The Science of Compassion

The field of compassion science has surged in the past decade. Today, researchers are studying a myriad of powerful ways compassion practices can improve health and strengthen relationships. Here, we look at the latest findings, so you can take a glimpse into what happens in your body and mind when you treat yourself and others with more care.
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Compassion

As a child, James Doty believed the world wasn’t a very kind place. He spent the summer before eighth grade riding his orange Schwinn Sting-Ray bicycle around his hometown of Lancaster, California. He’d saved his money from mowing lawns to buy the freedom to fiercely pedal away from the turbulent apartment he shared with his parents and brother.

His dad was struggling with alcohol addiction and frequently took off for days to weeks at a time, sometimes leaving the family without enough money for food. His mom was chronically depressed and rarely left her bed. When his dad was home, his parents argued constantly, leaving his mom in tears. Doty’s older brother was scrawny and bullied, which meant Doty got into a lot of fights in an effort to defend him. “I felt a lot of anger, despair, and shame,” Doty says. “I never knew what was going to happen next. Worse, I felt like somehow I deserved the situation I was in. ”

Then that summer, Doty met a woman who changed everything. She worked at a magic shop that he’d wandered into without any money. The woman behind the counter, Ruth, was so kind and warm that when she started asking Doty questions about his life, he answered truthfully. “This was rare for me, since I carried so much shame and fear of judgment,” he says.

Ruth told Doty that she could teach him a type of magic different from what the store sold—something that could change his life—if he’d come back to visit. So, he started riding to the shop every day. Ruth brought him lunch, and they’d sit in the shop’s office on metal chairs casually eating and talking. Doty opened up to her about how he perpetually worried about his mom and brother, and was angry with his father. In response, Ruth taught him how to meditate. She asked him to pay attention to what he was feeling in his body when he felt worried or angry or sad. She taught him a head-to-toe body-scanning exercise to help him deeply relax. She introduced him to breathwork, mantra, and self-affirmations such as: I am worthy, I am loved, I love myself, and I love others. And she taught him how to set intentions for the future.

See also 5 Ways To Practice Compassion—and Get Better at It

Most importantly, says Doty, Ruth taught him how to “open his heart” by concentrating on offering unconditional love to people in his life and to himself.

Doty, now 64, says the magic Ruth taught him was better than any card trick he could’ve cracked into his imaginary piggy bank to buy. “Ruth taught me true compassion,” he says, “and it not only changed how I interacted with the world, but also how the world interacted with me.”

It’s poetic to think about the special kind of magic Ruth taught Doty and how it sparked a new trajectory for the sad, scared, anxious little boy who walked into the shop that summer. Yet Doty, now a professor of neurosurgery and founder and director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University, says there’s actual science behind the lessons Ruth imparted on him as a kid.

See also How to Cultivate Compassion

How Compassion Improves Your Health

In fact, there’s an emerging field of research that looks at how compassion and compassion training—often via meditation or self-affirmation practices—can improve health and strengthen social bonds. By using heart monitors, brain scans, blood tests, and psychological surveys, scientists are getting a window into what really happens in the human body and mind when we acknowledge suffering (our own or someone else’s) and approach it in a caring and loving way. Recent studies show that when people are compassionate, especially toward themselves, their heart-rate variability—the fluctuations in the timing between heartbeats—increases, which is linked to an improved ability to self-soothe when you’re stressed.

Consider this: A 2015 study published in the Journal of Traumatic Stress found that veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan who scored higher on a self-compassion scale were less likely to develop PTSD or commit suicide. Another study, published in 2016 by the American Diabetes Association, found that an eight-week self-compassion training for people with diabetes helped them stabilize their glucose levels. Countless other research has linked self-compassion to lower rates of depression, anxiety, and stress—and higher rates of happiness and improved immune function.

Think of self-compassion as a powerful, built-in coping mechanism we all have access to, says Kristin Neff, PhD, associate professor in the department of educational psychology at the University of Texas at Austin and co-author of The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook. Neff has been studying the topic for more than a decade and developed the Self-Compassion Scale—a survey of questions that identifies whether someone rates high or low for self-compassion—which is commonly used in clinical studies. “There is a ton of research showing that whether you’re in combat or raising a special-needs child, dealing with cancer or going through a divorce, self-compassion gives you the strength to get through it,” she says. That’s because it has an effect on your physiology, says Doty: “When you practice compassion, such as through meditation, you stimulate your vagus nerve—which you can think of like a highway that sends messages to and from your brainstem and major organs, especially your heart.”

See also The Proven Healing Power of Compassion

The Link Between Compassion and Your Nervous System

The vagus nerve activates two key systems in the body that impact how you feel: the parasympathetic nervous system (a.k.a. what’s activated when you’re in rest-and-digest mode) and the sympathetic nervous system (your fight-flight-freeze mechanism). Compassion practices help you more readily turn on your parasympathetic nervous system. You become more calm and relaxed, and your brain functions at its best. Your blood pressure and heart rate go down, and your immune system gets more robust. On the flip side, when the sympathetic nervous system is engaged, blood pressure and heart rate increase. Your brain isn’t as sharp as usual, and stress hormones (like cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine) as well as inflammatory proteins (which are associated with the onset of disease) are released into the bloodstream.

We evolved to toggle quickly between both systems, and high heart-rate variability is a sign that your parasympathetic nervous system is engaged, says Doty, who co-authored a 2017 paper published in Frontiers of Public Health recommending that heart-rate variability be used as a primary measure in studies and trainings in the field of compassion science. The good news, Doty says, is that when that toggling isn’t happening as it should, and you find yourself in fight-or-flight mode more often than not, compassion is one of the best ways to find your way back to health.

See also Compassion in Action

Compassion

Softening Self-Criticism Can Lead to a Longer Life

While it’s great to know what’s happening physiologically when we show others and ourselves compassion (or don’t), it’s just as important to translate that learning into everyday life, says Neff. Take, for example, someone who is hard on herself. Chronic self-criticism engages the sympathetic nervous system, which isn’t up for the task of near-constant work.

“The sympathetic nervous system was designed to deal with physical threats, but now most of our threats are created in our minds,” says Neff. “It’s things like, ‘I’m not good enough.’ ” But by doing the opposite—by accepting and comforting ourselves, and tapping into the power of self-compassion—we can hold our pain and our brokenness in a kind and loving way, which de-activates the sympathetic nervous system and helps us heal.

Of course, coaching your inner voice to talk to yourself like you would to your best friend can be a tall task. It’s common for people to feel compassion for others yet lack the ability to show kindness to themselves, says Neff. However, here’s some motivation to change that: Improving self-compassion primes you to be more compassionate toward others. That’s because when you engage your parasympathetic nervous system (the one that helps you feel calm, relaxed, and safe) more often and effectively, you’ll be better able to show up in the world more present and kind.

See also These 6 Simple Exercises Can Help You Cultivate More Compassion For Yourself

It’s easier to do this than you might think. Doty and Neff both say the proof of this is in our hard-wired capacity to care and connect. “Mammals are born very immature,” says Neff. “It takes decades for parts of our brains to fully develop, so there had to be a biological system in place to help infants and children feel safe.” This is why we can be easily comforted by a kind, gentle tone of voice and can intuit people’s emotional states by reading their body language. It’s also why we sometimes mirror the behavior of others. “We’re attuned to respond to emotional states through facial expressions, intonation of voices, body language, and smells,” says Doty, “and we learn from and respond to these on a subconscious level.”

We can boost this innate attunement toward compassion and strengthen it within ourselves through practice. Research on how this is happening within the medical community is encouraging for both health-care professionals and their patients. One 2019 review in the journal BMC Medical Education found that medical students who underwent compassion training reported they were better able to manage work stress and had more positive interactions with patients. Another study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology found that when hospital patients received just 40 seconds of a compassionate message, it lowered their anxiety. And according to a 2010 study in Health Services Research journal, patients who received compassionate care after a heart attack were at lower risk of dying within a year.

Academics studying this field are putting the results of research like this to work in their classrooms, too. Take Scott Plous, a professor of psychology at Wesleyan University, who ends his social psychology courses with what he calls “A Day of Compassion.” Plous challenges his students to focus on being compassionate for an entire day, then write about their experiences. Students commonly report that the exercise helps them to mend rifts with family members or leads them to reach out to neighbors.

See also 4 Ways to Practice Compassion in a Pinch

Regardless of how compassionate you tend to be, your yoga practice is likely to help bolster it. “One of the things that happens with yoga is we focus on the movement of our bodies or the movement of our breath, and we get out of our heads,” says Neff. “For a moment, we leave behind the storyline of our lives and what’s wrong with us. We use our bodies with intention and care and can actually be present with ourselves in a tender way. That’s self-compassion.”

After all, when you’re hypercritical of yourself, it’s easier to judge others. “If I’m not taking care of myself, then my relationships with others are a possible resentment waiting to happen,” says Aruni Nan Futuronsky, a life coach and faculty member at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health. “Self-compassion is the earth into which the seeds of change can be planted. Trying to change through force, will, and ego only work to a point. Through compassion, something greater than ourselves comes forth. We have a partner in life—call it grace, call it higher power, call it the wisdom of the body. We’re not alone. And change becomes sustainable.”

When Ruth asked Doty in 1968 what he wanted out of life, one of the first things he said was to be a doctor. She helped him to believe that it was possible for him to attend college and medical school. Today, he says the practices he learned from her are what keeps his breathing slow, his hands steady, and his body relaxed when he’s performing brain surgery. And these same practices are now embedded in the compassion trainings Doty teaches.

“Every day, each one of us has the capacity to change another person’s life through compassion,” Doty says. “When I was a young boy, Ruth told me, ‘Your heart is a compass, and it’s your greatest gift. If you are ever lost, just open it up, and it will steer you in the right direction.’ ” In teaching and studying compassion, Doty is doing his best to do just that—and to show others the magic, too.

See also Don't Be So Hard on Yourself! A Sequence to Practice Compassion

How to Practice Self-Compassion

Experts share their favorite, research-backed ways to cultivate more self-love.

Treat yourself like a friend

When you’re having a tough day or struggling with something, imagine a friend or close family member coming to you with the exact problem you’re dealing with. Ask yourself what you’d say to them. What tone of voice would you use? What would your body posture look like? Now apply your words, tone, and body language to yourself. “It will feel strange at first to say or think to yourself, ‘It’s OK; I’m here for you,’ but it starts to become habitual,” says Neff. “You stop constantly criticizing yourself and putting yourself down.”

Write a letter to your anxiety

When suffering starts to overwhelm you, Kripalu’s Futuronsky recommends that you create a dialogue with your overwhelm. For example, you might write something like, “Dear Aruni, I am your overwhelm. Let me tell you, this is way too much. I can’t do this. I’m terrified. What the hell is going to happen?” Then, write back. Something like, “Dear Overwhelm, Yep, I hear you. This is hard, and we’re going to just do one day at a time.” Research shows that letter writing can be particularly powerful. One study had participants write a self-compassionate letter to themselves every day for a week. The participants reported decreased depression levels for three months and increased happiness for six months.

Comfort yourself

Self-touch can release oxytocin and help us feel safe. Neff recommends experimenting with different techniques to see what feels most comforting: Try gently placing both hands over your heart, giving yourself a hug, cradling your face in your hands, or clasping your hands together so you’re holding your own hand.

See also 3 Tips & a Guided Meditation to Expand Your Self-Compassion