Psychology researchers have begun developing a science of compassion: What is it? What are the benefits? How can we foster it? Based on a review of studies on compassion, here's what it is, and why it's a good thing:
1. Our suffering is recognized and acknowledged.
Compassion starts with a willingness to see someone else's pain. Rather than looking away, denying the pain, or choosing to ignore it, we acknowledge the person's experience. This acknowledgment makes us feel less alone in our suffering.
2. We understand the universality of human suffering.
Part of compassion is knowing that at some point, everyone hurts. In this way the pain is relatable. While pain is a personal experience, it is also a common and unavoidable part of what it means to be human. Thus we feel a further joining with others in the shared recognition that pain is part of existence.
3. There is an emotional response to our suffering.
Compassion is not simply knowing that another person is in pain; there is an emotional component, a "feeling with," as the etymology of compassion suggests. It's comforting to feel another person's heart go out to us.
4. Compassion requires tolerating uncomfortable feelings.
While there are benefits to being compassionate, it's not easy. Connecting emotionally with another's pain activates our stress response (fight, flight, or freeze). It takes emotional work to stay with a person's pain, rather than fleeing or trying to deny it in some way (e.g., by blaming the person for their distress). When we see that a person isn't running from our pain, we're better able to withstand our own discomfort.
5. There is a motivation to alleviate our suffering.
Compassion involves feelings, but not just feelings. We would probably not feel much compassion from someone who acted sad for us, but was unwilling to help. When we respond with compassion, we're moved to act. As a result, another person's compassion can improve our situation, and we feel better just knowing someone is trying to help us.
--Excerpted From Psychology Today