Compassion is the concern for and willingness to help someone who is suffering. Identifying with another person — including identifying with their pain — is hardwired in us. In recent years, neuroscientists have confirmed that our brains exhibit a similar pain response to another’s suffering as they do to our own. Conversely, when we give to or help others, a circuit in the brain is activated and makes us feel good. So in the most simple terms, science indicates that there is a powerful connection between helping other people and feeling happy. How cool is that?
Clearly, when T-shirt guys start talking about neuroscience it’s time to reel it in. The point is, we humans feel the pain of others deeply. We’re herd animals. So we’re driven to reach out where we can and try to alleviate the suffering of others.
Remember, compassion begins with kindness to yourself. Make peace of mind a priority. Take time for yourself. Learn to disarm your internal critic by accepting who you are today. Be patient with your stumblings, and don’t dwell on past mistakes. Forgive yourself and move on, with a positive eye toward the future. If you’re struggling through difficult stuff, you may want to enlist the help of a personal coach or a counselor, or give one of the healing arts – like yoga, meditation and mindfulness practices — a try. Develop self-awareness as a foundation from which you can genuinely understand and empathize with others.
Cultivate your compassion with that simple phrase “Just like me, …” Just like you, everyone else is fighting some battle, big or small. Just like you, others want to be happy and free of suffering. Keep this in mind as you meet friends and strangers alike – and especially if you’re working on a strained relationship. Remember that even those who seem to “have it all together”, and those who simply drive you nuts, face challenges you don’t fully understand. This broad view enables you to rise above petty squabbles, break down barriers, and more easily seize opportunities to help others.
Don’t feel as though you need to have all the answers in order to be of help to someone who’s hurting. Just be yourself and take the time to be with them. Your presence can be more powerful than you think. The action of physically being with someone when they’re hurting can make all the difference in the world.
This article is excerpted and adapted from the book Life is Good by Bert and John Jacobs, published by National Geographic on September 1, 2015. Copyright © 2015 The Life is Good Company.