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How to Develop Compassion

Learn the science behind compassion and how to increase it.

Photo by Giulia Bertelli on Unsplash
Photo by Giulia Bertelli on Unsplash

Cowritten by Sarah Sperber and Tchiki Davis, Ph.D.

It is generally theorized that humans evolved to experience compassion because the altruistic behavior the emotion often triggers likely improved the survival of our ancestors (Goetz et al., 2010). However, people may experience levels of compassion that vary widely depending on context. For example, research has found that individuals are more likely to feel compassion for individuals in their own social group (Hein et al. 2010). There may be an evolutionary basis for this; our ancestors were more likely to survive if they felt compassion for those within their social group and not for those from competitor groups (Gilbert, 2020).

Compassion vs. Empathy

Are compassion and empathy the same thing? They may be confused because both emotions are ways of relating to the emotions of others. However, it can be helpful to differentiate these concepts. For example, psychologists Singer and Klimecki make a clear distinction between the two as follows: “In contrast to empathy, compassion does not mean sharing the suffering of the other: rather, it is characterized by feelings of warmth, concern, and care for the other, as well as a strong motivation to improve the other person’s well-being. Compassion is feeling for and not feeling with the other” (2014).

An empathetic response might result in wanting to remove oneself from an emotional situation, while a compassionate response entails a desire to help the other person: In essence, getting even closer to the emotional situation. This distinction is supported by research; for example, Eisenberg found that people who felt compassion were more likely to help than people who felt empathic distress (2000).

How to Increase Compassion

Research into compassion has grown over the last few decades due in part to growing awareness of its potential benefits to oneself and others. Indeed, researchers have found various positive outcomes of experiencing compassion, including reduced depression and anxiety (MacBeth & Gumley, 2012). So you may be wondering how to increase your compassion.

One recent line of research has involved contemplative practices such as meditation as a means to increase benevolent feelings toward others. An example of this is a practice often referred to as loving-kindness meditation. In this meditation, an individual is guided to wish well upon others and to notice the associated, often pleasant, feelings. Long-term practice of this and similar meditation is associated with functional changes in the brain: Experienced meditators who had trained in compassion were found to have a stronger neural response in an area of the brain associated with compassion than novice meditators (Lutz et al., 2008).

Fortunately, you don’t need to have practiced loving-kindness meditation for decades to reap its benefits. Researchers have found that even short-term practice can have benefits not only for other people in the person’s life but also for the person who is practicing (Singer & Klimecki, 2014, Frederickson et al., 2008). Numerous free guided loving-kindness meditations are available online; you might try one or two out to see for yourself.

Compassion is key to the human experience, driving prosocial behavior and improving lives. While we have seen that the feeling of compassion can lead to negative outcomes, as in the case of compassion fatigue, we have also seen that it generally has a range of benefits for both the person experiencing compassion and the person(s) for whom compassion is felt.

Adapted from an article on compassion published by The Berkeley Well-Being Institute.

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