Compassion and compassionate acts

What is compassion?

Often regarded as something that is related to empathy, compassion is the feeling that comes when you notice someone or something, that is suffering. You may not be able to put yourself into the shoes of the person you are feeling compassionate about. However, having compassion for them means that at least you understand that they in difficulty. What happens after this feeling is felt does not necessarily flow from the sense of compassion. One might, for example, feel compassionate about a child that is in anguish but do nothing about its suffering. On the other hand, if it leads you to comfort the child or to alleviate its pain in some way, then this would be rightly regarded as a compassionate act. Compassion is first and foremost an emotional response, therefore, but it can lead to compassionate actions being subsequently taken, too.

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 What is compassionate psychology?

 Many psychologists and theorists have tried to work out a general theory that can explain compassion and why we feel this emotion. Some see it as a way to create a safer society through greater contentment and peace. A compassionate act helps to maintain the social equilibrium in this view. For others, it has an exchange value. That is, if you show a compassionate side to others, then this is more likely to be reciprocated when you need it. As such, you can think of it like a social lubricant that helps team building. There again, the Dalai Lama has described compassion as something that is no mere social luxury but a necessity for living together.

How does compassion help?

In some scientific studies, compassion has been shown to have a specific neurological effect. This means that our biology is at play when we are compassionate. Our own compassion for others stimulates particular parts of the mesolimbic reward pathway. Essentially, the body rewards us for being compassionate. In addition, being compassionate is something of an expression of self-realisation. Compassion has the power to motivate courage in someone, which in turn means it will also positively inspire to other acts that can benefit one's community in different ways. Many argue that compassion is vital in our society and that the world would be a horrible place without it.

Why is compassion important?

Essentially, by doing something compassionate, we are showing that we understand that the universe does not revolve around us as individuals. Of course, overall compassion reduces the levels of suffering around the world, even if it does not eradicate it. Therefore, it is a good thing, even of itself. Showing compassion to another person means you are able to comprehend their situation and feel motivated to do something to improve it for them. This is especially important when someone is going through a tough time, such as grief or any sort of trauma, for instance. It is often the compassion from others that can make a difference in letting go and moving on from hardship.

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How can you be more compassionate?

Kindness and generosity are two key aspects of compassionate behaviour. However, they are not the same as compassion itself since a person can be kind or generous without this motivating emotion. To be more compassionate, it is best to be mindful of your own motivations for your benevolence and to ensure you are behaving in a more altruistic manner overall. It is also good to start with showing compassion to yourself fist, praising yourself when you are successful, and focus on your strengths rather than weaknesses. Encouraging others in any way as well as something as simple as hugging are acts of compassion, so don't be afraid to use them when appropriate.

Can you show compassion for yourself?

The concept of self-compassion is one that is closely linked to the idea of being kind to yourself. If you are the sort of person who is self-critical or who is harder on yourself than you might be on other people who are in a similar situation, then it is highly likely that you do not exhibit enough self-compassion. Several spiritual writers and psychologists have advocated for greater self-compassion in society with less focus on the need to keep up appearances or to achieve unrealistic goals. To do this takes time because there is quite a lot of mental adjustment that is needed to achieve self-compassion, especially within a consumerist society. Showing more gratitude for what we have, allowing headspace to realise what is truly important and avoiding bad habits like saying negative things about yourself can all be good places to start on a journey towards greater self-compassion.

Where does compassion come from?

Although being compassionate is often thought to be close to certain emotional states, it is something that comes from the behaviours we exhibit. A compassionate person will show their compassion by doing and saying caring things, for example, rather than merely feeling sympathetic or loving but doing nothing about such emotions. As such, compassion is about the choices we make and what we choose to shut out or let in, emotionally speaking. From an etymological point of view, compassion is derived from the Latin word compati, which translates best as suffering. It is, therefore, our sense of empathy for the suffering of others which leads to our compassionate behaviour, perhaps in showing mercy or feeling that we need to risk something of ourselves to prevent further suffering. In this sense, being compassionate comes from a deeper understanding of others, something which may improve as our knowledge of the world around us develops with age and, in some cases, wisdom.

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Can compassion be bad?

Few people argue that compassionate behaviour can be bad across the board. It is often held up as one of the noblest and best behaviours that people can exhibit. And yet, there are some who would argue that compassionate is weak and, therefore, to be avoided. Some of the exponents of Nazism and fascism in the 1930s and 40s certainly expressed such ideas. Leaving such extremists to the side, however, some modern psychologists do point out that overly compassionate people can suffer from their behaviours. For example, people who are always compassionate to those around them can sometimes put themselves last in social situations even when this might put them at a disadvantage. In such situations, it might be better to stand up for yourself while still taking into account the needs of others so that the group dynamic is more cohesive. Some would also argue that continuing with a moribund relationship out of compassion for a partner is counter-productive, and it would be better for all concerned to face reality and make the break.

Can compassion be taught?

Yes, compassionate behaviour can be taught. Indeed, in most nursing courses around the world, there will be teaching that is associated with compassion because this is seen as an essential part of the role in modern nursing. This is largely down to the fact that patients will be in contact with nurses – and other healthcare professionals, for that matter – when they are suffering to some degree. This may mean they are in pain or that their decision-making abilities are impaired to a degree so nurses must be compassionate in what they are doing, for example, by exhibiting greater levels of tolerance and patience than might be needed in other workplaces. Usually, teaching compassionate behaviour tends to place students in scenarios where they must decide on the next best course of action. Those choices are then unpicked in a group discussion to work out if the most compassionate options have been chosen. The aim is to enable better decisions to be made going forwards.

Where is compassion in the brain?

Neuroscientists have been studying the activities in the brain that are most associated with compassionate behaviour. Compared to obtaining money, which tends to promote brain activity in the mesolimbic neural pathway – that is also associated with the pleasure humans feel during sex or the consumption of food – compassionate behaviour tends to agitate parts of the frontal brain known as the ventral striatum and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. Indeed, people who have suffered damage to these parts of the brain tend to not to be able to recognise compassionate behaviour or the need to show it. This may be a factor in why certain types of psychopath do not seem to show normal modes of behaviour with respect to the care of others.

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What does compassion mean from a religious viewpoint?

For Christians, Jesus' life and teachings are mostly focussed on being compassionate. One of his central teachings was to 'love thy neighbour' which most Christians interpret as being more compassionate to those around us. In some senses, Jesus and many of his apostles can be seen as taking many of the moral aspects of Judaism and ensuring that compassionate interpretations of them became paramount. That is not to say that Judaism is not a compassionate religion, of course, merely that Christianity tends to place a greater focus on compassion, notably with Jesus ultimate sacrifice on the cross. In Islam, there is a similar interpretation, with Allah usually being described as merciful as well as compassionate. In Buddhism, compassionate behaviour is also encouraged as a path to further enlightenment. In particular, the Dalai Lama has said being compassionate can help people to make others happy as well as oneself. In Hinduism, the concepts of daya and karuna are those which are usually most closely associated with being compassionate towards others.

What is compassion fatigue?

This is a term which tends to relate to the idea that people have only so much empathy and giving in themselves. In other words, if they are over-exposed to the sort of stimuli that make them exhibit compassionate behaviours, such as giving, then they will no longer do so, at least not as freely. The term is widely used in the charity and fundraising sectors to explain why the public responds very well at times to certain campaigns and not to others. There is no scientific basis for the argument that society is more compassionate at some times compared to others, however. Indeed, it could be argued that the whole concept fatigue is there to place the onus on poorly performing charitable campaigns on the public rather than the fundraisers behind them.

Are compassion and empathy the same?

Although they are closely related concepts, most psychologists would agree that empathy is not the same as exhibiting compassionate behaviour. One needs to feel something of the distress of others in order to act in a compassionate way, of course. This is where empathy plays its part because it allows us to imagine what it would be like to be in the same situation. Often it is our sense of wanting to know that someone would be compassionate towards us in times of distress that drives us to behave in a compassionate way to others around us. In other words, empathy enables compassionate behaviour, but it is not the same thing, rather like feeling hungry is not the same as eating food. Are you interested in XINTEREST and discussing topics like this ?

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Compassion in summary

Although being compassionate has a distinctly emotive quality, it is probably better to explain it as a set of behaviours that come about because of the emotional connections we have with ourselves, with other people and with the wider world around us. Showing compassionate behaviour is often lauded because it relies on wisdom and a deeper emotional awareness than unsympathetic people are capable of. In some cases, a lack of compassionate behaviour might be because someone is quite simply selfish. However, the inability to reason from an emotional standpoint may also be accounted for from certain mental or behavioural disorders.

That said, most people are compassionate to some degree or other and are often touched by the compassionate behaviour they receive. Anyone who has injured themselves and been helped by strangers will recognise just how life-affirming it can be to receive such assistance. It lets us know that we are not alone in the world even if we do not have our nearest and dearest around us to support us.

Although there are some cruel people and regimes which have disavowed compassion as a weakness that should not be tolerated, there are many more people who advocate for it as something that is of benefit to society. Many religious leaders have talked about the healing power of forgiveness, for example, both on the person who is forgiven and the bestower of such forgiveness. This redemptive quality can be seen in every aspect of compassionate behaviour. In other words, being compassionate is not only good for the person who has their suffering acknowledged and relieved but for the person who has exhibited the compassionate behaviour in the first place.

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