Regardless who you are, or your circumstances, there have undoubtedly been times you’ve been in the pursuit of happiness. Whether it be via natural pick me ups like taking a walk, mental exercises such as meditation, or verbal counseling — those seeking happiness know that the road can be a long journey full of ups and downs.
If you’re looking to be happier or seeking deeper connections, we’ve got a solution for you.
Compassion, as defined by Dictionary.com, is the sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others.
Findings of a 2009 poll showed that Americans were becoming less compassionate, sighting that the political climate had exposed real anger, coldness and polarization among Americans.
Compassion takes practice. But if you do practice, the experts promise the next time you get cut off, while you may not be happy about it, it won’t ruin your morning.
Where does compassion come from?
A whole industry exists to teach you compassion, but it doesn’t have to cost you money. You can start simply with a common exercise called the Loving Kindness Meditation. All you need is a quiet space and about 20 minutes, or 15 minutes if the thought of having to find 20 stresses you out.
Sit in a comfortable position in a quiet space. Focus on your breath and try to clear your mind. The key is to be present in that space at that time. Then mentally focus on your heart area and think about someone you feel tenderness toward.
Focus all your attention on positive thoughts for a little bit. Then extend that same feeling toward yourself. Ruminate on that for a little while. Then expand that feeling out to others. Maybe think of someone you aren’t as close to and think tenderly about him or her.
As time allows add more people to that circle. After a little practice, you can add people who don’t automatically inspire tender thoughts. Serious practitioners eventually add in all of the humanity.
Several studies show that this simple and somewhat trivial exercise strengthens your sense of compassion.
Even short-term exercises like this broaden your attention, your thinking and your overall sense of well-being in a way that lasts. That’s in part because it changes your brain.
Compassion helps your brain become more flexible to instinctively help you become more altruistic, or more social toward others.
According to a 2014 study in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, compassion also makes you become more accepting of your own failings.
The experiment focused on three small groups of women who were shown videos depicting distressing imagery.
One group got empathy training.
Another got compassion training.
The control group got basic memory training.
When researchers looked at their brains before and after two training rounds, they found that participants had different reactions to the same video.
The people with the compassion training still felt these negative emotions, like those with empathy training did, but the part of their brain connected with reward and positive effect also lit up.
For the “empaths”, the part of the brain associated with threat and social disconnection was engaged instead. This finding suggests that witnessing pain in the video would make them shy away, and therefore they’d be less apt to help. The findings also revealed that those who had compassion training saw increased positive effects of the training, and decreased negative effects, as compared to the other trainings.
Compassion gives you a wider perspective as to what is going on, and therefore more ideas how to react.
When your brain feels threatened like it does with pain, even someone else’s, it applies 100% of its focus to the pain to make it go away while simultaneously shutting down other avenues that incentivize you to help.
The happiness that can come from compassion training is the kind that lasts, unlike the fleeting feeling of happiness that might come, for example, from material items (referred to as the treadmill effect by Scientists). Happiness derived from compassion is sustainable.
“Developing compassion sets a foundation for the stability of the mind,” Jha said. “And developing intrinsic compassion, a concern for the suffering of others and for oneself, that can be very powerful … for all involved.”
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