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How Can Social Psychology Be Used To Foster Compassion

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Cultural Issues In Helping

How to Manage Compassion Fatigue in Caregiving | Patricia Smith | TEDxSanJuanIsland

Although almost every culture has a social responsibility norm, the strength of those norms varies across cultures. And these differences relate well to what we know about individualism and collectivism. In one study, Miller, Bersoff, and Harwood found that children and adults in the United States were less likely than children and adults in India to believe that people have an obligation to provide assistance to others. The Indian respondents believed that there was an absolute requirement to help, whereas the Americans offered their helping more selectively, even to their friends. Similarly, Baron and Miller found that Indian students were more likely than U.S. students to view donating bone marrow to save someones life as morally required, whereas U.S. students were more likely than Indian students to say that donating was a decision that the potential donor had to make himself or herself.

Compassion Research Is At A Tipping Point: Overwhelming Evidence Suggests Compassion Is Good For Our Health And Good For The World

Human suffering often inspires beautiful acts of compassion by people wishing to help relieve that suffering. What led 26.5 percent of Americans to volunteer in 2012 ? What propels someone to serve food at a homeless shelter, pull over on the highway in the rain to help someone with a broken down vehicle, or feed a stray cat?

Traditionally, research has paid less attention to these questions than to the roots of pain, evil, and pathology. But over the past decade, this has started to change dramatically.

Nearly 10 years ago, in his Greater Good article The Compassionate Instinct, Greater Good Science Center co-founder Dacher Keltner summarized the emerging findings from this new science of human goodness, proposing that compassion is an evolved part of human nature, rooted in our brain and biology. Research since thenfrom neuroscience, evolutionary psychology, behavioral health, developmental science, and other disciplineshas backed him up convincingly. Again and again, studies have suggested that compassion is indeed an evolved part of human nature, vital to good health and even to the survival of our species. What was a relative handful of intriguing studies has become a scientific movement that is transforming our views of humanity.

What is compassion?

What is compassion and how is it different from empathy or altruism?

Is compassion natural or learned?

Compassions health benefits

The Concept Of Compassion In Psychology

If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.

Dalai Lama

The Dalai Lamaâs words are instructive because they refer to the emotional benefits of compassion to both the giver and recipient. In other words, the rewards of practicing compassion work both ways.

But what exactly is meant by âcompassion?â Various definitions of compassion have been proposed by researchers and philosophers. For example, in his detailed review, Cassell reported the following three requirements for compassion:

1) âThat the troubles that evoke our feelings are serious â

2) âthat the sufferers troubles not be self-inflictedâ that they be the result of an unjust fate â and

3) âwe must be able to picture ourselves in the same predicamentâ .

As such, compassion is not an automatic response to anotherâs plight it is a response that occurs only when the situation is perceived as serious, unjust and relatable. It requires a certain level of awareness, concern and empathy.

Consistent with the above definition, seeing a homeless man on the sidewalk will register differently depending upon how this situation is uniquely perceived by passersby. The amount of compassion elicited by others will be dependent upon how serious his situation is deemed, as well as the perceived degree of fault attributed to him for his predicament.

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Section 2 Being Compassionate

The Tool Box needs your helpto remain available.

    The Tool Box needs your helpto remain available.

Examine the meaning and the different forms of compassionate behavior, how to encourage it, and how to apply it to increase community well-being.

This and other sections in the Tool Box chapter on Spirituality and Community Building have been written with the support and contributions of experts connected with the Charter for Compassion. For more information about the Charter and its work, visit

  • Introduction: The Value of Compassion

  • Definition: The Many Faces of Compassion

  • The Importance of Compassion for Community Building

  • Favorable Conditions for Use of Compassion

  • How to Use Compassion in Community Building

  • Developing and Promoting Compassion

  • Challenges, Issues, and Reflection Questions

Ways Of Knowing Compassion: How Do We Come To Know Understand And Measure Compassion When We See It

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  • 1Department of Family and Preventive Medicine, Emory University School of Medicine, Atlanta, GA, United States
  • 2Graduate Division of Religion, Emory University, Atlanta, GA, United States
  • 3Department of Behavioral, Social, and Health Education Sciences, Rollins School of Public Health, Emory University, Atlanta, GA, United States
  • 4Department of Spiritual Health, Woodruff Health Sciences Center, Emory University, Atlanta, GA, United States
  • 5Center for Contemplative Science and Compassion-Based Ethics, Emory University, Atlanta, GA, United States
  • 6Department of Psychology, Southern Oregon University, Ashland, OR, United States
  • 7School of Human Ecology, University of WisconsinMadison, Madison, WI, United States

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Definition: The Many Faces Of Compassion

Like Avalokitesvara, compassion has many faces, and to define it is not easy. We can consider the meaning and origins of the word compassion in various languages. We can read about the concept in discussions of ethics and morality. We can take into account the stories, parables, and theologies of various world religions. And in current scientific journals and academic studies as well as popular magazines, articles, and videos, we can read about compassion in the context of various related qualities and concepts.

An initial difficulty in pinning down a definition is that the concept of compassion is not one that translates easily in terms of either language or culture. The Oxford Dictionaries online defines compassion as sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others and traces the origin to ecclesiastical Latins compati, meaning to suffer with. Over the centuries, however, the term has become more complex and nuanced, as evidenced by the wide variety of definitions and approaches to this concept published on the website of The Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University School of Medicine.

Scientific Approaches to Compassion

Limitations And Future Research Directions

As with all studies using cross-sectional self-report survey designs, intentions do not necessarily provide accurate predictions of actual behavior. Hence, these dimensions require further experimental work, preferably in real-world conditions. Future work could also control for differences in urgency, severity, and importance between the kindness and compassion scenarios. If the key difference is the concern with alleviating suffering compared to promoting well-being, then the effect should still emerge if the kind and compassionate acts are equally serious/costly. We have argued compassionate acts are inherently more costly than kindness acts, but there could be situations where this might not universally hold. For example, paying for someones cancer treatment versus paying for the person to go to college . Although we predict the difference would still emerge , this is an empirical question requiring additional work to fully test.

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Is Compassion Natural Or Learned

It is not surprising that compassion is a natural tendency since it is essential for human survival. As has been brought to light by Keltner, the term survival of the fittest, often attributed to Charles Darwin, was actually coined by Herbert Spencer and Social Darwinists who wished to justify class and race superiority. A lesser known fact is that Darwins work is best described with the phrase survival of the kindest. Indeed in The Descent of Man and Selection In Relation to Sex, Darwin argued for the greater strength of the social or maternal instincts than that of any other instinct or motive. In another passage, he comments that communities, which included the greatest number of the most sympathetic members, would flourish best, and rear the greatest number of offspring. Compassion may indeed be a naturally evolved and adaptive trait. Without it, the survival and flourishing of our species would have been unlikely.

One more sign that suggests that compassion is an adaptively evolved trait is that it makes us more attractive to potential mates. A study examining the trait most highly valued in potential romantic partners suggests that both men and women agree that kindness is one of the most highly desirable traits.

Can People Learn To Be More Compassionate

Psychological Research: Crash Course Psychology #2

Aaron Johnson is a fact checker and expert on qualitative research design and methodology.

AMV Photo / Getty Images

Compassion involves the ability to feel empathy for others. This ability to understand the suffering of other people is an important component that motivates prosocial behaviors, or the desire to help. The ability to feel compassion for another person requires also having empathy and awareness. You need to be able to understand what another person is facing and understand what it might be like to be in their place.

It is important to note that compassion involves more than just empathy. Compassion helps people feel what others are feeling, but also compels them to help others and relieve their suffering. Until recently, scientists knew very little about whether compassion could be cultivated or taught.

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My Life In The Day Of Compassion

This essay is an assignment on the subject of The Day of Compassion. Part of the Coursera course Social Psychology by Scott Plous, Wesleyan University, Middletown, CT, United States.

This is my experience on a sunny Friday, September 6th 2013. I have defined the day to be my compassionate day. Right before I went to sleep the night before, I told myself what compassion is. I define compassion as caring for others that needs help. I will give either my money, time or energy to help without wanting any compensation. This is what I thought as the social-responsibility norm.

When I wake up the next morning, I plan to find anyone that need help. I imagine maybe I will stumble to a beggar or maybe someone that just lost her wallet, people in trouble or something else similar.

But I think again how will I met such persons like that? What are the odds of me helping someone? So I decide to go to work by public transportation. I was pretty confident that I will have many chances to show the compassionate me by riding bus. And since social psychology studies show that we will have higher chance if we are not hurried, I decided to take my time and observe the situation around me.

So I walk to nearest bus station. What I did not realize when I left home that morning is, my decision to set my heart to be compassionate somehow makes me looks more radiant with positive energy. I smile, my eyes twinkling and I walk suavely and confidently full of positive thought and wills.


Does Compassion Help To Deal With Stress

Several research studies have suggested that there are stress-buffering benefits of compassion. For example, one study by Pace, Tenzin Negi and Adame investigated the impact of compassion meditationâ which consists of meditation that goes beyond soothing the mind by also adding a compassion-enhancement component.

More specifically, following a Tibetan Buddhist mind-training approach, the goal of compassion meditation is to challenge unexamined cognitions toward others in order to promote altruistic feelings .

Study participants attended twice-weekly 50-minute compassion meditation sessions for a total of six weeks, as well as additional sessions that were completed at home. The researchers found that compassion meditation participation was associated with innate immune responses to psychosocial stress .

A similar study examined mindfulness-based stress reduction training that consisted of sensory awareness exercises, yoga, loving-kindness meditation as well as education regarding stress symptoms and consequences . Research findings indicated that self-compassion was related to reduced stress symptoms .

Laboratory studies also have reported stress-related benefits of compassion. For example, in an ego-threat experiment, self-compassion was found to protect participants from anxiety .

And finally, compassion was assessed among participants who completed a high-stress task. Those who were higher in compassion reported a greater degree of liking for supportive evaluators.

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How Do I Cultivate It

We often talk about some people as being more compassionate than others, but research suggests compassion isnt something youre born with or not. Instead, it can be strengthened through targeted exercises and practice. Here are some specific, science-based activities for cultivating compassion from our new site Greater Good in Action:

  • Feeling supported: Think about the people you turn to when youre distressed and recall times when youve felt comforted by them, which research says can help us to feel more compassionate toward others.
  • Compassion meditation: Cultivate compassion toward a loved one, yourself, a neutral person, and even an enemy.
  • Put a human face on suffering: When reading the news, look for profiles of specific individuals and try to imagine what their lives have been like.

Compassion And Positive Psychology

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The field of positive psychology âis founded on the belief that people want to lead meaningful and fulï¬lling lives, to cultivate what is best within themselves, and to enhance their experiences of love, work, and playâ .

It is a field that encompasses an array of positive experiences such as contentment, optimism, and happiness which cover past, present and future timepoints as well as individual and group level traits .

Considering positive psychologyâs focus on the promotion of positive emotions, traits, and behaviors that ultimately foster positive wellbeing the study of compassion fits in well with the interests of positive psychologists. The role of compassion in positive psychology is being increasingly supported by science.

In their comprehensive review of empirical studies within the positive psychology field between 1999 and 2013, Donaldson and colleagues identified 771 articles across 46 countries addressing the aims of positive psychology.

Wellbeing was the most prevalent topic studied. The researchers reported a number of studies indicating that compassion and gratitude were predictors of increased wellbeing .

Additionally, mindfulness was the most frequently researched intervention, and intensive mindfulness training was related to increases in several positive outcomes, including self-compassion. There is little doubt that compassion will continue to maintain its place in positive psychology as a quality meriting continued attention and research.

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From Caring To Compassion: The Knowing Mind

Figure 5. From caring to compassion. Adapted from Gilbert .

Compassion and Sentients

Another dimension where caring and compassion differ is in the nature of sentients. Caring is the motivation to look after, to prevent harm, and to see the object of ones caring, flourish. So, we can care for our gardens, cars, or other or possessions, but if our car was damaged in an accident, we would not have compassion for it because compassion, unlike caring, only applies to suffering. There needs to be a conscious awareness of an experience of suffering. Hence, this brings us again to the issue that it is our knowingness that turns caring into compassion.

Using the Functions of the Mind

Given that these are the core processes for CFT, after a number of disappointing starts, they were developed into a self-report scale . The scale measures engagement and action processes with three orientations: for self, from others, and two others. It has now been used in a number of studies and recently predicted changes in HRV following CFT . The six competencies for engagement and six for action are only guides and are given in Figure 6. Together these give rise to commitment, courage and wisdom to acknowledge and address suffering.

Figure 6. Domains for therapeutic engagement. Adapted from Gilbert Compassionate Mind with permission from Little Brown.

The Flows of Compassion

Compassion and Self-Identity

Contextualizing Compassion

Reactions To Receiving Help

To this point in the chapter, we have proceeded as if helping is always a good thingthat people need to receive help and that they are appreciative of and thankful to the people who help them. But perhaps this is not always true. We havent yet considered the cognitive and affective reactions of the people who are receiving the help. Can you remember a time when somebody tried to help you make a decision or perform a task, but you didnt really want the help? How did that make you think and feel about yourself? Maybe there are costs involved in receiving help, just as there are in giving it.

The negative feelings that we experience when receiving help are likely to be particularly strong when the recipient feels that the implication of the helping is that they are unable to care for themselves. In these cases the help is perceived as being dependency oriented . When the helper takes control of the situation and solves the problem facing the individual, leaving little left for the individual to accomplish on his or her own, the behavior may be seen as indicating that the individual cannot help herself. The potential recipients of help are likely to reject offers of dependency-oriented help, refrain from seeking it, and react negatively when it is offered.

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Social Psychology In The Public Interest

Are the Religious More Altruistic?

Do you think that religious people are more helpful than are people who are less religious? There are plenty of reasons to think that this might be so. After all, every major religion preaches the importance of compassion and helpfulness, and many faith-based organizations help the poor and disadvantaged every year. Religious organizations help provide education, food, clothes, financial support, and other essentials to the needy across the globe.

There is support, based on surveys and questionnaires, that religious people do indeed report being more helpful than the less religious . For instance, Morgan found that people who reported that they prayed more often also said that they better, friendlier, and more cooperative toward others. Furrow, King, and White found a significant positive relationship between religiousness and prosocial concerns such as empathy, moral reasoning, and responsibility in urban high school students. And Benson, Donahue, and Erickson found that adolescents who said that they were more religious were also more likely to have been involved in a volunteer service project in the last year.

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