When you think about who you love in your life, who comes to mind? Your family and friends? Your pets? Maybe even your colleagues? Do you think of your neighbors or people you pass on the street or in the market? How about your enemies? Usually, we reserve our love for the people we are closest to or who help ensure our survival and quality of life. But we are being called to expand our vision of love for our own benefit and the benefit of everyone around us.

Compassionate love is a kind of love that can be expressed to anyone, even people we struggle with, and anyone can express it. It is an expansive love that can enhance our personal and social well-being and our feelings of interconnectedness with others. It is the kind of love that is at the core of most major religions and serves as a point of convergence between them. Over the past decade, compassionate love, also referred to by some experts as altruistic love or companionate love, has been studied as a scientific construct by individuals, organizations, and universities across the country and around the world. Millions of dollars in grant funding have been awarded to advance compassionate love and related concepts, like compassion, empathy, and forgiveness.

Dr. Lynn Underwood, scientific scholar and past Vice President of the Fetzer Institute in Michigan, has pioneered much of this work and describes compassionate love as the “giving of oneself for the good of another.” She and her colleagues describe compassionate love as having five basic elements¹:

1. Free choice for the other – this love is given freely and intentionally, not out of obligation or with the expectation of receiving anything in return

2. Valuing the other at a fundamental level – recognition and respect for the other person as an equal human being with infinite value and strengths and weaknesses, just as we have

3. Openness and receptivity – remaining open to receiving inspiration and aware of being part of something greater than oneself

4. An accurate understanding of the other, oneself, and the situation – high self-awareness, including knowledge of our own tendencies and agendas, along with correct knowledge of the other person’s needs and feelings in the situation, so that we can freely choose how to best enhance the other person’s well-being, not simply give how we are inclined to

5. A “response of the heart” – a heartfelt quality that reflects emotional engagement, such as warmth, compassion, or loving kindness

Think for a moment about times in your life where you’ve given love freely without expecting anything in return, deeply valued the other person as an equal, were open and gave of yourself in a way that was exactly what the other person needed, and felt warmth, compassion, or love. You expressed compassionate love!

To download the full journal article entitled “Beyond Civility: Growing Compassionate Love in Communities” published by the YMCA of the USA in the Journal of Community Strengthening™, please visit the home page of this website or click here:  http://bit.ly/1awtJqK.

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¹Fehr, B., Sprecher, S., & Underwood, L. G. (Eds.). (2009). The science of compassionate love: Theory, research, and applications. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

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