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by Dr Stan Steindl, Clinical Psychologist

Taken by Darinka Maja February 2006, Montreal.

Taken by Darinka Maja February 2006, Montreal.

The Challenge: Compassion can make us and others healthier and happier, and yet there can be barriers to taking action.
The Science: An established approach to motivating health behaviour change can offer insight into cultivating compassion.
The Solution: Take some time to reflect on 5 key motivational considerations and arrive at a commitment to act.
The Dalai Lama is often quoted as saying, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” And according to Matthieu Ricard in his recent 2015 book Altruism, this notion of the “two-fold benefit” of compassion has its origins in ancient Buddhist teachings, and can similarly be found in many other spiritual traditions.
Modern science is now starting to catch up. Emma Seppälä and her colleagues at the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE, Stanford University) have recently shown that being compassionate and socially connected are predictive of a person’s improved physical and psychological health outcomes, from benefits to the immune system to reduced anxiety, stress and depression.
Makes sense right? Being compassionate is great for everyone, so let’s do it!
The challenge: Moving from feeling compassionate to acting compassionately
Definitions of compassion include an action component. Beyond feeling for someone who might be struggling or suffering, compassion involves us doing something about it. And this transition from compassionate feeling to compassionate action can be difficult.
Dacher Keltner discusses a number of appraisals that can influence a person’s choice whether or not to act with compassion towards someone who is suffering. Is the sufferer relevant to me and my life? Are they to blame for their own misfortune or do they deserve my help? Do I feel like there is anything I can actually do to help? Can I cope with the situation they are in or the way that might make me feel? All natural questions, but they can create discomfort, distress or other barriers to action that make us avert our gaze and walk away from a person in need.
Enhancing our own motivation to act with compassion
The good news is that there is a whole field of study that focuses on how to enhance motivation and help prepare people to take action. The approach, first defined in Bill Miller and Steve Rollnick’s 1991 book, is called motivational interviewing (MI). Since that first publication, and across two subsequent editions, MI has developed into a detailed and evidence-based approach to enhancing motivation for change among a wide range of health behaviours. And it gives us some clues about five key motivational considerations when cultivating compassion.
(1)What would you LIKE to do or change in order to act more compassionately in your life?
This is an important first step. Try to think carefully through the different options there might be in terms of compassionate action. What sorts of things would fit with your preferences? Big or small, think about the kind, helpful or compassionate actions you would like to take in your life. Then start to focus this down to one or two things with which to start.
(2) What are your personal REASONS for taking these actions or making these changes?
Being compassionate needn’t be about why someone else thinks it’s a good idea. Think instead about what you see as the benefits or advantages of compassion. It might be the positive impact this can have on the life of fellow human beings. Or it might be the benefits you may receive from your own compassion towards others. Remember, it’s a “two-fold benefit”, so explore why you feel acting with compassion would be a good thing to do.
(3) What is it that makes acting more compassionately IMPORTANT to you?
Once you have a sense of your reasons for compassion, start to drill down to what makes compassion really important to you. How does compassion fit with your values, or your guiding principles? Think about the kind of person you really want to be, the relationships you really want to have, and the contributions you really want to make. Reflect on how compassion can take you and your life in a valued direction.
(4) Ok, so if you were to act with more compassion, HOW would you go about it?
This can be a tricky step. Sometimes a person can feel like compassion is very important to them, and yet lack the confidence to go ahead and take action. Try to carefully define how you might start to be more compassionate. Plan for little gestures to begin with, take little steps and gradually build confidence with some small successes. Be sure to look for opportunities that present around you for spontaneous acts of kindness, helpfulness and compassion.
And now, if you like, it’s time to commit!
So, you’ve thought about what you’d like to do compassionately in your life, the reasons you’d like to do it, what makes acting with compassion important to you and how you would go about it. The fifth key consideration? It’s time to commit to some first steps.
Commitment is a vital part of behaviour change. It’s beyond what you could, should or would do, and is more about what you will do. Decide what compassionate actions you are going to take. Tell a friend or a partner about your commitment. If you wish, you can sign the Charter of Compassion to further affirm your commitment. So, have a think about commitment…what will you do to act compassionately?
Here are some great starting points:

  • Smile to a stranger in the street, or say “good morning.”
  • Say a sincere “Thank you!” to a shop assistant, or compliment their work.
  • Let an anxious looking driver merge in front of you in traffic.
  • Ask someone “Are you ok?” and then wholeheartedly give attention to their response.
  • Make a donation to a cause you feel strongly about.
  • Join a community organisation that helps out local people in need…get involved!

Aristotle said, “Courage is the first of human virtues because it makes all others possible.”
Living compassionately takes a lot of courage, and it helps us and others to feel healthier and happier. Think through your motivations and affirm your commitments. Then, if you take a risk and act with compassion, you won’t regret it!
To read more about Dr Steindl visit