It All Starts With You — 1000 Voices for Compassion (#1000Speak)

speak for compassion

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.)

1000voices

G is for Giving

And so continues the A to Z blogging challenge. I had trouble coming up with something for “G”. There are so many good G words that have to do with mental health; gratification, growth, grief, guilt, goals, generalized anxiety, global labeling. I am currently feeling gloomy (another G!), so I thought I’d go with something positive today, Giving.

Do good. Feel good.

give seedlingConsidering that society equates happiness with getting something, it seems strange that I’m telling you giving is going to bring you happiness. Research has shown that people who give time, money or support to others or their community are happier, more satisfied with life and less depressed. This is nothing new. It’s been shown since the 1930s that those who volunteered as teenagers were less likely to become depressed as adults. What is new, is the biochemical findings!

Participant’s brains were monitored by MRI while they were asked to make a decision about donating to charity. Those who chose to donate showed more activity in the mesolimbic system of the brain. This is the reward center for the brain. It is activated in response to rewards, sex and other positive stimuli. In response, oxytocin, aka the love or cuddle hormone is released. This promotes social bonding. Dopamine, an important neurotransmitter for cognition and enjoyment is also released.

In addition to the feel-good chemicals, there are cognitive benefits to giving. In depression and anxiety we tend to be focused on the self. Focusing on the needs of someone else helps to shift our thinking. When helping someone else, you experience compassion and kindness, these feelings push aside the negative thoughts going on in your head. It sounds like fluff, but I have experienced it. I used to look after my cousin’s kids every Friday afternoon to give her a break. She had three little boys at the time, all under 5 years old. Most of the time I felt too tired and miserable to go. The guilt of taking away my cousin’s afternoon off was stronger though, so I went. Once I started to focus on the needs of those little boys, I forgot how much I hated myself. I forgot I was miserable and exhausted. I was focused on their needs and making sure they were having fun. I left at the end of the day feeling better.

There is a time when giving isn’t good. That is when you are already overwhelmed by your duties. One of the social workers I was talking to for a while said that we all have a box inside us. We give from that box, but it can become empty, leaving nothing more to give. You have to refill the box before it gets empty. You do this by having you-time. You need to make time to take care of yourself and have a little fun. It’s hard to “have fun” when you are depressed. Usually you have lost interest in the things you once enjoyed. This was me last year. I was trying to be too many things to too many people and my box was empty. I had no way to refill it because I had lost interest in everything. I wasn’t doing well. Then I decided I was going to draw again. I had stopped drawing for several years at that point and I didn’t really feel like drawing, but I thought it was something I used to like, so it’s a place to start. I began with scribbles which usually resulted in crumpled up balls of paper. I wasn’t getting anywhere with the drawing, but I was having me-time. The me-time helped. Slowly, I started to feel less overwhelmed. I started to draw how I was feeling which resulted in drawings like the ones from yesterday’s post. So I’ve found a way to refill my box. It wasn’t something I wanted to do at first, but making myself do it, gave me time to recharge. Now I am able to give again.give a smile

When I talk about giving, I don’t mean you have to build house in Haiti or donate an afternoon to babysitting your cousin’s kids. If you have time to do those things, by all means, do them! Little things count too though. Plant a tree. Give a stranger a smile. Volunteer for a research study. It’s a one-time thing and Psychology is always looking for people to participate in questionnaires and such. You can offer to help family members. I look after my parents’ cats when they are away and sometimes I bake my dad biscotti because I know he loves them. If you aren’t close to your family you can donate. It doesn’t have to be a lot. Give a dollar next time they ask at the grocery store. Find your own little way to spread kindness. At the very least it will give your thoughts somewhere else to go.

Sources: Proceedings of the National Academy of Science

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Follow Somber Scribbler on WordPress.com

Archives

%d bloggers like this: