By Eamonn Walsh LCSW
Historically, the dominant view of the human species was that we were fundamentally driven by competition. Thomas Huxley saw human existence as a gladiators’ show in which “the strongest the swiftest, and the cleverest live to fight another day”. Building on this assumption of our selfish nature, scientists and philosophers have gone to great lengths to reduce human behavior to actions of self-interest.
Today there is a growing recognition that the selfish view of human nature is too simplistic. In addition to self-interest, we must embrace the fundamental roles that caring and nurturing instincts play as drivers of human behavior. We have to recognize cooperation alongside competition.
Empathy is the feeling for (or with) other people and understanding their feelings. When we witness another person suffering, compassion arises which adds dimensions of wishing to see the relief of suffering and wanting to do something about it. Compassion is a more empowered state than empathy. Kindness is the expression of that compassion through helping. Compassion is what makes our empathic reaction manifest into kindness.
What are some of the benefits of being more compassionate?
The Dalai Lama often says that being more compassionate can make us feel less stressed, and the science agrees. In a study of fifty-nine women in the San Francisco Bay Area, participants who scored high on the compassion scale had lower blood pressure, lower cortisol reactivity and higher heart rate variability which are all proven to be associated with better physical health and social wellbeing. Being compassionate has been found to help release the hormone oxytocin which is associated with reduced levels of inflammation in the cardio vascular system, an important factor in heart disease.
Scientists have also identified positive effects of compassion in the brain. When we help someone with genuine concern for their well-being, levels of endorphins, which are associate with euphoric feeling, surge in the brain. This phenomenon is known as the “helper’s high”.
So what is compassion?
It appears to be the release of judgement and worry about ourselves. Compassion buffers stress through understanding and tolerance; we feel less annoyed and offended by others when we can feel compassion for them.
Compassion and kindness bring purpose to our lives. Helping others makes us feel energized and orientated. Having a purpose in life turns out to be one of the crucial factors of personal happiness.
An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me” he said to the boy, “It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil- he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority and ego”. He continued, “The other is good -he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person too”.
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”.
The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed”.