I have been pondering on the question: Is compassion inborn or can it be acquired through learning and practicing in a lifetime? Though I easily recognize compassion when I see it in another person, it is difficult for me to evaluate how compassionate I am as a person or if the degree of my compassion varies depending on the context. When I observe the people around me, I often notice that the ones who are compassionate tend to be relatively nonjudgmental and altruistic. Usually they are non-selective on whom to act with compassion. For example, a friend of mine who, when confronted with a person or an animal suffering, she immediately acts to alleviate the suffering. Yet for another person, although she may have the means to ease the suffering of somebody, she may not want to offer it. It may be due many reasons, like laziness, or not having positive feelings towards the person in pain or may be due to her background story and her own suffering. So, where does the difference in compassionate acts or lack of them come from? Is it genetically coded in molding of the heart as hard or tender? Do we learn it by practice and experience? Does the style of upbringing estimate how compassionate we would be as grown-ups?
These questions were asked and explored by the scientists, philosophers and sages around the world throughout the ages. What they say in common is being compassionate serves in becoming a true human being. “Becoming a true human being” is easier said than and yet there is more to it. Being compassionate also serves in “becoming a happy human being.”.
Here is what neuroscience says:
When we see someone’s suffering and try to alleviate it, the reward we get is oxytocin release and feelings of joy. It triggers activity in the caudate nucleus and anterior cingulate, portions of the brain that turn on when a desire is fulfilled and pleasure is gained. Evidence supports that a compassionate act gives the same pleasure as the fulfillment or gratification of a desire.
The sage and the psychologist share a similar viewpoint:
When we can see the world in a different light, find something good even in a seemingly negative event we can capture the reality of that happening. This view of the world around us tends to make us more receptive and compassionate to our fellow beings.
We can cultivate compassion in ourselves by small acts in the beginning, which in turn will enhance the feeling of own self-worthiness followed by the belief that we have the capacity or resources to change something.
On the question of how to cultivate compassion, Karen Armstrong renown the mission of Charter for Compassion, states that compassion is a practically acquired knowledge, like dancing. You must do it and practice diligently day by day. Daniel Goleman known with his work on Emotional IQ states that true compassion means not only feeling another’s pain but also being moved to help relieve it.
As for bringing up children with compassion, Eisenberg et al. have found that parents who use induction and reasoning raise children who are better adjusted and more likely to help their peers. This style of parenting seems to cultivate compassion at an early age when children see the other’s suffering and wish to remedy that suffering. Parents can also teach compassion by example. It is also among the findings that children who have compassionate parents tend to be more compassionate and altruistic as well.
According to Daniel Batson known for his work on altruism, prosocial and antisocial behavior:
Feeling compassion is one thing; acting on it is another. When we encounter people in need or distress, we often imagine what their experience is like. This is a great developmental milestone—to take the perspective of another. It is not only one of the most human of capacities; it is one of the most important aspects of our ability to make moral judgments and fulfill the social contract. When we take the other’s perspective, we feel an empathic state of concern and are motivated to address that person’s needs and enhance that person’s welfare, sometimes even at our own expense. when experienced, compassion overwhelms selfish concerns and motivates altruistic behavior.
One who receives compassion is also ready to extend it. Then as the effects of compassion pass on from one to another, positivity and warmth is also being infused in the community where it is experienced, creating the power to transform people towards being truly human.
If we all have the ability to effect one person’s life each day would we do it?
What do you think?
November 14, 2018
Batson, D. et al. (1981). Is empathic emotion a source of altruistic motivation? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, (4)2, 290-302.
Eisenberg, N. et al. (2014). The development of prosocial moral reasoning and a prosocial orientation in young adulthood: Concurrent and longitudinal correlates. Developmental Psychology, 50(1), 58-70. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0032990