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What Is Compassion?

What Is Compassion?

Compassion involves feeling another person's pain and wanting to take steps to help relieve their suffering. The word compassion itself derives from Latin and means "to suffer together."1

It is related to other emotions such as sympathy, empathy, and altruism, although the concepts have some key differences. Empathy refers more to the general ability to take another person's perspective and feel the emotions of others. Compassion, on the other hand, is what happens when those feelings of empathy are accompanied by the desire to help.

This article discusses the definition of compassion and how to recognize this emotion. It also covers some of the benefits of compassion and what you can do to become a more compassionate person.

Signs of Compassion

Some signs that you have compassion for others include:

  • Feeling like you have a great deal in common with other people, even if you are very different in many ways.

  • Being able to understand what other people are going through and feeling their pain.

  • Being mindful of other people's emotions, thoughts, and experiences.

  • Taking action when you see that someone else is suffering.

  • Having a high level of emotional intelligence so that you are able to understand, manage, and act on your own emotions as well as the emotions of others.

  • Feeling gratitude when other people express compassion for your own hardships.

Types of Compassion

Compassion often comes in one of two forms, which vary depending on where these feelings are directed. Your experience of compassion may be either directed toward other people, or it may be directed inwardly toward yourself:

  • Compassion for others: When you experience compassion for other people, you feel their pain and want to find a way to relieve their suffering. These feelings compel you to take action to do what you can to make the situation better.

  • Self-compassion: This involves treating yourself with the same compassion and kindness that you would show to others. Rather than beating yourself up over mistakes you may have made in the past, you feel understanding, mindful, and accepting of yourself and your imperfections.

How to Practice Compassion

There are a number of different steps you can take to show compassion to others.

  • Speak with kindness

  • Apologize when you've made a mistake

  • Listen carefully and without judgment

  • Encourage other people

  • Offer to help someone with a task

  • Be happy for someone else's success

  • Accept people for who they are

  • Forgive people for making mistakes

  • Show respect

  • Express gratitude and appreciation

  • Be patient

When you practice compassion, you start by empathizing with another person's situation. You look at what they are going through without judgment and imagine how you might feel in their situation.

Compassion and empathy share common elements, but compassion goes a step beyond. Rather than just imagining yourself in their shoes, compassion drives you to take action to help that person. Because you are able to feel those emotions so keenly—almost as if it is happening to you—there is a strong motivation to find a way to change the situation or ease the other person's pain.2

Impact of Compassion

Compassion can have a positive impact on your life, ranging from improving your relationships to boosting your overall happiness. Some of the positive effects of compassion:

  • Giving feels good: One of the reasons why compassion can be so effective is that both giving and receiving can improve your psychological well-being. Being the recipient of compassion can help you get the support you need to carry you through a difficult time. But giving compassion to others can be just as rewarding. For example, researchers have found that giving money to others who need it actually produces greater happiness rewards than spending it on ourselves.3

  • Compassionate people live longer: Engaging in activities such as volunteering to help those you feel compassion for can improve your longevity. One study found that people who volunteer out of concern for others tend to live longer than people who do not volunteer.4

  • Compassion contributes to a life of purpose: One study found that the happiness that comes from living a life of purpose and meaning—one that is fueled by kindness and compassion—can play a role in better health. In the study, participants who experience what is known as eudaimonic happiness—or the kind of happiness that comes from living a meaningful life that involves helping others—experienced lower levels of depression, stronger immunity, and less inflammation.5

  • Compassion improves relationships: Compassion can also help you build the social support and connections that are important for mental well-being. It can also protect your interpersonal relationships. Research suggests that compassion is a key predictor of the success and satisfaction of relationships.

According to one study published in the journal Emotion, compassion is the single most important predictor of a happy relationship.6 Interestingly, the study found that while people tend to gain the greatest benefits when their partner notices their acts of kindness, they actually experience benefits whether their partner notices or not. These findings suggest that compassion itself can be its own reward.

Compassion is good for both your physical and mental health. Not only that, it feels good to help others and can contribute to a greater sense of purpose and meaning in your life.

How to Be More Compassionate

While some people tend to be more compassionate by nature, experts also suggest that there are steps you can take to cultivate a greater sense of compassion for both yourself and others:

  • Bring your attention to the situation: The first component of compassion is to become more aware of what other people are experiencing. Imagine yourself in their shoes. Being able to see things from another person’s perspective can help you gain a sense of compassion for their situation. Practice putting yourself in someone else’s place and imagine how you might feel. Focus on feeling how they might be feeling.

  • Let go of judgment: Accepting people as they are and avoiding judgment is important. Focus on accepting people for who they are without criticizing or blaming the victim.

  • Practice mindfulness: Mindfulness is a practice of focusing on the present, becoming more aware of your own thoughts, and observing these thoughts without judging them. Research suggests that mindfulness-based interventions can be effective for improving self-compassion.7

  • Try loving-kindness meditation: This form of meditation, also known as compassion meditation, involves meditating while directing kind, compassionate thoughts toward yourself or others. Research suggests that this form of meditation can help people improve their connection to others and boost well-being.8

Potential Pitfalls of Compassion

One potential pitfall of compassion is that constant exposure to the distress of others may contribute to what is known as compassion fatigue.9

What Is Compassion Fatigue? Compassion fatigue involves feelings of physical and emotional exhaustion as well as a mental withdrawal from traumatized individuals. It can reduce feelings of empathy and compassion for people who are in need of help.10

People who work in helping or caregiving roles (such as nurses, doctors, or emergency care workers) often experience an extreme state of tension as well as a preoccupation with those they are helping. Because of this, helpers can experience symptoms of trauma themselves, and this can potentially dampen their feelings of compassion.

Finding ways to combat compassion fatigue is particularly important in healthcare and other helping professions. Research suggests that interventions that involve mindfulness meditation can help people in these roles experience greater compassion for others, improve positive feelings, and reduce distress.11

While it's good to have compassion for others, it's also crucial that you take the time you need for self-care.

Compassion allows you to feel what others are feeling and motivates prosocial behaviors that can improve the well-being of others as well as improve your own physical and mental wellness. While some people experience compassion more often by nature, there are things that you can do to help improve your own ability to feel compassion for others.

Learning this ability takes some time and practice, but it's worth it to keep working on flexing your compassion skills. Being open to feeling what others are feeling can help you create deeper, more meaningful connections. Acting on these feelings of compassion can benefit others, but as the research suggests, sometimes compassion is its own reward.

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