The Compassion Contagion

Viruses are made up of core genetic material, DNA or RNA – the very same elements that make us human. They naturally invade host cells, getting inside and using the cells own machinery to replicate. Viruses exist to reproduce!

But what if this replication process applied to kindness? Imagine that an act of kindness witnessed by another could get inside that person, warm a heart, and inspire others to act in kindness as well. What if a compassion contagion grew around the world spreading loving-kindness through individual supportive acts and intentions?

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It can, and it does! I just finished a 6-week online course through Stanford Continuing Studies with Kelly McGonigal on the Science of Compassion – covering everything from the definition of compassion itself to what happens when it goes wrong, compassion fatigue. The most inspiring part, to this unabashed optimist, was the part where we learned that doing good really does DO GOOD!

A large and growing body of research demonstrates that giving compassion leads to greater well-being for the giver, receiver, and ALSO for the casual observer! One study found that people who volunteer more frequently are both healthier and happier than those who do not. A number have shown how spending money on others or giving to charity vs. spending on oneself yields improved measures – decreased blood pressure, reduced anxiety, and greater connectedness. Yet another illustrated how witnessing a person perform a good deed elicits helping behavior in the observer.

The course gave a cursory understanding of how compassion manifests – in relationships, in our own bodies, and how to cultivate it and optimize its potential for healing in life.

Before we go any further, a quick definition: COMPASSION literally means to suffer with, it is…

  1. An awareness and recognition of suffering
  2. A feeling of concern for and connection to the one who is suffering
  3. A desire to relieve that suffering
  4. AND a willingness to respond

Compassion changes your perspective! When you activate your own intention to alleviate suffering, you change the way you see the world and your role in it – you now have something to offer! Experts coin this the helper’s high: that we are happier when we are less concerned about our own happiness. Another phenomenon is called moral elevation: an emotional state that individuals experience after seeing or hearing about a virtuous act.

The more we accept and reach out to greet suffering with compassion, the more receptive we’ll become to the compassion that is available in the world around us. In this way, compassion starts with the self, with an individual awareness and acceptance. Dr. Kristin Neff, a pioneer in self-compassion, urges us to give to ourselves the same kindness and support that we give to our closest family and friends. At her Center for Mindful Self-Compassion you can take a test to gauge your level of self-compassion. We are all too often far too unkind to ourselves.

As we forgive and accept our struggles, and offer support to others, support becomes available in a virtuous cycle where compassion provides strength, it can be a source of willpower. And where, as individuals, we can truly be a source of the good in the world that we seek!

Compassion motivates us to connect with others and help. It boosts immunity, releases stress, and reduces prejudice. It supports balance and resilience. In holding compassion, we begin to recognize that pain and suffering are part of the human experience, which allows us to share in a common humanity – a place where like me, all others desire happiness and freedom from suffering.

In A Fearless Heart, Dr. Thupten Jinpa recommends setting a daily compassionate intention, by asking:

  1. What is it that I value deeply
  2. What in the depths of my heart, do I wish for myself, for my loved ones, and for the world?

With this frame of mind, we enter a frenetic world with the intention of spreading joy and love, where positive actions can inspire and infect others to act in compassionate ways. Let’s start a compassion contagion in order  to interrupt anxiety and bring greater connection and collective purpose to life!