Written by Dr Stan Steindl
I’ve become more and more interested in compassion recently, both in terms of my work with people trying to improve their well-being or make changes in their life, and also in terms of my own personal life. But I can’t help also wondering (and have certainly been asked by others), is a focus on compassion a bit soft, weak or too “touchy feely”?
Compassion is a person’s ability to see and perhaps even feel the suffering of another person and also take action to relieve that suffering.
Compassion involves feelings and actions of kindness, warmth, gentleness and soothing. It means accepting that people are whole, and made up of lots of good bits and not so good bits, and that, in fact, in this way we are all basically the same. And it requires strength, courage and perseverance to do something to help.
And all of this presents further challenges when we consider the importance of self-compassion, in other words being able to acknowledge and accept our own suffering, treat ourselves kindly, and take action to help ourselves.
So, is compassion soft, weak or too “touchy feely”?
Well, reassuringly, a lot of scientific studies in disciplines ranging from psychology to economics, health to chronic disease, and evolution to neuroscience are suggesting that the answer to this question is definitely “no”! Compassion is good for all of us.
Compassion benefits both the people giving and receiving compassion.
Something as simple as offering a smile to a person who looks troubled can have an important positive impact. We can sense when a person feels down. We observe the cues in their facial expression and non-verbal behaviour, and we can feel something of what they might be going through. And the reverse is true as well. If we smile at them, or show signs of kindness and warmth, then they will sense that in return and feel something of what we might be projecting through that smile.
In this way, compassion enhances people’s sense of social connection. Social connection creates well-being. Compassion and social connectedness can help people to feel happier and healthier, even to the extent of enhanced psychological well-being, improving immune function and reducing the risk of sickness.
And it has powerful effects on the compassionate person. One reason for this is that neuroscientific studies suggest that giving to others activates certain “pleasure centres” in the brain. In fact, giving is possibly more pleasurable and more likely to enhance psychological and physical well-being than receiving. An anonymous act of kindness to start the day can leave us with a positive legacy throughout our day and beyond.
As humans, and just like all mammals, compassion is innate to us.
And this is the thing…we are hard-wired to help, sooth and nurture others. Observing toddlers and children demonstrates that we know how to do it and we do it from a young age. And of course, our nurturance of our young, our sense of family, our development of social structures and communities…it is all about how compassion, kindness and helping each other allows our species to survive.
In fact, compassion is the human species’ greatest strength.
I was exploring this topic recently and discovered an interesting point being made by Dr Dacher Keltner from The Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley. He said that the idea “survival of the fittest” is often misattributed to Charles Darwin as part of his theory of evolution. However, this term was actually coined by Herbert Spencer, a Social Darwinist who believed that evolution explained class and racial social differences.
Darwin actually wrote in The Decent of Man that “communities, which included the greatest number of the most sympathetic members, would flourish best, and rear the greatest number of offspring.”
It seems that compassion is not soft, weak or too “touchy feely” at all, but rather a vital evolutionary strength and that our natural selection is much more likely to be guided by a slightly different philosophy:
“SURVIVAL OF THE KINDEST”.