Excerpt from “The Power of Compassion”
By Sandra Higgins, M.Sc. Couns Psych.
Director of the Compassion Foundation
The Need for Compassion
Western science is becoming increasingly interested in subjects like compassion and mindful attention. Why? The answer is simple: compassion is good for us. Practicing compassion has a positive effect that is noticeable in biological indicators of stress and immune function. It makes us calmer, decreases our heart rate and increases positive emotions and social connection. In therapeutic contexts, it has been shown to be effective for a wide range of psychological symptoms including depression (Gilbert et al., 2006), obsessive compulsive behavior, anxiety (Pauley and McPherson, 2010), traumatic stress, eating disorders (Goss and Allen, 2012), personality difficulties (Mayhew and Gilbert, 2008) and for people who experience what is sometimes termed psychosis (Birchwood et al., 2007).
The science of compassion is often referred to as transdiagnostic and non-pathologising. Compassion is necessary because life is difficult. Every sentient being shares a common goal: avoidance of pain and suffering and attainment of peace and contentment. Yet everyone suffers. From the moment of birth we have obstacles to overcome in order to survive. Everyone makes mistakes. Experiences of disappointment, loss, sadness, grief, anger and fear are universal. Few of us go through life without losing those we love. Everyone risks suffering from serious injury and illness and everyone faces the prospect of death.
Social inequality and discontent is fostered by the fact that we are increasingly conditioned to prioritise extrinsic values, such as appearance, popularity and material wealth, above intrinsic values (personal growth, social affiliation). We are encouraged to believe that there are not enough resources in life for everyone and rather than share what is available, we must strive to take what we can for ourselves. We are taught that if we work hard enough and are successful enough then happiness, popularity, attraction and social acceptance can be bought. Yet, when we examine those who are successful by Western standards, or when we ourselves manage to secure the item that we imagined would make us happy, we find that happiness does not lie in these promised paths at all. People who are at peace and who experience contentment, happiness and wellbeing, practice compassion; material wealth and success as it is popularly defined, are not necessary ingredients. Just simplifying our lives, even in minor ways, can be an act of compassion.
This is an excerpt From How to Be Happy and Healthy – the Seven Natural Elements of Mental Health published by Ashfield Press. Interested in learning more? Check out the book in its entirety here.