Compassion Opens our Hearts and Makes us Happier

March 21, 2018

Compassion is our ability to understand the suffering of another and desire to alleviate or reduce it. The concept of compassion is both more simple and more intense than that of empathy, as it invites us to want to help end the suffering of another.

Self-compassion, on the other hand, gives us a compassionate attitude to ourselves, especially when things don’t go as we planned. Learning how to develop compassion is an ability that can help us feel happier and more satisfied with our everyday life, as long as we don’t abuse or wallow in it, of course

Psychologist and researcher Paul Gilbert created a therapy that centers around compassion. He points out that feeling it does not equal feeling sorry for others. Rather, it is a motivation that gives us energy to help others, in a way that allows them to alleviate their own suffering with our help. 

The components of compassion

The word compassion means, literally, “suffer together” or “to deal with emotions of sympathy”. It is the feeling we get when we perceive the suffering of others and it provokes the impulsive desire to diminish this. The emotion is divided into different components:

  • A cognitive component which encompasses the attention and evaluation of the suffering of others, as well as the recognition of our own capacity to act when faced with this.
  • A behavioral component which includes compromise on the part of each person involved and the firm decision to realize actions that help eliminate suffering.
  • An emotional component which motivates us to act on our gut instincts, generating emotional reactions that give us a feeling of personal satisfaction. Our level of psychological well-being depends, in part, on the type of relationships we forge with others.
hand giving heart

Compassion opens our hearts

This emotion helps us connect with our heart in order to put ourselves in the shoes of others. It opens the door to emotions, allowing us to feel like we are living the experiences of those around us. We feel what is hurting them or making them suffer.

Compassion helps us stop looking at our feet and begin to see what is going on all around us. It reminds us that we are not alone in this world, that others are also important. Furthermore, if the help it brings forward is honest, it will bring us an enormous sense of inner peace. 

Being compassionate brings us closer to others and brings forth the opportunity for us to give our best in order to help others, with humility and closeness. Every time we care about someone who needs it, we are enlarging our heart and offering the other sincere help.

The fear of compassion

Why don’t we take more advantage of compassion when we have so many opportunities to do so? We do not give ourselves the opportunity to act compassionately because our focus is not in the right place. Social neuroscience has shown that our natural impulse is to help. We are prepared to offer it from the word go. So why do we sometimes not help?

Feeling compassion can lead us to feel afraid to act for different reasons. Here are some examples:

  • We worry that helping others alleviate their suffering which will put us in a situation of vulnerability that can make others reject us
  • Observing the suffering of others makes us feel sadness that we may not want to feel
  • Compassion leads us to relive unresolved childhood wounds that prevent us from connecting with the suffering of others
  • We worry that we will not be able to move past the suffering of another once we have connected with it
  • We want to focus our attention on other things that we perceive as “more important”

“The basic human problem is lack of compassion. While this problem persists, other problems will persist. If it is resolved, we can expect happier days.”

Dalai Lama

Self-compassion, the ability to accept ourselves as we are

Self-compassion is built by realizing our inner suffering, being able to understand its meaning, and allowing us to accept it and treat ourselves with affection. It is a way to foster a loving attitude toward ourselves, especially when things do not go as planned. 

“Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

-Gandhi

woman and flower

Compassion invites us to look at society as a transforming force, bringing the interior to the exterior. Instead of filling ourselves with self-criticism and judgment, self-compassion allows us to be benevolent and develop a loving adult within us, who cares for us and protects us everyday. Suffering, instead of distancing us from humanity, unites us to compassion.

4 steps to develop compassion

If we perceive the suffering of others and exercise self-compassion, it is necessary to train the way we view suffering. All we need to do is notice, realize we are not alone, that there are always others who need help. We must not look away. This implies that, when we come into contact with suffering, we can feel overwhelmed by our emotions. This is our second task, learning to manage the emotions that are born in us when we act guided by compassion.

Perceive suffering

Perceiving one’s own suffering and the suffering of others is the first step in feeling compassion. In order to do this, we have to open our hearts so we can get in touch with our emotions. For example, if we are on the street and we see that someone is suffering, we should stop for a moment to fully perceive the suffering instead of passing by as if it was not our problem. 

Evaluate the suffering of others

It is important to practice these skills without judgement, because otherwise we will not be able to feel compassion. Nor will it appear if we have not completed the previous step of perceiving suffering. For example, if we think that the person deserves their suffering, then compassion may not appear.

Feel the emotion fully

Opening ourselves to emotion means allowing ourselves to feel the emotion completely and any other feelings that go along with it. Even if it causes us some suffering or discomfort. If we let ourselves be carried away by compassion, we will be able to reach a deep feeling of kindness.

For example, if we see on the news something that impacts us, we should allow ourselves to cry and not block out those feelings. In this way, we will be free to feel compassion.

Take action

Once we can perceive the suffering of others, evaluate how big it is, and feel it without censorship, we have to act. We can’t keep this feeling purely internal. For example, get to work to try to alleviate the suffering of a friend or family member. Give them the emotional support they so badly need.

The positive effects of compassion

There are many positive effects for society and ourselves when we can feel compassion. For the Dalai Lama, the power of compassion has the ability to:

  • Encourage the type of education that focuses on empathy, ethics, and personal development
  • Create new economic systems that are fairer for society
  • Recognize that we are a single human species, where there is no separation between them/us or superior/inferior
  • Develop dialogue and communication instead of violence
  • Reduce social inequality by allowing more transparency in all areas
  • End cultural differences, in addition to prejudice and corruption
couple giving compassion

If we include compassion in our lives, we will notice significant changes. We can try to imagine someone dear to us suffering and see what effects this causes in our body. Send this person feelings of kindness and compassion and see how differently you feel. Then try to send good feelings to someone who does not like us as much and see how you feel.

Mindfulness or awareness helps us develop this compassion that we can transfer to others. To develop compassion we will have to create a mental space, as if it were our private consultation room. Here we can perceive the suffering of others and take action. This is how we will start. Each doing our part to build a more just and generous world.

Changing society begins with treating each other better, including treating ourselves better. Practicing empathy and compassion towards everyone. There are no excuses not to start today. The sooner we start to experience compassion, the greater happiness and well-being we will be able to feel in our day to day lives.