found that physicians significantly reduced anxiety among cancer patients by simply providing a 40-second compassion video to patients (Fogarty, Curbow, & Wingard, et al., 1999). Moreover, among patients who viewed this short video, doctors were rated as higher in caring, compassion, and warmth.
If 40-seconds of compassion can make a meaningful difference in reducing patient anxiety, why not ensure that it is consistently applied during patient-doctor conversations?
We are all familiar with the flight video instructing parents to provide oxygen for themselves before their children. This is because we can only help others if we take care of ourselves first; otherwise we have nothing to offer.
Along these lines, the notion of self-compassion is gaining increased attention in healthcare research. Doctors, nurses and other medical professionals may work long hours doing highly stressful work. Self-compassion is an important way for such healthcare professionals to practice self-care and -kindness in order to prevent burnout.
Compassion fatigue (to be subsequently described) and burnout are significant nursing stressors (Neville & Cole, 2013), with research reporting moderate to high levels of burnout among 82% of ER nurses (Hooper, Craig, Janvrin, Wetsel, & Reimels, 2010).
Visualize, for example, a nurse or physician who works a 12-hour shift in a busy emergency room. There are times when he/she may be exhausted with little time to eat; all the while experiencing the stress and sense of personal responsibility that comes with life or death situations.
By emotionally restructuring cognitions in a way that is consistent with self-compassion (i.e., by understanding that some events are beyond one’s control), the medical professional will be better able to cope with highly stressful situations.
Despite the logical justification for increased self-compassion among healthcare workers (including benefits to patients), there isn’t a great deal of research or medical training emphasis on self-compassion.
Consequently, physicians tend to instead value personal qualities such as perfectionism (Mills & Chapman, 2016), which is an important omission. After all, self-compassion predicts reduced anxiety and increased psychological wellbeing (Neff et al., 2007)— qualities that will only serve to enhance the ability of medical personnel to perform quality work.
Read more about compassion training here.
20 Proven Benefits of Compassion
Even though self-compassion and compassion toward others are still burgeoning areas of research, many proven benefits have already been identified.
Here are 20:
- Compassion promotes social connection among adults and children. Social connection is important to adaptive human functioning, as it is related to increased self-esteem, empathy, wellbeing; and higher interpersonal orientation (Seppala et al., 2013).
- Compassion is related to increased happiness (Shapira & Mongrain, 2010).
- Compassion is related to higher levels of wellbeing (Zessin et al., 2015).
- Compassionate love is associated with higher patient survival rates, even after adjusting for social support and substance use effects (Ironson et al., 2017).
- Patient-reported clinician empathy and compassion is related to increased patient satisfaction and lower distress (Lelorain, Brédart, Dolbeault, & Sultan, 2012).
- Brief expressions of compassion expressed by doctors are related to decreased patient anxiety (Fogarty, et al., 1999).
- Compassion has a mediating effect on the link between religion and aggression among adolescents. Stated another way, a relationship between religion and aggression was diminished among youths rated higher in compassion and self-control (Shepperd, Miller, Tucker, & Smith, 2015).
- Compassion-focused therapy is reported as a promising therapeutic approach for individuals with affective disorders characterized by high self-criticism (Leaviss & Uttley, 2012).
- Compassion promotes positive parenting by improving parent-child relationships (i.e., more affection and less negative affect; Duncan, Coatsworth, & Greenberg, 2009). Consequently, there are various mindfulness-based parent training approaches and parenting books with a specific focus on compassionate parenting (i.e., Parenting From Your Heart: Sharing the Gifts of Compassion, Connection, and Choice, Kashtan, 2004; and Raising Children Compassionately: Parenting the Nonviolent Communication Way, Rosenberg, 2004).
- Compassion within classrooms is related to increased cooperation and better learning (Hart & Kindle Hodson, 2004).
- Compassion for teachers as expressed by colleagues is linked to increased teacher job satisfaction, organizational commitment, and sense of emotional vigor (Eldor & Shoshani, 2016).
- Compassion expressed as a function of service work is related to improved health and wellbeing among volunteers (Black & Living, 2004; Yum & Lightfoot, 2005).
- Self-compassion has a number of proven psychological benefits, such as reduced PTSD symptom severity (Thompson & Waltz, 2008), and lower levels of psychopathology in general (MacBeth & Gumley, 2012).
- Self-compassion is linked to more positive aging (Phillips & Ferguson, 2013).
- The combination of self-compassion and optimism is beneficial for depression-vulnerable people (Shapira & Mongrain, 2010).
- Self-compassion during smoking cessation training is associated with reduced smoking among participants with low readiness to change, high self-criticism, and vivid imagery during the treatment program (Kelly, Zuroff, Foa, & Gilbert, 2010).
- Low habitual self-compassion and high self-criticism are related to a higher risk of depression (Ehret, Joorman, & Berking, 2014).
- Self-compassion can be linked to various aspects of general wellbeing, such as happiness, optimism, positive affect, wisdom, personal initiative, curiosity and exploration (Neff et al., 2007).
- Self-compassion reduces burnout and fosters important adaptive qualities among medical professionals (Mills & Chapman, 2016).
- Self-compassion buffers the negative impact of stress (Allen & Leary, 2010).
Is Compassion Linked to Resilience?
Resilience is defined as “the process of, capacity for, or outcome of successful adaptation despite challenging or threatening circumstances” (Masten, Best, & Garmezy, 1990). It is a type of mental armor that protects individuals from the impact of adversity. Along with promoting wellbeing and social connectedness, there is reason to believe that compassion also fosters resilience.
In their review article, Peters and Calvo (2014) describe compassion as the act of being sensitive to the suffering of others. The authors further note that compassion represents a form of affiliation that motivates us to help those in need. It is in this way that “compassion triggers positive affect in the face of suffering and therefore contributes to resilience and wellbeing” (Peters and Calvo, 2014, p. 48).
Resilience has also been proposed as important for reducing the likelihood of ‘compassion fatigue’ – which occurs among workers who deal with high trauma patients (i.e., social workers, hospice nurses, oncologists, rape victim counselors, etc.).
Compassion fatigue has also been referred to as secondary stress that occurs when compassion decreases over time for individuals in roles demanding a high level of compassion. As compassion fatigue is a precursor to burnout, it essential to take steps toward avoiding it.
Interestingly, Mother Theresa was proactive when it came to compassion fatigue, as she required her nuns to restore themselves emotionally by taking leave for a full year every 4-5 years.
Others have suggested that occupational resilience that inhibits compassion fatigue is supported by a work environment with sufficient support for self-care, self-protection, professional development, safety measures, personal experiences, and education (Kapoulitsas & Corcoran, 2014).
These findings suggest that, while compassion plays a role in promoting resilience; there is a line at which a constant need for high levels of compassion can produce burnout. Fortunately, supervisors of those with high stress helping occupations have begun to take some necessary steps toward promoting emotional health and resilience among these invaluable workers.
Does Compassion Help to Deal with Stress?
Several research studies have suggested that there are stress-buffering benefits of compassion. For example, one study by Pace, Tenzin Negi and Adame (2009) investigated the impact of compassion meditation— which consists of meditation that goes beyond soothing the mind by also adding a compassion-enhancement component.
More specifically, following a Tibetan Buddhist mind-training approach, the goal of compassion meditation is to challenge unexamined cognitions toward others in order to promote altruistic feelings (Pace et al., 2009).
Study participants attended twice-weekly 50-minute compassion meditation sessions for a total of six weeks, as well as additional sessions that were completed at home. The researchers found that compassion meditation participation was associated with innate immune responses to psychosocial stress (Pace et al., 2009).
A similar study examined mindfulness-based stress reduction training that consisted of sensory awareness exercises, yoga, loving-kindness meditation; as well as education regarding stress symptoms and consequences (Birnie, Speca, & Carlson, 2010). Research findings indicated that self-compassion was related to reduced stress symptoms (Birnie et al., 2010).
Laboratory studies also have reported stress-related benefits of compassion. For example, in an ego-threat experiment, self-compassion was found to protect participants from anxiety (Neff et al., 2007).
And finally, compassion was assessed among participants who completed a high-stress task. Those who were higher in compassion reported a greater degree of liking for supportive evaluators.
Compassion also interacted with social support such that those participants who were higher in compassion and received social support as part of the experiment showed less physiological stress reactivity as measured by blood pressure, HF-HRV, and cortisol reactivity (Cosley, McCoy, Saslow, & Epel, 2010).
The above studies support the notion that individuals who are high in self-compassion or compassion for others respond to stress in a healthier way than those who are lower in such constructs.
With respect to self-compassion, psychologists argue that self-compassionate individuals buffer themselves from stress by using self-kindness and positive cognitive restructuring as a way of coping with stressful situations (Allen, & Leary, 2010). More research is needed examining the link between compassion and stress, but evidence thus far provides promising support for the stress inoculating power of compassion.
Why is Compassion Important in Society?
In his classic song “Imagine,” John Lennon envisioned a world in which people lived peacefully without greed or hunger. He was singing about his dream for a compassionate world.
Philosophers have also shared many thoughts on compassion, such as Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), who believed that “Compassion is the basis of all morality” (thinkexist.com). In a compassion-based society, historical atrocities such as genocide, war, and acts of terrorism would not have happened.
Fortunately, as history is a window to the future, we can learn a great deal from it. History needs to be considered with a compassionate mindset, which includes an understanding of ongoing historical trauma. And with the hypervigilance to notice and act upon current wrongdoings such that they do not escalate, and negative historical events are not repeated.
More poignantly stated in Deuteronomy 4:9, “Only guard yourself and guard your soul carefully, lest you forget the things your eyes saw, and lest these things depart your heart all the days of your life. And you shall make them known to your children and to your children’s children” (Deuteronomy 4:9). This is living with compassion both for the past and the present.
Compassion is suggested as an integral component of evolution by serving to protect vulnerable offspring, promote cooperative behavior between non-family members, and encourage adaptive mate selection (Goetz, Keltner, & Simon-Thomas, 2010). Stated another way, compassion has served to enhance the survival of the human species.
Being moved by the suffering of another has always been necessary for the betterment of society and there is a multitude of modern examples where an ounce of compassion makes a world of difference. Unfortunately, research indicates modern society is showing an alarming decline in social connectedness (Seppala et al., 2013), which is a likely byproduct of the reliance on technology versus face-to-face contact.
Another area in society where increased compassion is sorely needed is driving. Road rage represents a worldwide epidemic that is responsible for millions of injuries per year (James, 2000). If compassionate driving was societally reinforced, as well as a key priority of driving schools, drivers would be less likely to berate other drivers.
Rather, they would be more inclined to understand that drivers are simply human beings who make mistakes. After all, a person who is driving too slowly or fails to signal might simply be having a really bad day. Lives would be saved, injuries avoided, and anger both expressed and modeled for children would be reduced if people would practice compassion behind the wheel.
There are numerous other areas where the suffering of others is too often viewed with an eye of judgment, rather than compassion. For example, homelessness and drug use have reached epidemic proportions in some cities, leaving politicians and citizens at a loss for what to do. There are, however, compassionate approaches that DO work.
In Seattle, WA, the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) project took a novel approach toward chronic drug-users who habitually cycle through the criminal justice system.
The LEAD philosophy is based on research indicating that continued prosecution and jail time for drug addicts fail to deter recidivism. And most importantly, the revolving door in and out of jail leaves individuals dealing with a large sequelae of serious risk factors and problems (i.e., child and/or domestic abuse, poverty, homelessness, mental illness, lack of family support, racial and cultural disparities, medical problems, lack of educational opportunities, etc.) worse off than before.
By taking both a compassionate and research-based approach, the LEAD program offered repeat offending drug users (the majority of whom were also chronically homeless) the opportunity to avoid arrest and jail time by enrolling in a cooperative effort between Seattle police officers and case managers assigned to participants.
Participants received compassion, rather than judgment; as well as the dignity to make their own treatment-related choices. The program was highly individualized and comprehensive, with each participant receiving extensive case management and supportive services specific to their own needs, and for as long as necessary.
Relative to controls, LEAD participants experienced 60% lower odds of arrest and felony charges (Collins, Lonczak, & Clifasefi, 2017), as well as a significantly greater likelihood of obtaining housing, employment and legitimate income at follow-up (Clifasefi, Lonczak, & Collins, 2016). The LEAD program— which has since been replicated in other states and countries, represents a community of compassion that works.
One of the beautiful aspects of the LEAD program is that the police offers became compassionate adversaries for many individuals who had experienced law enforcement in a very different way for much of their lives.
In their essay on “Mindfulness, Compassion, and the Police in America,” DeValve and Adkinson (2008) provide an argument for a new paradigm of organizational mindfulness among police.
The authors propose that police officers “deepen their practices sufﬁciently to exude compassion” and institute problem-orienting policing as a way to address “economic inequality, mental illness, individual suffering, and substandard education… [while moving away from] their traditional order-maintenance worldview, and re-empower themselves to act in different (e.g., policy) spheres as well as in areas of public safety” (DeValve & Adkinson, 2008, pgs. 100 & 102).
In line with the notion of community justice, it is proposed that Buddhist philosophy is an instructive model for law enforcement by applying mindful action toward the reduction of suffering. Not only would a compassionate-based way of policing reduce racial tensions between police and the community, but it also would “predicate a relationship of trust, a reservoir of goodwill, to help salve the wounds of the community” (DeValve & Adkinson, 2008, pgs. 103).
Compassion clearly holds an invaluable place in many aspects of society, such as among police officers, medical professionals, teachers, and social workers. Role models of compassion among those in power (i.e., politicians), have the capacity to dampen motivation toward hateful acts; while instead bolstering kindness, love, and understanding. Moreover, by recognizing human fallibility while considering the suffering of others with an eye toward compassion, individuals can make a difference in creating a more peaceful society.
Other Common Questions
Here is a list of frequently asked questions and answers about compassion.
1. Can compassion be learned?
Absolutely. While some of us behave more consistently compassionate than others due to upbringing and various other factors, interventions promoting compassion indicate that compassion is teachable. Moreover, such interventions have found increases in various positive factors such as social connection.
Naturally, teaching compassion should begin with young children in order to foster a trajectory toward empathy, compassion, and kindness at a time when personalities and beliefs are still developing.
2. Do other animal species have compassion?
Yes, compassion is evident among other animal species, such as monkeys, whales, elephants, and so many more. And of course, dogs and cats have been known to show endless amounts of unconditional love and compassion for humans.
3. What can I do to be more compassionate?
- Be altruistic. We can be more compassionate by moving beyond our comfort zones and helping individuals or engaging in service work as a way of helping people, animals, and our communities. Altruistic behaviors also improve the self-esteem and wellbeing of those who offer them.
- Avoid judgment. It is impossible to know the factors that have led a person toward their current predicament; nor how we would fare in the same situation. Considering our own similarities to others in need will help to promote empathy and compassion.
- Practice gratitude. Reflecting on the things in your life that you appreciate will foster a sense of compassion for those less fortunate.
- Consider Buddhism. The objective of Buddhism is to enhance one’s own wisdom, kindness and compassion; and ultimately to achieve unconditional happiness and enlightenment.
- Be kind to yourself. Sometimes we are our own worst enemies. Remember that all human beings are flawed and will make mistakes; ongoing rumination and self-loathing serves no benefit to you or anyone around you. Instead, practice self-forgiveness and coping tools that will help you to move forward in a more positive way.
4. How can I be a more compassionate parent?
Compassionate parenting is an essential component of positive parenting. Positive parents show compassion by:
- Avoiding labeling children (i.e., “the smart one,” “the athlete,” “the naughty one,” etc.), as doing so is hurtful and promotes both sibling rivalry and self-fulfilling prophecies.
- Be sensitive to your child’s developmental stage.
- Practice regular, open communication.
- Provide affection and emotional warmth.
- Empathize with your child’s feelings.
- Empower autonomy in order to support creativity, empowerment, and self-determination.
- Teach respect for other living creatures by teaching him/her how to care for and show kindness to animals.
- Practice positive discipline, which is warm and democratic, and never violent.
- Guide and teach your child by role modeling kind and compassionate behavior.
- Show optimism and help your child to believe in him/herself and the future.
- Provide unconditional love.
12 Psychology Journals on Compassion
Readers interested in finding academic articles focused on compassion might check-out the following psychological journals:
- Current Directions in Psychological Science
- Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge
- Human Development
- International Journal of Human Caring
- Cognition and Emotion
- Journal of Happiness Studies
- Journal of Personality and Social Psychology
- The Journal of Positive Psychology
- Journal of Research in Personality
- Journal of Traumatic Stress
- Motivation and Emotion
Along with psychology journals, medical (especially nursing) and social work journals are also excellent resources for learning about compassion.
Here are 10 examples:
- Ethics and Social Welfare
- The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine
- Journal of Clinical Nursing
- Journal of Emergency Nursing
- Nursing Inquiry
- Palliative Medicine
- Qualitative Social Work
- Self and Identity
- Social Work
- Stress and Health
A Take-Home Message
The biggest take-home message of this article is that compassion matters. There are numerous proven benefits of both self-compassion and compassion toward others, such as increased happiness, improved medical outcomes, reduced stress, reduced psychopathology, and increased social connectedness.
Compassion plays a vital role in the medical field, as well as those where workers consistently aid the suffering. Among patients, compassion has the power to increase coping and healing; and self-compassion is highly beneficial to healthcare workers. In high compassion-demanding occupations, it is essential that workers be supported such that the likelihood of compassion fatigue (e.g., burn-out) is reduced.
While some people are more compassionate than others, it is a quality that can be learned as evidenced by research interventions that have shown significant increases in compassion and related qualities.
Compassion is an essential element in society and is vital to the survival of the human race. Individuals and groups with power (i.e., police, policymakers, politicians, etc.) have an opportunity to contribute to more healthy, peaceful communities by practicing and promoting compassion. Serious societal problems (i.e., homelessness and recidivism) have been significantly reduced following compassionate, research-based interventions.
There are many ways in which individuals can practice compassion such as by being altruistic, avoiding judgment, being grateful, and by applying positive parenting techniques.
By remembering history— including where compassion was both lacking and in abundance— human beings will be more empowered to make compassionate and meaningful life choices. This is the first step toward creating the loving and peaceful society imagined by so many of us.
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Positive Relationships Exercises for free.
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