Be Kind To Humankind: Understanding Compassion

By 
Dr. Sara Glazer

Be Kind To Humankind: Understanding Compassion 

It was the end of the semester, and I was inundated with finals. On the third day of exam week, I was furiously working on a paper. With the deadline quickly approaching, my apartment mate knocked on my door. Thrown off by the interruption, I opened the door to find her standing there with a homemade lunch and drink. This act of kindness was not only physically nourishing - I had been existing on fast food and coffee - it offered me an emotional boost of energy. 


As a clinician, I reflect on the significance and function of compassion. My apartment mate’s act of compassion clearly impacted me. What prompted her to extend herself in this manner? What feelings did she encounter when engaging in this gesture and subsequent to this experience? 

What is the difference between compassion and empathy?

Compassion is defined as “suffering together.” While empathy refers to mirroring the affective state of another, or feeling what someone else is feeling, compassion also includes the desire to take action and help in order to relieve the pain in others. Dacher Keltner, a professor at UC Berkeley, refers to the longstanding negative view on emotions. He notes that emotions have historically been blamed for irrational behavior and immorality, quoting Plato and Kant. Plato regarded the human soul as a chariot, noting that our emotions are horses that must be directed and tamed by its driver: intellect. Kant described benevolence as “softheartedness,” depicting compassion as a weakness that interferes with human behavior. Even within psychological theory, there is reference to emotion-driven versus value-driven behavior, the latter considered the more acceptable guide to action. 

Biological Basis to Compassion

Researchers studying compassion have begun to construct a different perspective on human nature, offering evidence for the adaptive quality of compassion and its biological basis. When we experience compassion, a variety of physiological processes unfold, such as:

Rather than preparing us to fight or flee, we are primed to approach and comfort. Our bodies are cueing us to respond to others by joining with and supporting them. Further, recent evidence suggests that compassion is an automatic response linked to survival, rather than a learned behavior. Keltner identifies this response as the “compassionate instinct.” Studies on chimpanzees and infants reflect unprompted helping behavior even in the presence of barriers. This helping behavior seems to be intrinsically motivated, rather than based on an external reward. This begs the question: what would be the benefit to possessing this instinct that involves the use of our emotional and, at times, physical resources? 

The Evolutionary Value and Benefits of Compassion

Evolutionary models explain the emergence of compassion. In contrast to Kant, Charles Darwin viewed compassion as a strength. Darwin’s view on compassion was influenced by a pivotal event in his life. Darwin, a devoted father, took care of his very ill, 10-year-old daughter, until her passing. This loss inspired reflection and insights related to both suffering and compassion. Indeed, in The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, Darwin notes that sympathy is the strongest instinct to have developed within humans. Given our large cortex, we are born dependent and in need of nurture, thus making it necessary for our species to engage in caregiving so that our youth mature. Our ability to protect our most vulnerable is linked with our survival. Other theorists highlight our attraction to compassion in mates as revealing its evolutionary value. Studies have shown that kindness is sought after by both female and male partners. A third theory posits that a tendency toward compassion is essential in developing cooperative relationships with non-kin, as these connections predict trust and reciprocal benefit. 


On an individual level, there are benefits to compassion, as well. Higher levels of compassion are linked to physical and mental health, such as recovery from illness, improvement in mood and a possible increase in life span. Given its biological roots and benefits, there are also contexts in which compassion is more likely to flourish. For instance, brain studies indicate that positive emotions, such as compassion, are more influenced by the environment than negative emotions. Therefore, while compassion is biologically based, the extent to which it gets expressed is based on contextual factors, including the quality of a child’s attachment relationship, other forms of parenting style and modeling. 

Compassion Toward Self

There are also instances when it might be beneficial to direct our energies inward and connect to our own suffering. Dr. Kristin Neff has done extensive research on self-compassion, noting that it requires three steps. First, we need to take notice of our pain; we then engage in kind behavior toward ourselves; and finally, we recognize that suffering and imperfection are part of the human experience. 


Similar to compassion, self-compassion is also impacted by our past and present context. It is difficult to adopt a compassionate stance if one’s parents responded harshly to one’s mistakes as a child. Additionally, taking the time to self-soothe is more challenging if one did not grow up in an environment that encourages emotional expression and nurturing. There are times, according to Neff, when self compassion can be painful, revealing the lack of unconditional love one experienced as a child. However, practicing self- compassion and engaging in the healing process includes offering ourselves the time and space to gently learn different techniques, recognizing that approaching ourselves in a caring manner might require practice and patience. 

My apartment mate and I have since moved to different locations and typically are in contact about once a year. And, yet, in considering this event, I am reminded that in each moment, we have the power to create new experiences within ourselves and in others.

Dr. Sara Glazer is a Clinical Psychologist at NY Health Hypnosis & Integrative Therapy. To learn more about how mindfulness and hypnotherapy can help you or to make an appointment, please contact us here.

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