We are each made for goodness, love and compassion. Our lives are transformed as much as the world when we live with these truths. Archbishop Desmond Tutu
A brave Rotarian asked me to speak to one of the Wenatchee clubs on compassion and “the good life” last week. A courageous move in my opinion because compassion is not very popular in everyday circles. In fact, most people fear both giving compassion and receiving it.
It’s a strange situation because we benefit so greatly from exercising compassion and using compassion related skills. In fact, that is how I first became interested in compassion…because of all the benefits associated with compassion that scientists were finding in the last few decades.
Since I had been formally studying interventions aimed at helping people live “the good life” for about twenty-five years, and writing about good life research for sixteen years, the newish science on the compelling benefits of compassion got my attention in a big way.
The benefits angle is what I thought might interest the Rotarians. While there are pages and pages of benefits, I decided to stick with the top five most sited benefits.
Some are no-brainers, but some are surprising.
1. Improved Relationships: This is the no-brainer one. Of course, we like compassionate people more. We like them for mates, for friends, for collaborators. Compassion fosters empathy, understanding, and connection with others. It helps us develop stronger and more meaningful relationships because it promotes kindness, forgiveness, and cooperation. Compassionate individuals tend to have more harmonious interactions, better communication skills, and deeper social connections.
2. Enhanced Emotional Well-being: This surprises many. How can compassionate people be happier when they are concerned about others who may be suffering? And that is interesting. Compassion has been shown to promote positive emotions, such as happiness, joy, and contentment. When compassion is cultivated, individuals often experience increased life satisfaction and overall emotional well-being. Compassionate acts can also reduce feelings of stress, anxiety, and depression. (Surprise, surprise.) It seems to be that getting some relief from our concerns about ourselves, brings us joy. Also, compassion involves sending warm-hearted desires for others’ well-being and that gets our good internal chemicals like oxytocin and dopamine surging and dampens our cortisol, stress chemistry.
3. Increased Resilience: Compassion plays a crucial role in developing resilience—the ability to bounce back from adversity. Compassionate individuals often possess a more positive outlook, greater psychological flexibility, and a stronger ability to cope with life's challenges. Self-compassion in particular helps people build inner strength for facing difficulties.
4. Meaning, Purpose, and Growth: By focusing on the well-being of others, individuals experience a deeper understanding of others, their perspectives, and their values. Compassion promotes a greater sense of fulfillment and meaning…of having lived a life that makes a difference.
5. Health Benefits: Here is the biggest surprise, but understanding how our stress system of fight-or-flight works, the health benefits start to make more sense. Research suggests that compassion is associated with several physical health benefits. Engaging in compassionate acts can lower blood pressure, reduce the risk of heart disease, and enhance immune function. Compassion’s positive effects on the body’s stress response system in general seems to improve overall health outcomes.
But those benefits are so much more compelling when we see it in real life, real stories. And though I did not share this part with the Rotarians (and truly, the Rotarians get the whole compassion thing on their own), it’s more of a follow-up for me and maybe you.
This morning I was reading parts of The Book of Joy (Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, and Douglas Abrams). The part, of course, that called to me first was the chapter on compassion. The Archbishop and Dalai Lama discuss “the paradoxes of happiness: We are most joyful when we focus on others, not ourselves.”
The Dalai Lama shared that even just ten minutes a day of meditating on the wellbeing of others helps people feel joyful for the whole day. “The bigger and warmer our heart, the stronger our sense of aliveness and resilience.”
And here’s when we really get it, how this compassion thing works. When we read a story shared in the book. It’s the story of Anthony Ray Hinton (modified excerpts from the book below).
Hinton went to death row after a trial that can only be called a travesty of justice, he was understandably angry and heartbroken at how the American justice system had failed him.
“When no one believes a word you say, eventually you stop saying anything. I did not say good morning. I did not say good evening. I did not say a how-do-you-do to anyone. If the guards needed some information from me, I wrote it down on a piece of paper. I was angry.
But going into the fourth year, I heard a man in the cell next to mine crying. The love and compassion I had received from my mother spoke through me and asked him what was wrong. He said he had just found out that his mother had passed away.
I told him, ‘Look at it this way. Now you have someone in heaven who’s going to argue your case before God.’ And then I told him a joke, and he laughed. Suddenly my voice and my sense of humor were back.
For twenty-six long years after that night, I tried to focus on other people’s problems, and every day I did, I would get to the end of the day and realize that I had not focused on my own.”
Hinton was able to bring love and compassion to a loveless place, and in doing so he was able to hold on to his joy in one of the most joyless places on the planet.
While he was in prison, he watched fifty-four people walk by his cell on their way to the execution chamber. He got his fellow inmates to start banging their bars five minutes before the execution.
“I discovered on death row that the other inmates had not had the unconditional love that I had had from my mother. We became a family, and we did not know if they had any other family and friends there, so we were banging the bars to say to those who were being put to death, ‘We’re with you, we still love you right up to the end.’”
What a story! And we see those benefits in action...emotional well-being, resilience, meaning and purpose, and…in terms of health, I can only say that despite the harm that came to him, he is still alive. I checked on him.
Hinton has been released from prison (about 8 years ago) and is sharing his story. His own book – The Sun Does Shine looks like (from the first few pages I have read) a horrifyingly beautiful story of compassion and forgiveness and resilience and transformation. It already inspires me. (Hearing stories of compassion elevates us!)
The preface to Hinton’s book is written by attorney, Bryan Stevenson. Stevenson shares that often he’s been harassed by correctional staff while visiting countless prisons and prisoners. No so with Hinton.
Guards, correctional staff, and prison workers pulled Stevenson aside to offer assistance and ask how they could help. Stevenson said he never experienced anything like it. Hinton had started book clubs…and not only prisoners, but also correctional officers sought his advice and counsel on everything…from marriage to the everyday struggles of life.
We see how the Dalai Lama can say with conviction, "If you want to be happy, practice compassion. If you want others to be happy, practice compassion."
We can clearly see the relationship benefit of compassion in Hinton’s story.
It’s a good story to read every day…especially on Juneteenth.
How might we learn more about the benefits of compassion – see them embodied, get past our fears, and journey together to The Good Life?