Betty W. Phillips, Ph.D., Psychology
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Empathy and Compassion


Empathy and Compassion: Another Path to Happiness?



Empathy and compassion are well known as important values. Religion and spirituality are premised upon the mature expression of these skills.  The Golden Rule is honored and treasured -- but is it followed?


In the last few years you may have noticed the increase in warfare, divisiveness, unbridled profit seeking and budget cutting on the backs of the poor, sick or elderly, all examples of lack of empathy and compassion. Quality of life and happiness indices are falling rapidly in the USA, more rapidly than in other countries.  Yes, they are related. Many cite Darwin's work ("survival of the fittest") as a rationale for competition and the resulting lack of humanity toward others. It is not widely known that Darwin's last work found that cooperation, not competition, was the real reason for mankind's survival. In fact, (as explained in "Darwin's Lost Theory," David Loye, Franklin, 2007), Darwin honored the Golden Rule as a basis for man's evolution.


Are these values in fact related to happiness? Yes. While our culture may encourage us to be rich or thin or have lots of Facebook friends, by now you know these goals do not bring personal joy or fulfilling relationships. Empathy and compassion produce positive feelings of inner peace. Selfishness leads to negative feelings of competitiveness, jealousy and greed. Your heart knows the difference!


Empathy is basically the ability to understand and relate to the thoughts, emotions or experiences of others without this information being directly communicated. We are actually born with a brain wired for empathy, and this skill develops during the early years. MRI studies show that observation of another person's emotional state activates the same parts of your brain. In other words, watching someone suffering hardship will switch on parts of your brain related to compassion to relieve that suffering. A TV story about a homeless family will likely elicit compassion and offers to help from the general public, while a political vote to cut funds may just result in "ho-hum" responses.


Secure empathetic-compassionate attachment to parents will promote the development of these values. Did you know that empathy and compassion are also skills related to your emotional intelligence? Some people have underdeveloped capacities in these areas and others are even incapable of experiencing these feelings. Psychopathic personalities may imitate these feelings to manipulate and exploit others. People who have turned off their capacity for empathy to be numb to their own pain, often due to unrelieved pain in childhood, are also numb to the perception of others’ pain. Interestingly, Botox injections which numb facial muscles reduce emotional expressiveness as well as sensitivity to the emotions of others.


Most important to developing these skills is to avoid judgments of self and others! As soon as negative judgments occur, the ego and mind take over and block your heart-based response. As soon as you think about the homeless family as lazy, alcoholic or welfare-cheats, your empathy and compassion vanish to be replaced with anger and condemnation. Which would be your choice? To feel a generous, loving and heart-felt response to others, relaxing body and mind, or an angry critical response causing stress and tension?


True compassion extends both to self and others, exemplifying the best principles of "do unto others as you would have them do unto you." If you want to expand fully into a compassion practice, consider the Loving Kindness meditation explained in detail in this section of the website. You will be joining with the best of humanity to fully experience the joys of these powerful values.