If it sometimes seems that the world isn’t quite as kind as it used to be, it may not be your imagination. One of the growing concerns among psychology researchers is the declining level of compassion—and its companion, empathy—in modern society.
In fact, at the same time researchers from the University of Michigan found that students’ empathy levels are declining, psychologist and author Jean M. Twenge, Ph.D., has found a rise in narcissism. There’s also a significant indication that some of the factors adding to this include social media and a lack of connection between people.
“Even Charles Darwin noted that evolutionary success depends upon kindness and compassion. It’s something that everyone needs.”
However, when we allow ourselves to be distracted by technology, we may be less likely to listen to others or to notice their suffering. The connection is so strong that Stanford University launched a Compassion and Technology Conference in 2013 to look at how to overcome the lack of social connection that occurs as we become more tech-centric.
“Add to that a divisive environment, where it’s a ‘me vs. you’ mindset, and we’re not connecting with each other,” Louis says. “That drives away empathy and compassion.”
Living Better, Longer
While empathy is often confused with compassion, they are actually two separate experiences—but they play a crucial role together. Empathy occurs when you feel someone’s emotions, such as sharing the pain your best friend is experiencing over her divorce. Compassion is the response to those emotions and makes you want to help. In essence, empathy can be the fuel that propels compassion forward.
“Empathy lends emotional weight to our kindness,” explains Jamil Zaki, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology at Stanford University. “It’s an umbrella term that refers to the multiple ways that we respond to other people’s emotions, including not only sharing their feelings but also understanding what they feel and why.”
Nashville hairdresser Kayce Tutor has always been quick to help family and friends in need, but when she began volunteering and sharing her compassion with strangers, it changed her life.
Once a week, on her day off, Kayce volunteers with the Nashville organization ShowerUp, a mobile shower truck that provides hygiene resources, meals and health care screenings to the homeless.
“I set up a chair and tools next to the truck and do haircuts, beard and neck trims and even the occasional French braid,” she says. “Sometimes I have 10 or 12 people in my chair in one night; it’s not much different from what I do in the salon, other than the location.”
Her personal Facebook page frequently reflects her most recent concerns and provides suggestions for how others can get involved. She rounds up donations from friends and co-workers for her weekly ShowerUp visits. And while the people who sit in her chair each week are considered the beneficiaries of her compassion, Kayce says she has gotten the greatest reward.
“Since I started volunteering, I’ve felt a change in my anxiety level. I feel lighter and happier. It’s something so simple that took me so long to figure out, but what you give to other people you get back in abundance.”
Kayce’s experiences align with Jamil’s finding that empathy and compassion may hold a key to not only living a happier, healthier life, but a longer one as well.
“It can lead to a lot of good things, like prosociality, morality and connection,” he says, and it also affects our physical health.
Studies show that people who practice compassion have a lowered stress response, which is directly related to harmful inflammation in the body. As Kayce noted, compassion also makes you feel good and slows down your heart rate, thanks to the release of the hormone oxytocin.
What’s even more interesting, Jamil says, is that it isn’t just practicing compassion and empathy that builds better health; being on the receiving end of empathy can help give both our mental and physical well-being a boost.
“Patients with empathetic doctors are healthy and happier,” Jamil says, “And employees with empathic bosses take less time off for stress-related illnesses.” There’s also evidence that people with empathic spouses experience greater marital satisfaction. But if it’s so good for us, why is it so easily tossed aside?
“In the face of conflict, empathy gets turned upside down,” Jamil says. “It’s easy to empathize with people who look or think like us, but less easy to empathize with people who are different. As a result, we often dole out our kindness in ways that are uneven and biased.”
Back to Basics
As it turns out, we might be hard-wired for compassion. Dacher Keltner, Ph.D., author of Born to Be Good and faculty director of the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, has studied how compassion affects the autonomic nervous system. In the lab, studies have found that the vagus nerve, which controls unconscious bodily functions like digestion and heart rate, reacts strongly to images of suffering and distress. This indicates to researchers that compassion isn’t just a learned response; it’s a built-in instinct.
Dacher even coined the phrase “compassionate instinct” to explain that compassion is a natural response that was essential for our survival.
Even though it appears to be instinctual, compassion is something that needs to be nurtured. Practices like doing a daily loving kindness meditation, in which you send positive, healing thoughts both to yourself and others, is a good starting point. Learning how to practice compassion can make a profound and immediate difference, but it’s something that we must choose and practice every day.
“It does involve some unlearning, especially if we’ve gotten used to not exercising compassion,” Louis says. “But the bottom line is, compassion feels good. It feels good to practice it and it feels good receive it. It’s exactly what we need to heal people, to heal organizations and to ultimately heal the world. It’s that powerful.”