what is compassion

There is a lot of anecdotal evidence to suggest that living a life filled with positive emotions can have a positive physiological effect on our bodies. Like most people, I enjoy hearing stories that reinforce my preconceived notions about how the world is. I also recognize that anecdotes are great stories, but they’re lousy science and can often lead to poor decision-making. So, what is compassion and how does it make a difference?

I’ve heard stories about how living a more compassionate and empathic life can improve our health, so I thought I’d see if there’s any research to back up the stories. It turns out that the journal Integrative Psychological and Behavioral Science in 1997 conducted a study on 45 healthy adults. You can read the abstract of the study here and purchase the entire study, if you’re so inclined. The gist of the study was that the adults in the experimental group experienced significant increases in positive emotions and significant decreases in negative emotions. Additionally, the experimental group experienced a 23 percent reduction in cortisol levels and a 100 percent increase in levels of the hormone DHEA. According to research at the National Institutes of Health, DHEA is possibly effective for, among other things, countering the effects of aging on skin and bones. Cortisol is often sited as the “stress hormone”, released during periods of high stress to help us deal with stressful situations. When present in the body for a longer term, however, cortisol is associated with several negative effects including impaired cognitive performance, decreased bone density, decrease in muscle tissue, higher blood pressure, and lowered immunity. So, it’s clear that living a life filled with positive emotions including compassion and empathy can have pretty powerful effects on ourselves. Now, the question is how can we become more compassionate and empathic people? Here are five things you can do right now to become even more compassionate and empathic that you already are:

  1. Start by expressing gratitude. We’ve all been blessed in our lives. Certainly some people have been blessed more than others, but each of us has things for which we can be grateful. Think of those things, reflect on them, focus on them. Here’s a video I created on gratitude to help you.
  2. Practice thinking of what you have in common with others. As different as we all are, we are also quite similar. In a June 2007 article in Ode Magazine (now known as The Optimist), writer Tijn Touber suggests the following exercise. When you meet someone or even just see someone on the street, discreetly go through a reflection similar to this:
    1. Like me, this person seeks happiness.
    2. Like me, this person wants to avoid suffering.
    3. Like me, this person has a history that includes suffering loneliness, despair, and sadness.
    4. Like me, this person wants to fulfill his/her needs.
    5. Like me, this person is still learning about life. Neither one of us has it all figured out.
  3. Look for ways to relieve suffering. It doesn’t have to be something big, although it might be. It might be something as simple as feeding a stranger’s parking meter or paying the toll for the car behind you.
  4. Practice being kind, especially to people whom you don’t like or trust. It’s easy to be kind to your friends and people whom you trust. It’s much more of a challenge to be kind to people you find disagreeable. To really put yourself to the test, practice being kind, compassionate, and respectful to people who mistreat you.
  5. Finally, slow down. I’ve noticed in my own life that I’m least compassionate when I’m in the greatest hurry.

Of course, compassion is only one part of the formula for being great at serving others, but it’s a great start. Not only will having a sense of compassion help us as we strive to improve our customer service, but it will also help make us better humans!

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