On International Day of Happiness, Beth Wood and Andy Barker explain why practicing compassion is essential for your wellbeing …
The idea or concept of compassion, of treating other human beings with care or respect, is one that we become aware of at a young age. It is, after all, what separates the goodies from the baddies in the fairy tales from which many of us devolve our earliest moral compass. Properly defined as a sympathetic concern for the suffering of others, compassion has come to be seen simply as kindness, or the propensity to be kind.
Across the continents and throughout the ages seers and prophets have stressed the importance of practicing compassion, pointing to it as the route to a happier and more contented life. Thanks to neuroscience we now know that this is absolutely true, and we know why.
We are essentially organic computers with 100,000 chemical reactions per second. It is these chemicals that induce each of the emotions we feel. One of the ‘pleasure’ chemicals that floods our bodies is dopamine. Think for a moment of the high that you get when you eat a bar of chocolate (the hit actually comes from the anticipation rather than the consumption) and that will be the dopamine. We now know that we are likely to get a much bigger ‘hit’ of dopamine from an act of compassion.
And there’s another reason why compassion is essential for wellbeing. It is accepted that one of the factors in the current ‘epidemic’ of anxiety is the trend towards introspection. Many of us worry about our lives, our families, our jobs, our inability to cope and the way that we are seen by others. Compassion, on the other hand, ensures that we look outwards; we are concerned with the ‘other’ rather than ourselves and are therefore engaging positively with the world. It leads to a reduction in our stress hormone cortisol with a fair few benefits to both physical and mental health.
So how, in the modern almost constant semi-anxious state, can we have the time and energy to be compassionate? It is not always easy. We would say bring yourself into the moment as often as possible. Try a quick mindfulness exercise or just go for a mindful walk where you are really noticing the nature around you. When we are more mindful, more aware, we notice the potential for small acts of compassion – realising that someone needs help to get off the bus, really listening to the answer when we ask a neighbour how they are.
Many who volunteer for a deserving cause report substantial benefits to their wellbeing. For years I have run a Friday Club for adults with profound disabilities and mental ill-health. The staff, volunteers and participants are the most inspiring group of people I have ever met. Friday Club is literally awash with compassion. Whatever our mental and emotional state when we arrive, we go home feeling on top of the world. Every week.
Compassion and self-compassion are tightly bound at the hip. We, many of us, torment ourselves with an almost constant stream of negative self-talk. We treat ourselves more harshly than we would ever treat anyone else and we condone it because we tell ourselves that it is only us that we are punishing. It is not. It is time perhaps to accept that an unhappy and negative person is unlikely to be connecting in any meaningful way with the key people in their life. In other words our lack of self-compassion will be manifested as a sparsity of compassion with those that matter to us most.
Practising compassion, on the other hand, will profoundly boost self-image. Very little is more important than working towards a positive self-image, for it is this which determines the way we behave, respond and feel. At Mind Fitness we guide people towards unconditional self-acceptance where self-value is not relative to that of other people, or conditional upon the money they make, the job they hold or the car in their driveway. Nothing makes this journey faster or smoother than adopting a lifestyle underpinned by the practice of compassion.
Try keeping a compassion diary or journal where you can record each evening the compassion and self-compassion that you have experienced throughout the day. Make a note of what acts or behaviours brought it about, the happiness or other emotions that were the result, and the length of time these feelings lasted.
The Dalai Lama said that compassion is not a luxury but a necessity, that our humanity depends on it. To place compassion at the centre of our lives so that it becomes an instinctive emotional response requires a little effort. We must primarily learn not to judge ourselves or others. But the prophets and seers have been proved right: the science tells us that the effort is worthwhile. Compassion is indeed a necessity if we want to lead happier and more rewarding lives.
Written by Andy Barker and Beth Wood, authors of Unlock You, out now, priced £12.99. To find out more go to: Unlock You.
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