Cultivating Empathy And Compassion

Putting others first is a practice commonly recommended to stimulate self-development and spiritual growth. It turns out also to be an effective strategy to enhance emotional wellness. In addition to reducing social isolation, it helps decrease the self-focus that favors depressive rumination and can also lead to greater empathy and compassion.

We’ve been told that goodness is its own reward. In fact doing good for others brings very tangible reward in the form of benefits to physical and mental health. In his 2001 book, The Healing Power of Doing Good, former Peace Corps volunteer and community action lawyer Allan Luks introduced the term “helper’s high” to describe the rush of good feelings that people get when they help others. He proposed that it was an endorphin-mediated state analogous to the well-known “runner’s high.” Since then neuroscientists have demonstrated that helping others activates the same centers in the brain involved in dopamine-mediated pleasure responses to food and sex. In one study, these pleasure centers lit up when participants simply thought about giving money to a charity.

Helpers are less likely to be depressed and more likely to be happy. One of the findings of the landmark Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey of 30,000 Americans, published in 2000, was that those who gave contributions of time or money are 42 percent more likely to be happy than those who don’t give. To cultivate empathy and compassion, try putting others first.

There are many ways to do so, both in thought and action. You could join the Peace Corps or volunteers for relief work in a disaster area, or you can may get similar emotional benefits just by being more aware of the suffering of others and giving some of your time and energy to alleviating it. You can perform acts of altruism, as ordinary as being more courteous when you’re behind the wheel of your car. You can resolve to be kinder in your dealings with others. It all works. Kindness and generosity toward others can actually make you happier.

Empathy is the ability to feel what others feel, to know another person’s experience because you can connect it with your own. Compassion is understanding what others feel and using that understanding to respond to them with love and kindness. We think of empathy and compassion as virtues, but they are also learnable skills that can bring greater happiness into your life and improve all of your relationships. You can sign up today for various forms of empathy training, not just Buddhist meditation classes but very secular business courses designed to make you a better negotiator or manager. In the business world, empathy is held in high regard for the simple reason that people who are most empathetic tend to be most successful.

Learning empathy and compassion contribute to emotional wellness by promoting spiritual growth. These skills allow you to identify with others on a deep level, lessening isolation and loneliness. They offer protection from depression and greater possibilities for experiencing spontaneous happiness.

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