Compassion is the strong sympathy and sorrow felt for another’s suffering accompanied by the motivation to ease that suffering. It is not the same as empathy or altruism, but they are all related. Empathy is the ability to take the perspective and feel the emotions of someone else’s situation. Altruism is the selfless behaviour to help someone else. It is often prompted by compassion.
Compassion is a virtue that we, as a society, don’t seem to practice enough. Why is that? Maybe, it’s because we just don’t have it in us anymore. Life is competitive, everyone wants what everyone else seems to have. People are working longer hours to get ahead, or just to make ends meet. That has to be juggled with family, friends and health. Today, the first response to pain or suffering usually involves looking for someone/something to blame or shielding ourselves by passing judgement. Shame and blame is a quick, easy way to combat suffering even though compassion and understanding are more effective. I’m not intending to make excuses for us here, there should be no excuses for lack of compassion. I don’t think we, as a society, meant to be less compassionate, just that we have adopted other priorities and this is the result. It’s time to be held accountable.
An article in Scientific American in 2012 discussed how wealth influences compassion. Several studies were conducted examining how social class (wealth, job prestige and education) influence how much we care about each other. One study found that drivers of luxury vehicles were more likely to cut in front of other drivers or speed past pedestrians than other vehicles. Another study showed that those with lower incomes and less education were more likely to report feelings of compassion in response to watching a video about children suffering from cancer. The same people had lower heart rates while watching the video compared to their wealthy, more educated counterparts. A lower heart rate is indicative of paying greater attention to the feelings and motivations of others. Previous studies have also shown that the upper class are worse at recognizing emotions and less likely to pay attention to the people they are interacting with.
Why is this? Wouldn’t it make more sense that having fewer resources, you would be more selfish? Apparently not. There may be some truth to the rich, educated and snobby stereotype after all (keeping in mind, that according to my education and where I live, I fit into this stereotype too). Researchers believe that with wealth and abundance comes more freedom and more independence from each other. Could it be that if we are less reliant on each other, the less we can relate to one another and the less we care about each others’ feelings?
Pema Chödrön said something in The Places That Scare You that I really liked; “…compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It is a relationship between equals…compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.” We are all connected and will remain connected because we are all human. We all struggle, we all make mistakes. That should not be forgotten because of a difference in social status or ignored because we don’t agree with something. Behind every situation there are people trying to make the world better for themselves or the people they love. Surely that is something we can all relate to.
Scientists believe compassion is vital to our survival as a species. This notion dates back to Charles Darwin and The Descent of Man. He believed sympathy was our strongest instinct and that it would spread through natural selection. “…the most sympathetic members would flourish best and rear the greatest number of offspring.” Considering what awful things we do to each other, it seems ludicrous that sympathy would be one of our strongest instincts, but the fact that we continue to survive as a species proves that it is true. Human babies are the most dependent and vulnerable offspring on Earth. Babies can’t sit up or feed themselves. They can’t even hold their own heads up at first. This vulnerability has led to the evolution of social structures and has essentially re-wired our nervous systems to make us a care-giving species.
Compassion is not written into our genetic code, but humans are wired to be compassionate right down to the neurochemical level. Imaging studies have shown that the area of the brain that lights up when you feel pain is the same area that is activated in response to seeing suffering. This area, the periaqueductal gray, is also associated with nurturing behaviour. Suffering is seen as a threat and the reaction to a threat is to self-protect, but biology has shown that at the same time, we also instinctively want to relieve suffering via nurturing. It could be our competitive lifestyle leaving us exhausted or a lack of connection created by wealth and power or something else entirely, but somehow, society has evolved to ignore that basic nurturing instinct. Compassion is not something we are born with or not, it is a practice. One that can be taught and learned if we would only make it a priority.
How can we build a more compassionate society? It all starts with you. A society is built of individuals and it is the actions of those individuals that determine the characteristics of the society. Let yourself off the hook once and a while. You don’t have to be perfect, you don’t have to have it all. Compassion spreads quickly. Positive emotions are just as contagious as the negative ones. In fact, they spread more rapidly and collectively. When you are kinder to yourself you create a wealth of compassion that you can extend to others. One person cannot change the world, but if each individual allowed compassion to be a primary motive instead of being the best and having the best, the world would be a more peaceful place.
(To learn more about 1000 Voice for Compassion and how the project got started, visit the official blog here.)