Crossville Chronicle, Crossville, TN

October 7, 2013

The Good Life: Relieving suffering

By Louise Gorenflo
Chronicle contributor

CROSSVILLE — We need compassion because life is hard. However, human suffering is often accompanied by others helping to relieve it. What leads one-quarter of Americans to volunteer? 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?

Among emotion researchers, compassion is defined as the feeling that arises when you are confronted with another’s suffering and then feel motivated to relieve that suffering. Compassion boosts our well-being as it broadens our perspective beyond ourselves. Research shows that depression and anxiety are linked to a state of self-focus, a preoccupation with “me, myself, and I.” When you do something for someone else,  that state of self-focus shifts to a state of other-focus.

Helping is contagious: acts of generosity and kindness beget more generosity in a chain reaction of goodness. We may not know it, but by uplifting others we are also helping ourselves; research shows that happiness spreads and that if the people around us are happy, we in turn become happier. Feeling compassion for one person makes us less vindictive toward others. More compassionate societies — those that take care of their most vulnerable members, assist other nations in need and have children who perform more acts of kindness — are the happier ones.

We often talk about some people as being more compassionate than others, but research suggests compassion can be learned and strengthened through targeted exercises and practice. Here are some tips that have emerged out of compassion training programs, as well as other research.

• Look for commonalities: Seeing yourself as similar to others increases feelings of compassion.

• Calm your inner worrier: When we let our mind run wild with fear in response to someone else’s pain (e.g., What if that happens to me?), we inhibit the biological systems that enable compassion. Calming yourself facilitates compassion.

• Encourage cooperation, not competition.

• Don’t play the blame game: When we blame others for their misfortune, we feel less tenderness and concern toward them.

• Respect your inner hero: When we think we’re capable of making a difference, we’re less likely to curb our compassion.

• Notice and savor how good it feels to be compassionate.

• To cultivate compassion in kids, start by modeling kindness.

• Curb inequality: Research suggests that as people feel a greater sense of status over others, they feel less compassion.

"That it is a bad thing to be tortured and starved, humiliated or hurt, is not an opinion; it is a fact. That it is better for people to be loved and attended to, rather than hated or neglected, is again a plain fact, not a matter of opinion." — G. J. Warnock

May you find what I have reported interesting and something you can use in your life. I invite you to email me your thoughts (lgorenflo@gmail.com).