Happiness and Compassion

What do I mean? Compassion is defined as a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering. There are two pieces:
1. I look at you and imagine how you must feel as you suffer. I vicariously experience your suffering, using my own experience and imagination.
2. I wish that I could relieve the suffering.
So how could this ability to sense the suffering in another contribute to happiness? Why should we want to develop this? Simply that the way humans are made, people who are higher in compassion are much higher in happiness. Richard Davidson, professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin, has found that when people develop their compassion, their happiness does rise remarkably. First, the very decision to feel sympathy for another seems to raise joy within us. Davidson found that the happiness centers of the brain showed greater activity, and the experimental subjects reported they felt happier, when they meditated on compassion. Second, when we help others, our own happiness level raises dramatically. Harvard business professor Michael Norton finds that getting more money doesn’t make people happy. But if they regularly give some of their money to others who are in need, those same people become much happier.
Mother Nature has made us this way. We feel best when we are connected to others, even to those who are suffering. When we reach out, when we lift others up, there is an immediate payoff, a rise in our own sense of connection and joy. When we are higher in compassion, we are more of who we really are. It is like coming home. We are where we belong.
What then must we do?
First, we can train our brains to feel compassion. When we see something that upsets us, that makes us irritated or angry, we can ask, “How is that like me?” Imagine someone speeding in traffic, weaving in and out and creating danger. We are annoyed. Very natural. But when you realize that you are annoyed, try to nurture compassion. “How is that like me?” Maybe there has been a time you sped along, trying to get somewhere quickly. Maybe there has been a time you were reckless. Most of us have done it. Recall how it felt to suffer from that sense of pressure. Look at the person who irritates you and try to imagine how they must be suffering, just as you yourself have suffered. Allow yourself to feel sorry that the person does suffer.
Davidson found that asking students to spend five or ten minutes simply thinking about the word “compassion” and what it meant was a very helpful exercise. Keep your attention on something and you become more of that. If you think about greed (i.e., getting rich), you will become more greedy, but not more happy. But when you think about compassion, you develop the ability to feel sympathy and love for others.
Second, regularly reach out. Help others. As the Harvard study found, give some money to those who are in need. Researcher Sonja Lubomirsky found that setting aside a day when you try to do several helpful acts of service raised people’s happiness level in a striking and lasting manner.
Watch for opportunities, and grab them when they come. On specific days, determine within yourself to watch out for ways you can help. Volunteer a day a week, going to a hospital or a school to help children in pain or need. Pick up trash along a walking trail. If you look for it, you will find many opportunities. And I guarantee it will raise your happiness level.
Think, reflect, write about compassion. Practice it with those who “don’t deserve it.” Then turn it into something specific, something concrete. Do something. You will feel joy.
Copyright © 2008 by Lynn D. Johnson, Ph.D. Tel: (801) 261-1412; E-mail ldj@sisna.com You may duplicate this handout if copyright and contact information are included