The more we do something, the better we get at it. Our brains don’t really know the difference between playing more guitar then becoming a better musician and practicing judgments and getting better at being judgmental. It only knows that when we practice something, we lay down new neuropathways and we improve that skill. Our brains do not discriminate: we get better at doing things that are better or worse for us the more we practice them. It is not surprising, then, that thinking and acting in a compassionate manner will inherently increase our compassionate thoughts and behaviors.
What is compassion and why does it matter?
While practicing compassion will certainly wire our brain to think and act with more kindness, we are also helped by the fact that the brain is wired toward compassion and we are more susceptible to learning and behaving compassionately. In short, human compassion is instinctual. Being compassionate is a simple four step process. A person recognizes suffering, is instinctively drawn to experience care and concern, generates the desire to relieve the person’s suffering and has a willingness to respond. A practiced, compassionate individual will find it much more natural to generate the desire to relieve suffering and have an increased willingness to respond to help someone who is hurting.
The best part about thinking and acting compassionately is that often the reward is greater for those acting compassionately than those receiving the kind thought or act. While the joy that often is generated through compassionate acts is evidenced by self-report measures, there are definitive neurological benefits to the person providing the act of kindness, altruism and compassion. People that act compassionately toward others often engage in acts of self-compassion and/or self-care.
How does self-compassion benefit us?
We can actually decrease our levels of stress by treating ourselves and others with compassion. Self-compassion, or the act of recognizing our own suffering/mistakes, generating concern and having a willingness to provide self-care and kindness toward ourselves, is often one of the ways in which we either use or lose compassion. Self-compassion is also a way that we can ‘recharge’ ourselves, generate less fatigue and increase joy. A simple example: after having a miserable day at work, we completely forget we are in the middle of cooking dinner until prompted by the fire detector’s insistent chirping, signaling us that a second dinner preparation will now begin. At this point, we have the choice either to have or not have a compassionate response. We can beat ourselves up for forgetting what we should be attending to or we can be very frustrated, yet compassionate toward ourselves, by understanding the difficult circumstances and our mistake. When we practice compassion on a regular basis, we have that choice. When we do not, it can be very difficult to access the compassionate part of ourselves and the likelihood that we are able to generate care, concern and a desire to relieve our suffering can be very limited.
Why isn’t everyone compassionate?
So why do we see and hear so many examples where compassion is lacking? The answer may be threefold. First, our human brains were never meant to be under constant stress and our nervous system was not designed to react to a perpetual state of elevation. In short, our mind and body’s ability to evolve through our compassionate ‘nature’ is being outpaced by the ‘nurture’ of demands through extended work days, social stresses and constant access to stimuli (good and bad!) such as from our digital devices. The second reason is a bi-product of the first. Much like any inherent skill that we develop through repetition and reward, compassion fades when not practiced. Simply stated, when we don’t use compassion, we lose compassion and when our body and mind need to conserve resources to battle our own stress, we have less of a capacity to access compassion for others. Third, the less stress the ‘helper’ is under, the more resources they possess to act in a compassionate manner toward another or themselves. We have likely experienced instances when it is easy to generate compassion toward someone in need and, more likely than not, those opportunities are noticed and acted on more regularly when we are under less stress.
Practicing compassion in our parenting
The ability to exercise compassionate parenting serves as a chronic point of practice and teaching for our children and adolescents. When we practice compassion or kindness, it prompts others to replicate similarly thoughtful acts. Parents who openly practice compassion toward others and self are more likely to have kids who do the same. In addition to giving kids the gift of compassion, they also get all the residual benefits to practicing compassion, such as greater overall happiness, increased likability, better health and greater longevity compared with those who do not.
Practicing compassion in our work
Compassion can even bleed into the workplace. Compassionate leaders can increase levels of trust in the workplace and that effect will trickle down when management treats its workers well. It is not surprising that people who rate their jobs and managers as kind/compassionate also have the highest job satisfaction, stay with their company longer and are more productive and happy employees. While managers may not list compassion as their first priority, they certainly would endorse the gifts that typically accompany a more compassionate leadership style as integral to a successful business.