Compassion can change your life and increase your levels of happiness and well-being.  Sound too good to be true?  Not for hundreds of students, professionals, and community members who have been trained in compassion over the past couple years through well-known universities like Emory University in Atlanta, GA and Stanford University in northern California.  You might be thinking: People were actually “trained in compassion”?  That sounds like some sort of court-assigned program for people with anger management issues.  I don’t need compassion training… I’m already compassionate.  But do you really know how compassionate you truly are?  If increasing your compassion level beyond where it is today could bring you more happiness and heightened physical and mental health, would you want to explore it further?

Many people believe that you either have empathy and compassion or you don’t.  When it seems like some of the people in our workplaces, neighborhoods and in the media have no capacity for the expression of these qualities, it’s easy to conclude that “it’s just not in them.”  We also know that sometimes we simply don’t feel the desire to have compassion for people we don’t know or for people we feel have harmed us in some way, who are harmful to others, or seem incompetent or careless to us.  We have a tendency to reserve our compassion for certain people and situations and don’t extend it to everyone all the time.  But the reality is that both empathy and compassion can be learned and developed in every one of us, to the point of expanding it to all people and situations, and the results of doing so can be incredibly transformative and enriching to the quality of our lives.

While Stanford, Emory, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison have been training various groups of people to cultivate higher levels of compassion in their daily life, they’ve also been conducting scientific studies that demonstrate the tangible benefits of this kind of training.  Proven benefits of compassion training (including compassion meditation practice) by researchers at these universities and others include:

  1. Reduced stress, anxiety, and depression[1] – elevated cortisol, or “stress hormone,” levels in the body have been linked to suppressed immune function, digestive and sleep disorders, and other health issues; compassion training has been shown to lower cortisol levels, stress, and anxiety in the body
  2. Reduced inflammation in the body[2] – elevated levels of c-reactive protein can result from a number of illnesses, including cancer, infection, lupus and arthritis; compassion training has been shown to lower c-reactive protein levels in the body
  3. Better emotional regulation[3] – the gland in the brain responsible for “fight-or-flight” syndrome, the amygdala, is activated under threatening or stressful conditions; mindful attention and compassion training generally reduce amygdala activation and stress-response activity in the body, even while not meditating
  4. Increased happiness levels[4] – activation of the brain in the right pre-frontal cortex (PFC) has been associated with disappointment, sadness, and anxiety; in contrast, activation of the left pre-frontal cortex has been associated with feeling enthusiasm, happiness, and well-being; compassion training, especially compassion meditation, can promote strong activation of the left PFC, increasing positive emotions
  5. More “aha! moments”[5] – studies have shown that compassion mediation can significantly increase gamma wave signals in the brain, which can produce a  heightened brain state with increased perception and problem-solving abilities

Greater compassion is not something you can just wish for or will to happen. Unfortunately, you can’t just say, “Starting today, I’m going to be more compassionate and kind toward everyone,” and then sit back and watch your way of being change for the better in every situation.  But through practice, high self-awareness, and deep contemplation, you can see lasting changes in your level of compassion.  The compassion training programs referenced in this article encourage a daily compassion meditation practice, teach mindfulness and enhanced emotional regulation, and cause one to reflect on the ways all human beings are connected and desire the same thing in life: to be happy and free from suffering. These strategies, combined with a personal conviction to express warmth and compassion toward ourselves and other people in any situation, can bring us lasting happiness, true inner peace and acceptance, and elevated physical and mental well-being.  Is your happiness worth it?

 

For additional information about the Cognitively-Based Compassion Training (CBCT) program at Emory University, the Compassion Cultivation Training (CCT) at Stanford University, or to experience a guided compassion meditation (audio file) used in programs and research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, please visit the Links page at www.compassionatelove.net.

Wendy Saunders is a Certified Teacher in Cognitively Based Compassion Training (CBCT), a program of Emory University, and offers the program in the Los Angeles area.  Please visit www.compassionatelove.net for schedule updates or email cbctlosangeles@gmail.com.


[1, 2] Muraco, J. A. & Raison, C. L. (2012). Compassion Training as a Pathway to Lifelong Health and Wellbeing. Frances McClelland Institute for Children, Youth, and Families ResearchLink, Vol. 4, No. 3. Tucson, AZ: The University of Arizona.

[3] Desbordes, G., Negi, L.T., Pace TW, Wallace, B.A., Raison, C.L. & Schwartz, E.L. (2012). Effects of mindful-attention and compassion meditation training on amygdala response to emotional stimuli in an ordinary, non-meditative state. Frontiers of Human Neuroscience, 6, 292-330.

[4] Engström, M. and Söderfeldt, B. (2010). Brain activation during compassion meditation: A case study. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 16(5), 597-599.

[5] Lutz A, Greischar LL, Rawlings NB, Ricard M, Davidson RJ (2004). Long-term meditators self-induce high-amplitude gamma synchrony during mental practice. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 101: 16369–16373.
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