Learn the science behind what compassion is, how it’s distinct from similar concepts, and how to increase it.
Compassion is a term that you are likely familiar with already. But why are psychologists interested in compassion, and how does it relate to your well-being? Compassion is generally defined in the field of psychology as “being moved by another's suffering and wanting to help” (Lazarus, 1991). The opposite of compassion may be “callousness” and “heartlessness.” These terms suggest at least indifference to, if not enjoyment of, another’s suffering.
It is generally theorized that humans have evolved to experience compassion because the altruistic behavior the emotion often triggers likely improved the survival of our ancestors (Goetz et al., 2010). However, people may experience levels of compassion that vary widely depending on context.
For example, research has found that individuals are more likely to feel compassion for individuals who are in their own social group (Hein et al. 2010). There may be an evolutionary basis for this whereby our ancestors were more likely to survive if they felt compassion for those within their social group and not for those from competitor groups (Gilbert, 2020).
Compassion Versus Empathy
Are compassion and empathy the same thing? Compassion and empathy may be confused because both emotions are ways of relating to the emotions of others. However, it can be helpful to differentiate these concepts. For example, psychologists Singer and Klimecki make a clear distinction between the two as follows: “In contrast to empathy, compassion does not mean sharing the suffering of the other: rather, it is characterized by feelings of warmth, concern, and care for the other, as well as a strong motivation to improve the other person’s well-being. Compassion is feeling for and not feeling with the other” (2014).
An empathetic response might result in wanting to remove oneself from the emotional situation, a compassionate response entails a desire to help the other person (in essence, getting even closer to the emotional situation). This distinction is supported by the research. Psychologist Eisenberg found that people who felt compassion were more likely to help than people who felt empathic distress (2000).
Can You Increase Compassion?
Research into compassion has grown over the last few decades in part due to its perceived benefits to oneself and others. Indeed, researchers have found various positive outcomes of experiencing compassion, including reduced depression and anxiety (MacBeth & Gumley, 2012). So you may be wondering how to increase your compassion.
One recent line of research has involved contemplative practices such as meditation as a means to increase benevolent feelings towards others. An example of this is a practice often referred to as loving-kindness meditation. This meditation is where an individual is guided to wish well upon others and to notice the associated, often pleasant, feelings. Long-term practice of this and similar meditation is associated with functional changes in the brain: experienced meditators who had trained in compassion were found to have a stronger neural response in an area of the brain associated with compassion than novice meditators (Lutz et al., 2008).
Fortunately, you don’t need to have practiced loving-kindness meditation for thirty years to reap its benefits. Researchers have found that even short-term practice can have benefits not only for other people in the person’s life but also for the person who is practicing (Singer & Klimecki, 2014, Frederickson et al., 2008). There are numerous guided loving-kindness meditations available for free online - you might try one or two out to see for yourself.
What Is Compassion Fatigue?
So far, we have considered the benefits of experiencing compassion. However, some research has explored compassion’s disadvantages, as in the case of compassion fatigue. Compassion fatigue is most often recognized and discussed in the context of helping professions such as medicine, nursing, social work, and clinical psychology. Figley refers to compassion fatigue as “a more user-friendly term for secondary traumatic stress disorder, which is nearly identical to PTSD, except that it applies to those emotionally affected by the trauma of another” (Figley, 2002).
The phenomenon stems from the intense emotional investment that many individuals, including doctors, nurses, social workers, and psychologists, may have in their clients’ or patients’ situations. Even if you are not working in one of these professional contexts, you might still experience compassion fatigue related to close friends or family members.
Compassion is key to the human experience, driving prosocial behavior and improving countless lives. While we have seen that the feeling of compassion can lead to negative outcomes, as in the case of compassion fatigue, we have also seen that it generally has numerous benefits for both the person experiencing compassion and the person(s) for whom compassion is felt.
Eisenberg, N. (2000). Emotion, regulation, and moral development. Annual Review of Psychology, 51(1), 665-697.
Figley, C. R. (Ed.). (2002). Treating compassion fatigue. Routledge.
Gilbert, P. (2020). Compassion: From its evolution to a psychotherapy. Frontiers in Psychology, 11, 3123.
Goetz, J. L., Keltner, D., & Simon-Thomas, E. (2010). Compassion: An evolutionary analysis and empirical review. Psychological Bulletin, 136(3), 351.
Hein, G., Silani, G., Preuschoff, K., Batson, C. D., & Singer, T. (2010). Neural responses to ingroup and outgroup members' suffering predict individual differences in costly helping. Neuron, 68(1), 149-160.
Lazarus, R. S., & Lazarus, R. S. (1991). Emotion and adaptation. Oxford University Press on Demand.
Lutz, A., Brefczynski-Lewis, J., Johnstone, T., & Davidson, R. J. (2008). Regulation of the neural circuitry of emotion by compassion meditation: Effects of meditative expertise. PloS one, 3(3), e1897.
MacBeth, A., & Gumley, A. (2012). Exploring compassion: A meta-analysis of the association between self-compassion and psychopathology. Clinical Psychology Review, 32(6), 545-552.