Helping others may be the last thing on your mind when you’re feeling down or anxious. Showing others compassion may even seem unfair—if you’re the one struggling, it would make more sense for people in your life to show you a little compassion, right?
Focusing on other people, rather than the things that distress you, will help you keep worry and stress in check.
Research shows compassion also has a lot of positive health benefits. Compassion helps you feel more connected to others, inspires confidence, and leads to a longer life. All of these benefits promote overall emotional happiness. Even if you don’t feel particularly warm and fuzzy towards other people now, science shows that it’s possible to become more compassionate.
So, what’s happening in your body that makes kindness beneficial?
You actually get a high from witnessing human goodness—called moral elevation. A recent study in Biological Psychology took a closer look at what’s going on in your brain and body when you feel that warm glow in your chest.The scientists found that seeing acts of kindness not only gives you that compassion-high, but actually helps you move past stress.
Researchers showed participants either a film clip in which someone showed kindness to a person who was suffering (a moral elevation video) or simply an amusing video. They tracked participants’ heart rate in order to understand how their sympathetic nervous system (your “fight or flight” reaction that gets your heart rate up and adrenaline pumping) and parasympathetic nervous system (which relaxes the body) responded to the different videos.
Participants who viewed the moral elevation video experienced activation in both nervous systems, but the funny video didn’t trigger a change in either system. A researcher working on the study, Sabrina Saturn, was surprised by the increased activity in both systems. “This is a really uncommon pattern, where you see both of these systems recruited for one emotion,” she said in an interview with Greater Good. Usually, these systems operate as opposing forces—one gets you revved up and the other calms you down.
Compassion involves deep awareness of the emotional experience of another person and the desire to be kind towards them. In the study, watching someone struggle through a tough time was stressful for participants. Just imagine how you feel when you realize another person is uncomfortable at a party, feels uncertain about their work performance, or is upset about a breakup. But when we watch a selfless act of goodness make another person feel better, it calms us down—allowing us to move past our stress and feel a warm glow. Researchers think this glow—the physical manifestation of moral elevation—motivates us to “pay it forward” with altruistic acts in the future.
Compassion isn’t only about helping others when they’re upset—it’s about doing kind things for another person anytime, and you’ll benefit either way.
One of the great thing about compassion is that it spreads really easily.
When you receive a kind deed or watch an act of kindness, you’re more willing to help others. And on the flip side—when you help out other people, you’ll not only strengthen your relationships with them, you’ll build a reputation for being helpful. And that reputation building is a major benefit. A person who is known for helping others and returning favors is more likely to receive help—even from strangers.
Since performing compassionate acts is just as beneficial as receiving them, one way to take charge of your emotional health is by making an effort to be kind to others everyday. You may even launch a series of pay-it-forward goodness that will eventually make its way back to you.
How to start cultivating kindness
It’s okay if being compassionate doesn’t come naturally to you, yet. This exercise will teach you how to put yourself in someone else’s shoes to understand what they might feel, think, or need.
1. Choose someone around you and observe their body language. Are their arms crossed? Are they sweating or blushing? Are they smiling? Then listen not only to what they’re saying, but the tone and pitch of their voice.
2. Imagine being in their position. How would you feel if you traded places? Anxious, nervous, excited, proud?
3. Visualize doing nothing. What would happen if you ignored their body language and verbal cues? How would the other person feel if you didn’t take into account their situation, thoughts, feelings, needs? How would you feel about yourself if you overlooked them?
4. Now do the opposite. Think about how you could respond compassionately. How do you think the other person would feel if they received help or words of support or kindness? How would acting compassionately make you feel?
5. Try it. Do something compassionate for that person.
6. Try it again. And again. And again. New thoughts and behaviors take repetition and intentional practice before they become habits. Set a goal of three deliberate, conscientious acts a day and keep a record of what you do each day – or just count the number. The point isn’t about getting credit but rather about helping your brain learn and rehearse the behavior so you can develop a default pattern of compassionate living.