Science is discovering that compassion is indeed a wonderful medicine.
While most everyone agrees that compassion is a positive moral value, science is revealing that it is also significantly beneficial for one’s health. From stress-reduction, to coping skills, to relieving depression, to attaining long-lasting happiness, practicing compassion for others and for one’s self is showing some seriously promising results.
What Is Compassion?
Compassion, defined by researchers, is “experiencing feelings of loving kindness toward another person’s affliction.” Compassion is taking the time to understand and to feel with your heart, within a space of love, what another person is going through. Compassion is seeing the bullied child sitting alone in the cafeteria, and deciding to warmly join them for lunch. Compassion is seeing a hungry person on the street, and taking a second to see them through the eyes of love; to realize that they must be suffering, and then to bring them something to eat. Compassion is feeling love for one another, and then acting on that love.
These Studies Show That Compassion Reduces Stress, Worry, Depression, And Creates Lasting Happiness
1. Compassion Makes Us More Resilient To Stress
One study discovered that engagement in compassion meditation reduced stress-induced immune and behavioral responses. The study examined the effect of compassion meditation on innate immune, neuroendocrine and behavioral responses to psychosocial stress and evaluated the degree to which engagement in compassionate meditation practice influenced stress-reactivity.
33 healthy adults participated in a 6-week compassion meditation training while the control group of 28 healthy adults who participated in a health discussion group. Afterwards, both groups were exposed to a standardized laboratory stressor and their plasma concentrations of interleukin (IL)-6, cortisol levels and feelings were recorded. Previous studies indicated that specific influences related to traumatic stress and dissociation could be found in close relationship to increased level of IL-6.
The data showed that participants in the compassion group exhibited lower distress score levels and exhibited lower levels of (IL)-6, suggesting that compassion leads to reduced stress reactivity.
Another study found that soldiers who took compassion training recovered faster from stressful situations, such as basic training. Their heart rates and breathing rates returned to normal much faster than soldiers who did not get to take the compassion training.
2. Compassion Reduces Depression
A study of medical students prone to depression found that students who practice compassion feel less depressed and less lonely. Researchers randomly assigned volunteer second-year medical students to either 10 weeks of Cognitively-Based Compassion Training (CBCT) or to a waitlist. The compassion training consisted of cognitive exercises that strengthen students’ attention and helps them to explore the nature of suffering: how it arises personally and in others, how humans are all interdependent, and of understanding the labels that we assign to other people (For example, being a friend vs. an enemy vs. a stranger). The training was designed to inspire compassion in the hearts of the students.
The results indicated that students who took the compassion training reported less depression and loneliness than students on the waitlist. In fact, those students who initially reported the highest levels of depression before the training had the greatest decreases in depression levels after taking the compassion training.
Several other studies concluded that compassion decreases depression and anxiety levels. Using a gestalt two-chair technique to raise participant’s self-compassion levels, researchers found that increases in self-compassion were associated with significant drops in participants’ anxiety and depression levels.
3. Compassion Reduces Worry And Increases Calmness
One study of undergraduate students found that participants with high self-compassion reported significantly less academic worry.
Another study investigated whether anxiety patients would report lower mindfulness and self-compassion levels than healthy stressed individuals. They concluded that increased self-compassion and mindfulness levels correlated with decreases in anxiety levels, and that the training can help protect those affected by generalized anxiety disorder against feeling disabled by the disorder.
Participants in one study attended a nine-week Compassion Cultivation Training course, and the results indicated that practicing compassion led to decreases in worry, anxiety, and to increases in feelings of calmness.
4. Compassion Improves Mental Health
A research review of 20 studies and 342 papers concluded that practicing compassion meditation improves one’s mental health. The review states that compassion training demonstrated significant improvements across five different areas of one’s life: 1. Positive and negative affect, 2. Psychological distress, 3. Positive thinking, 4. Interpersonal relations, and 5. Empathic accuracy.
5. Compassion Increases Happiness
One study of 177 participants measured the results of practicing self-compassion in terms of being kind toward oneself in instances of pain or failure; perceiving one’s experiences as part of the larger human experience; and holding painful thoughts and feelings in balanced awareness. The study found that self-compassion had a significant positive association with self-reported measures of happiness, optimism, positive affect, wisdom, personal initiative, curiosity and exploration, agreeableness, extroversion, and conscientiousness. It also had a significant negative association with negative affect and neuroticism, indicating that compassion decreases unpleasant moods and neuroticism.
How Can We Practice Compassion?
A peaceful and quiet space, sit in a comfortable position either in a chair or on a cushion on the floor. Close your eyes, and focus on your body and breath. Try to clear your mind as you focus on your physical sensations, letting go of thoughts, and coming into the present moment.
Next focus on your heart. Feel the feeling of love within your heart. To do this, you can repeatedly focus on the word “Love, love, love,” or you can think of someone or something that fills you with the feeling of love. Once the feeling of love opens in your heart, stay intently, yet gently focused on this feeling. Allow it to fill your entire heart, then allow it to flow to all areas of your physical body, to all of your feelings, and into your mind.
Then begin to move the feeling of love outwards by visualizing other people whom you want to share love with. Think of family, friends, and think of people you aren’t as close with but whom you want to feel loved. Afterwards, return your focus to your heart, and to your body and breath.
Now, congratulations! You have successfully filled yourself with love, self-compassion, and have felt compassion for others. As with all training and practices, it takes time to strengthen the feeling of love and the ability to move it consciously throughout the body and with the mind’s visualization of other people. But as we’ve seen from the studies, it’s absolutely worth it for our health and overall well-being to try!
How do you feel about compassion?
Let us know in the comments.
You are Loved.