The Power of a Compassionate Heart

The Power of a Compassionate Heart

Take a minute to watch video below titled “The Lunchbox” produced by ad agency Kitchen located in Oslo, Norway. Pay attention to how your body reacts to the characters in the video. The temperature of your body, the sensations within your body, your facial expression.

 

After watching, did your body feel warm? Did you get a boost of happiness and smile? Maybe even a tear came to your eye. What you were witnessing was an act of compassion made by a group of children in a classroom setting. Whether it was this specific commercial or an act of compassion witnessed with your own two eyes, the described feeling above is probably familiar to you. Was this act of compassion a natural behavior for the children or was it learned? How does one become compassionate enough to commit acts of kindness such as the one in the video or ones we witness after a tragic event?

The answers to these questions will be reviewed in this 5 part series and information will be provided to support your understanding of compassion. To begin, researchers have determined that compassion is both a natural behavior and one that can be learned and developed. Dacher Keltner out of the University of California, Berkeley, explains that compassion is essential for survival, which led to the term “compassion instinct”. Research suggests that animals will help others in the group solely because the helping behavior is rewarding. Compassion is necessary to survive because of the physical and mental benefits that it presents. However, compassion can also be learned and developed through encouragement and practice. Compassion can develop in the body in a similar way that muscles can be developed. For example, if you want to gain muscle in your legs, you go to the gym and run or use weights. If you continue to go to the gym on a consistent basis and work hard, eventually your legs will be able to manage more weight or you will run further. That being said, compassion can be considered another “muscle” in our body that needs attention in order to grow.

Throughout this series we will be discussing compassion and providing you with concrete tools and strategies to build on your “compassion muscle”. The specific take home tools will benefit you and your child in many ways including, giving you detailed instructions on how to improve compassion towards others and yourself and how to instill compassion in your child. Before we get to the nitty-gritty with techniques, we must first develop an understanding of compassion.

Compassion. What is it?

According to Dictionary.com, compassion means “a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering.” This particular definition accompasses two core relational aspects of human interactions, sympathy and empathy. In our day-to-day lives, we interact with people in numerous ways all the while choosing whether or not that interaction is positive and compassionate. In the video you watched at the beginning of this article, there was a prime example of children choosing to engage with another child in a compassionate way. The children in the video observed that the child who left the room did not have any food to eat. The children experienced an emotional response (sympathy) throughout their body as they watched the little boy experience a form of suffering. Their emotional response to the suffering created a desire in the children to help ease the pain the child was feeling. It is our perception that they understood what it would be like to not have food (empathy).

SYMPATHY + EMPATHY + DESIRE TO HELP = COMPASSION

As we watched, we witnessed the children let go of judgement, accept the other child, and appreciate how he was feeling. Living a compassionate lifestyle requires those characteristics and leads to significant physical and mental benefits.

Benefits. What can I expect?

According to Emma Seppala, Ph.D, the science director at the Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, compassion has several scientific benefits that create lasting changes, both physically and mentally. Dr. Seppala has discovered through research, that experiencing true happiness is related to being connected with others and helping those around us, rather than achieving and receiving. Listed below are a few of the major benefits that are a result of using our “compassion muscle”:

Longevity. Prolonging human life has been researched and medicines have been created to support people living longer lives. What if we could prolong life without medication or a doctor’s order? Research has demonstrated that people who are compassionate towards themselves and others live longer. Not only are they living longer, but they are healthier, more resistant to illness, and have a more positive connections with others.

Happiness. Research has shown that when people help others and act in a compassionate manner, the “pleasure center” in the brain is activated. When the “pleasure center” is activated, the body experiences a natural sense of reward. You may be thinking, “Why would I give to charity when I could buy the new iPhone and experience similar happiness?” Happiness does occur when we buy things for ourselves, however, research has shown that the happiness is even greater when gifts are presented to others. According to Newport Academy, this is known as the “Helper’s High”.

Refocus. At times, we lose focus of what is going on in the world around us. We become focused on our shortcomings or what we do not have, which leads to anxiety and depression. As compassionate acts are committed, the focus is turned towards others rather than on ourselves. Focusing on others can pull us out of our internal negative thoughts about self and gain perspective and empathy.

Attention. Acting compassionately towards others requires that we remain in the present moment and focused on what is occurring around us. This attention to details and being in the present moment reducing distractions. When we work to increase concentration and attention through compassion, research suggests that symptoms of ADHD will decrease in both children and adults.

“Carryover Effect”. According to Newport Academy, the “carryover effect” is the positive shift our brains make when commit compassionate acts. After we act in a compassionate manner, our brains remain focused on the positive things occurring rather than the negative. When we begin to focus on the positive, we inspire others to act more compassionately, resulting in compassion becoming contagious.

Listed above are 5 of the major benefits that are a result of building our “compassion muscle”. However, Emma Seppala, Ph.D, lists several more benefits that can be obtained from being compassionate towards self and others. Click here to check out an infographic created by Dr. Seppala for more compassion benefits!

Becoming a Compassion Warrior.

Now that we have reviewed what compassion is and the benefits of living a compassionate lifestyle, I am hoping you are hooked into developing your compassion muscle. Throughout this series, it is my hope that with the tools and strategies provided, you and your family will become compassion warriors and spread the positivity to those around you. In the next segment of this blog series, we will discuss where to start with enhancing your compassion muscle. Before focusing externally, we have to bravely focus our attention inward for a bit to build self-compassion. Stay tuned for the next segment!

The Power of a Compassionate Heart
Adrienne Stover, MS, LPCA

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