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The Proven Healing Power of Compassion

At its essence, compassion is a gift of the spirit—one with the power to change lives, reduce stress, and heal depression.

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At its essence, compassion is a gift of the spirit—one with the power to change lives.

Love. Empathy. The heartfelt impulse to help those in need. Compassion is a deep awareness of the suffering of others, coupled with a desire to alleviate it. “Compassion has nothing to do with any self-interest or expectation. It is a virtue or way of caring for another person that’s rooted in spiritual consciousness,” says Swami Ramananda, director of the San Francisco Integral Yoga Institute.

Lately, scientists have become fascinated by this inborn human ability to feel for one another, and for good reason: Whether you’re on the giving or the receiving end, compassion has been shown to have profound and measurable effects, from reduced levels of stress and depression to faster healing from surgery. A growing body of research on compassion is crossing the boundaries between science and the contemplative traditions to explore and understand how we care and why. Researchers at Stanford, Harvard, and Emory universities, among others, are building a body of evidence that supports a truth yogis have long known: Through practice, we can increase our own capacity for generosity and love, and in doing so, we benefit both as individuals and as a society.

“Compassion can be looked at as a quality of the heart and also a skill to be cultivated,” says Margaret Cullen, a therapist and senior teacher at Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. “The more you practice compassion, the more you unveil or access the natural and spontaneous human wish to help others. You live closer to it, and it becomes more available. This is really the medicine the world needs.”

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Research Confirms Giving Makes Us Feel Good

You already know it feels good to give—how donating to a cause you believe in or buying a sandwich for a homeless person can brighten your whole day. Now there’s hard science that explains why good deeds have such mood-elevating power.

Brain scans of people in the act of giving have found that generous deeds activate the same reward centers in the brain that pleasures like food and sex do. When these areas are stimulated, dopamine and other feel-good neurotransmitters are released, resulting in pleasurable feelings that can range from contentment to euphoria.

“The mechanism of biology explains what spiritual traditions have been saying forever,” says Stephen G. Post, director of the Stony Brook University Medical School Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care, and Bioethics and author of The Hidden Gifts of Helping. “Giving to others is as important for human flourishing as sex and good food. It lights up the part of the brain that makes you happy.”

In 2010, a team of researchers, including Harvard University professor of business administration Michael Norton, analyzed data on the spending habits of more than 200,000 people in 136 countries who came from a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds. The team found that spending money on others universally made people happy, regardless of differences in culture or income level. In an earlier study published in 2008 in the journal Science, Norton surveyed 632 Americans on their spending habits and happiness levels and came to the surprising conclusion that spending money on others makes people happier than spending it on themselves.

Bigger gifts don’t necessarily equal bigger pleasure. Norton found that even small gifts increase happiness on the part of the giver. “People often think we’re advocating that they give all their money away,” Norton says. “We think of it more as little shifts in your spending on a day-to-day basis, like buying a friend a cup of coffee. You can do the big stuff, too, but it’s also about finding everyday ways to incorporate giving into your life.”

Learn How to Open Up for Others

“Compassion comes from being moved by another person’s suffering,” says Emiliana Simon-Thomas, a consulting neuroscientist with Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, which spearheads groundbreaking research on compassion. It’s a natural instinct, she says, and one that researchers have observed in children as young as one year old.

But while it may be natural, this ability to open our hearts and engage with others is not always easy, especially when they are in pain. Researchers at Stanford have developed a training method to help give people the skills to open up to others’ suffering. Called Compassion Cultivation Training, the nine-week program uses meditation techniques adapted from various contemplative traditions—such as tonglen, a Tibetan Buddhist practice in which you imagine breathing in another’s suffering while sending out love and kindness as you exhale—to teach students how to nourish their compassionate instincts and to regulate their emotions so that they can feel another’s pain without being engulfed by it. The group at Stanford is researching the training’s effectiveness, and preliminary results show it’s successful in increasing compassionate feelings. Simon-Thomas says the direct results of compassion-oriented meditation techniques are experienced every day by those who practice them. “You’re likely to gain much more profound insight into your own well-being and have more success in your interpersonal life,” she says. “Compassion facilitates more meaningful connections with other people.”

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How to Open and Connect to Your Heart

Compassion is a natural quality, yet you sometimes lose touch with it when your mind is disconnected from your heart, says Swami Ramananda of the Integral Yoga Institute. In the heart, you can embrace and accept all aspects of yourself and of the people around you. But when you dwell primarily in the reasoning mind, you often experience other people as obstacles toward your goals rather than fellow beings on the path. A few moments each day of cultivating compassion can help you settle your awareness into your heart.

Ramananda suggests this practice: Sit comfortably and take several slow breaths. Begin with a chant or prayer that is meaningful to you, or silently set an intention. If you wish, fold your hands over your heart. Now call to mind a person you love. Dwell on that person, holding their presence in your heart. Feel energy moving outward from your heart and flowing toward the beloved person. After a few minutes, experiment with turning that same loving energy inward, directing it toward yourself.

Open your heart to yourself. If critical thoughts or feelings of unworthiness arise, let compassionate energy flow toward yourself, accepting yourself as you are. After some time, direct this energy outward again, calling to mind other people you know and embracing them with this same compassion, accepting both their strengths and their shortcomings. The beauty of the heart is that it has the capacity to embrace everything.

End your practice with an intention to carry that openheartedness with you into your day. If there’s a word or phrase that embodies your intention for this practice, call that to mind throughout your day. Tell yourself, for example, “I am breathing through the heart,” or “Let me breathe through the heart.”

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Put Compassion Into Action

One out of five Americans dedicates time to community service, and with good reason: According to a 2010 study of 4,500 adults, 89 percent said they felt greater well-being after volunteering, 73 percent had reduced stress levels, and 68 percent felt healthier. This study is the latest example in a growing body of research that shows that freely serving others can reduce anxiety and depression, speed up recovery from illness, reduce pain, help older adults stay mobile, and increase longevity.

So there’s powerful evidence that putting compassion into action is good for your health. But what if you’re daunted by the number of options for volunteering and are not sure where to begin? Get off to a sustainable start by weaving volunteer work into your daily life, suggests Robert Rosenthal of Volunteer Match, a nonprofit that pairs people looking for volunteer work with over 80,000 organizations in need.

Look to your neighborhood school, church, or other community organizations for easy ways you can pitch in, and get creative about using many of the things you’re already doing to benefit others. For example, if you compost, deliver your extra compost to a local community garden and pull some weeds while you’re there. When you’re going grocery shopping, ask what you can pick up for your local school or shelter. Spend quality time with your family by participating in a local clean-up day at your neighborhood park, beach, or riverside.

“Rather than aspiring to volunteer, find something you can do that works for the life you have right now,” says Rosenthal. “Start with something that’s within your grasp and build on it.”

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