CAPACITY FOR CARING: How compassion is good for our health

Cultivating compassion and practicing a compassionate lifestyle can help boost social connection.For those of us in animal welfare, we are intrigued by and do our best to analyze the capacity to have and exhibit concern for others, a trait called compassion, both in and out of our own species.

Going beyond whether we feel compassion or not, or how much compassion we feel in a certain situation, there are those of us who want to know if compassion can be fostered, changed, even manipulated or suppressed. What’s more is it good for people to feel compassion and how can they best act on it?

This is part three in a series of three blogs examining this topic. You can read the first blog here and the previous blog here.

 

The effects of compassion are far reaching and have been shown to have benefits for physical as well as psychological health. A wealth of evidence demonstrates that social support, when humans connect in a meaningful way, helps in the recovery from illness as well as promoting increased levels of mental and physical wellbeing.

Evidence from studies mentioned in the previous blog suggests that interventions can lead to reduced depressive symptoms and feelings of isolation, improvements in positive emotions, psychological well-being, hopefulness, optimism, social connection, life satisfaction, and, of specific interest to this paper - compassion.

Such interventions have been found to also impact upon how people behave - increasing pro-social acts and decreasing anti-social behaviour.

Furthermore, research by Sara Konrath at the University of Michigan and Stephanie Brown at Stony Brook University shows that a compassionate lifestyle might even increase our lifespan. The reverse is also true, and motivation appears to pay an important part.

It is not sufficient to simply do good deeds; one must do them for the right reason. Sara Konrath’s research also revealed that whilst people who were active in volunteering did live longer than their non-volunteering peers, the impact only happened if their reasons for volunteering were altruistic rather than self-serving.

Barbara Frederickson, Steve Cole and fellow researchers have  demonstrated this on a cellular level.  They found high cellular inflammation levels in subjects whose happiness stemmed from a hedonistic lifestyle. Conversely, they found low inflammation levels in people whose lives were enriched by greater meaning and compassionate service to others.

This suggests therefore, that developing a sense of eudemonic, rather than purely hedonic, wellbeing could lead to positive health benefits.

And how may eudemonic wellbeing be achieved? The literature points to the mindful practices and the cultivation of compassion. Compassion, it would seem, is key.

The cultivation of wellbeing has specifically shown that it is eudemonic, rather than hedonic wellbeing which is linked to a sense of connectedness with oneself, and others. Eudemonic wellbeing implies finding meaning and purpose in life, living in accordance with one’s values and developing a sense of long-term ‘spiritual’ health (not necessarily religious).

In turn, eudemonic wellbeing may be cultivated through mindful practices such as mediation and compassion training.

A wealth of literature links altruism and spiritual wellbeing and eudemonia. If we can encourage people to develop their eudemonic wellbeing (not just life satisfaction and short term happiness), they may indirectly develop a sense of compassion - which indirectly may lead to an increased feeling of connectedness with all species, not only their own...resulting in more compassion for all sentient beings.

Compassion can help broaden our perspective and redirect our focus way from ourselves Compassion might boost our sense of well-being by increasing a feeling of connection to others. Social connection helps us recover from illness more quickly, strengthens our immune and even increase our lifespan.

People who feel more connected to others are more empathic and form more trusting and cooperative partnerships.

The converse is also true and low social connection is associated with higher levels of antisocial behavior that leads to increased isolation, and declines in physical and psychological wellbeing.

Cultivating compassion and practicing a compassionate lifestyle can therefore help boost social connection and also improve physical and mental health. 

--CM

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Experts

Cynthia Milburn, Director, Animal Welfare Outreach & Education
Senior Advisor, Policy Development
Faye Cuevas, Esq.
Senior Vice President
Jan Hannah, Campaign Manager, Northern Dogs Project
Campaign Manager, Northern Dogs Project