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Compassion Is More Than Niceness

The new science on human goodness.

Key points

  • Compassion is the recognition of suffering in self and others with a desire to alleviate and prevent it.
  • Contrary to popular opinion, compassion is different than empathy.
  • Compassion isn't something we’re born with or not. It’s a skill that can be strengthened through practice.

I ditched my cable subscription last spring. If I had to hear one more screaming head or screaming politician or screaming anything who pits one person or one side against another purposefully for ratings or dramatic effect, I was going to lose it. It was either the black metal box beneath the television or my sanity—I chose the latter.

I also didn’t like what was happening to me. In watching 24-hour “breaking news” or, for that matter, doomscrolling social media about the COVID pandemic, political polarization, misinformation, disinformation, race and culture wars, economic insecurity, and the general daily dread that has been dominating our lives for years, I was sliding into indifference—about others, life, and the hope of society ever regaining some modicum of goodwill, decency, and kindness.

“If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.”

The words are Mother Teresa’s, arguably one of history’s greatest fonts of compassion. But in the social sciences, this phenomenon of mass indifference is called psychic numbing.

Psychic numbing is a lack of feeling associated with information. Paul Slovic, a psychologist at the University of Oregon who has for decades been studying collective responses to mass atrocities, told WebMD, “If some information conveys a positive feeling, that’s a signal to approach whatever the situation is. If it sends a negative feeling, it’s a signal to retreat. The meaning of information is heavily determined by the feeling that information creates in us.”

The tsunami of information we have been receiving in recent years has been filled with fear, stress, anger, and indignity in a society that feels increasingly cruel, callous, and disconnected. It is no wonder that I, like many Americans, am experiencing a compassion deficit—a trend that was already on the rise. For instance, a 2010 study (Konrath, 2011) found that younger generations, particularly, are less empathetic and more narcissistic.

Distilling compassion

Compassion is the recognition of suffering in self and others, with a desire to try to alleviate and prevent that suffering. Compassion operates through evolved psychological and physiological mechanisms that underpin our mammalian care-giving motives and behavior.

Contrary to popular opinion, compassion is different than empathy. Empathy allows us to take the perspective of another person (i.e., cognitive empathy) and to feel the emotions of another person (i.e., affective or emotional empathy), whether positive or negative. Compassion emerges when those empathetic thoughts and feelings include a commitment to help.

In contrast to empathy, compassion goes beyond just feeling with another person to feeling for them. Unlike empathy, compassion activates areas of the brain that calm the fight/flight/freeze autonomic response that can arise in response to challenging or uncomfortable situations. These brain areas also release dopamine and oxytocin, “feel good” rewards, which, in turn, enhances positive emotions.

And herein lies one of the wonders of compassion: because compassion generates positive emotions, it counteracts the negative (or painful) effects of empathy. Compassion gives us the courage to turn toward difficulty and suffering. It allows us to feel stress but also overcome it. It allows us to be present to others and to ourselves in times of need. Compassion also has physical benefits. For instance, it can reduce the risk of heart disease by boosting the positive effects of the vagus nerve, which helps to slow our heart rate. It also strengthens our immune response.

And yet for all this good, fear of compassion is also on the rise.

The dangers of fearing compassion

A recent study (Matos et al., 2021) found that since the COVID-19 pandemic, fears of compassion have increased. The same study also suggested that people fear compassion because they believe it to be weak or self-indulgent, or that they will become too distressed or unable to cope, or that others or themselves simply don’t deserve compassion. (The latter I see quite frequently in my work with moral injury.) Fearing compassion can prevent our inherent care-giving response to be turned on or acted upon in that we either ignore or miss entirely the “suffering” signal and fail to answer the call to help alleviate that suffering.

As is often the case with fear, fear of compassion not only limits our experience, but also can affect our mental and physical health. The study by Matos and colleagues (2021) further found that both fearing self-compassion and receiving compassion from others had significant associations with depression, anxiety, stress, and well-being, as well as vulnerability factors such as self-criticism and shame. These associations were even stronger in individuals who had a diagnosed mental health condition. Their research (Matos et al., 2021) also showed that fears of compassion predict paranoid ideation about other people or groups as potential threats.

Cultivating compassion

Compassion is not something we’re either born with or not. It’s a skill that can be strengthened through exercise and practice.

The University of California, Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, in collaboration with HopeLab, launched Greater Good in Action, a website that collects science-based practices for a happier, more meaningful life—and they have a lot to say on how to bring more compassion into your life. One suggestion is this 5-minute writing exercise.

Other universities, such as Stanford and Emory, sponsor compassion training programs to help increase feelings of compassion in themselves and others. Here are a few tips they and others suggest:

  • Look for commonalities. Rather than focusing on how different you are from others, try to identify what you have in common. Consider the commonalities you have with everyone—for instance, that we all share the human experience. Would you believe that simply tapping your fingers to the same rhythm as a stranger increases compassionate behavior? Research (Valdesolo & Desteno, 2011) shows it does.
  • Encourage cooperation over competition. One study (Liberman et al., 2004) showed that describing a game as a “community game” increased players' levels of cooperation and sharing behavior, while calling the same game the “Wall Street game” made the players more ruthless and less honest.
  • See people as individuals rather than abstractions. When asked to support an anti-hunger charity, research (Small, 2007) showed that people were more likely to give money after reading a story about a particular starving girl than after reading statistics on widespread starvation. In other words, take Mother Teresa’s advice about looking at “the one” over “the mass.”
  • Believe in your power to do good. When we believe we’re able to make a difference, we are less likely to suppress feelings of compassion.
  • Notice how good compassion feels. Take a moment to feel the dopamine and oxytocin reward rush that comes when you take compassionate action.
  • Relax judgments about yourself and others. Try taking a both/and, rather than either/or, approach. Everything isn’t all “right” or “wrong,” “good” or “bad.” Life can be great and hard at the same time, and we’re all doing the best we can.
  • Listen generously. Pause before speaking. Try not to interrupt or react impulsively when someone is speaking. Likewise, don’t try to fix everything always or all at once; sometimes the silence needs to speak.
  • Talk or write about what and who you are grateful for. Research (Sandsone & Sandone, 2010) shows gratitude also boosts happiness, social well-being, and health outcomes.
  • “Set an intention” meditation. Meditation teacher Jack Kornfield suggests that setting our intention is like setting the compass for our heart. Consider developing a compassion meditation; ask yourself: What is bringing you to the practice today? What do you want for yourself? What do you want for your life? What do you have to offer the world?
  • Lead by example. Research (Zacki, 2016) suggests that compassion is contagious, so if you want to help cultivate compassion in others, live it in your own life.

Concern and caring for others are virtues that most people instill in their children, and yet increasingly, they are woefully lacking in many adults today. Angry, alienated America is itself becoming a pandemic, to both our individual and collective detriment.

Our old brain shares many things with other animals—like the instinct to avoid that which could harm or threaten us, or to be territorial, possessive, and concerned with status. And yet we are also social beings to our core; we are inherently motivated to form friendships and relationships, to bond and belong, to reproduce and care for offspring and those we love.

At the heart of compassion is courage—not physical courage (or what might be considered bravery), but rather emotional courage. The kind that allows us to move towards our own or another’s suffering, to be present to pain and work to alleviate that pain.

(Fun factoid about compassion: countries with higher rates of empathy and compassion had higher temperatures on average.)


Konrath, S. H., O’Brien, E. H., & Hsing, C. (2011). Changes in Dispositional Empathy in American College Students Over Time: A Meta-Analysis. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 15(2), 180–198.

Liberman, V., Samuels, S., & Ross, L. (2004). The name of the game: Predictive power of reputations versus situational labels in determining prisoner's dilemma game moves. Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin. 30(9). 1175-85.

Matos, M., McEwan, K., Kanovsky, M., Halamova, J., Steindl, S. R., Ferreira, N., Minharelhos, M. Rijo, D., Asano, K., Gregorio, S. (2021). Fears of compassion magnify the harmful effects of threat of COVID-19 on mental health and social safeness across 21 countries. Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy, 28(6), 1317-1333.

Sansone, R. A., & Sansone, L. A. (2010). Gratitude and well being: The benefits of appreciation. Psychiatry, 7(11), 18–22.

Small, D. A., Loewenstein, G., & Slovic, P. (2007). Sympathy and callousness: The impact of deliberative thought on donations to identifiable and statistical victims. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 102(2), 143-153.

Valdesolo, P., & DeSteno, D. (2011). Synchrony and the social tuning of compassion. Emotion, 11(2), 262–266.

Zacki, J. (2016). Kindness contagion: Witnessing kindness inspires kindness, causing it to spread like a virus. Scientific American.

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