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Can Compassion Be Taught?
Researchers are developing programs that promise to teach people how to be better
By now, the news cycle is familiar: The United States is using tear gas on asylum seekers. Hundreds of migrant children remain separated from their families. A professor’s office is vandalized with anti-Semitic graffiti.
It’s easy to feel like we’re living in a social climate increasingly unconcerned with the suffering of others. A frequently cited 2009 study suggests that people may be getting less empathetic over time, and as politics, current affairs, and rhetoric fuel anger and polarization, it can certainly seem like we’re becoming a less compassionate society.
Can that change?
There are a lot of factors, including wealth, religion, and whether you experienced childhood trauma, that contribute to how we feel about others and our desire to help them. A 2018 study even suggested that genes may play a role in empathy, arguing that genetics accounts for 10 percent of individual differences in empathy.
Empathy, compassion, and altruism are often lumped together. And while they’re linked, they have different meanings. Empathy describes an emotion you feel when you observe it in another person. For instance, you might be able to feel pain when someone else is injured.
“Compassion is a more positive, other-directed emotion,” says Anne Böckler-Raettig, an assistant professor at Würzburg University’s Institute of Psychology in Germany. It’s feeling the suffering of others and the desire to help. Altruism is “the tendency to behave in a way that enhances the well-being of another person.”
Research suggests that it’s possible to train ourselves to be more compassionate. There is now an entire industry dedicated to cultivating compassion. Currently, there are five empirically supported compassion trainings, some offered by university-affiliated research centers. Stanford Medicine’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, for example, offers an eight-week training program.
The idea of compassion- and mindfulness-based trainings, which draw from psychology, neuroscience, and other disciplines, is that your brain can learn to feel for others as well as how to respond. In a study published this year, Böckler-Raettig and a team of colleagues found that the right kind of compassion training program can enhance altruistic behavior to cultivate feelings of compassion for other people.
“Compassion for others isn’t sustainable without for compassion for self.”
For the study, men and women were trained with three different types of meditation-based programs. The researchers wanted to see which of the trainings had an impact on what’s known as altruistically motivated behavior—behavior intended to help others, like donating, sharing, and helping. One of these trainings was called the affect module, consisting of three introductory days, weekly meetings with teachers, and 30 minutes of daily practice over the course of three months. An example of an exercise is loving kindness meditation. For 10 to 20 minutes, participants were asked to think of someone they love — like a child, a sibling, or spouse — and to cultivate feelings of care, compassion, and affection toward that person. Then, the men and women were asked to do the same for people they don’t know very well, as well as for people they don’t get along with.
After participants went through this training for three months, researchers found that they were more generous and more willing to help others in need, and they donated more to charity. The research team argues that the findings suggest that people can be trained to be more compassionate and altruistic, and that the study confirms past research showing that humans are capable of learning to care about and want to help people who are suffering.
Compassion trainings can take many shapes, but they’re often several weeks long. Kristin Neff, an associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, acknowledges that most people won’t actively seek the training, but it’s possible to try short, simple mental practices at home. The University of California, Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, for example, offers access to many science-based exercises that people can try at home. For instance, you can try a compassion meditation exercise that focuses on paying attention to your breath, guided imagery, and repetition and can be done in 30 minutes a day for two weeks. This short-term exercise, created by researcher Helen Weng and her colleagues at the University of Wisconsin, Madison’s Center for Healthy Minds, was the focus of a research study in 2013.
“These results suggest that compassion can be cultivated with training and that greater altruistic behavior may emerge from increased engagement of neural systems implicated in understanding the suffering of other people, executive and emotional control, and reward processing,” the authors of that 2013 study concluded.
Trainings should ideally include a focus on self-compassion, Neff says. “Compassion for others isn’t sustainable without compassion for self.”
Böckler-Raettig says people aren’t necessarily becoming less compassionate at the individual level, though there may be changes on the societal level. “Many people today are highly motivated to preserve the environment, contribute to the public good, and be compassionate,” she says.
Generally speaking, researchers tend to argue that humans are actually wired for compassion, not self-interest (though not everyone agrees). “Despite what’s going on in the world, we know that one’s default mode is to be compassionate,” says James R. Doty, professor of neurosurgery at Stanford University School of Medicine and founder of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education.
So why does the social and political climate feel so hostile?
Doty says he thinks politicians have created a false narrative that has contributed to the culture of uncompassionate behavior. As he explains it, a lack of compassion in society is based on the belief of scarcity. “When there is abundance, people are more open, interacting, and accepting,” he says. “When there’s the reality or perception of scarcity, this engages your tribal instinct, which is to affiliate with people who look like them.”
“When you create a false narrative of scarcity, people respond in a tribal fashion, which is [a mentality of] me against them,” he adds.
The American narrative of the rugged, self-sufficient individual doesn’t help. It creates a false perception that pulling yourself up by your bootstraps is always possible. “This is a justification of getting rid of social safety programs,” like health and social services, Doty says.
Because those who need it most might not take the time to try compassion training, Böckler-Raettig thinks implementing the training in schools and workplaces can be effective if we want to become a more caring society. In fact, such efforts already exist. Making Caring Common, a project of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, provides resources for educators and parents to raise kids to care about others. It also works directly with schools to implement strategies for creating a better school culture.
Similarly, the Charter for Compassion partners with cities and organizations around the world to implement compassionate programs in a variety of areas. Religious scholar Karen Armstrong, who founded the group, wrote a book in 2010 highlighting 12 concrete steps to being more compassionate, including learning about compassion, focusing on and loving yourself, and treating others how you want to be treated.
Most people, given the opportunity, want to be inclusive and do the right thing, Doty argues. But we may just need a little push, like compassion training, to get us to a point where we see this reflected in laws and policies.
“It’s worth society’s time to do it,” Neff says.