Researchers at Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE), have played a major role in pushing forward this area of study. James Doty, Ph.D., a professor of neurology at Stanford University, founded the center in 2008, with support from the Dalai Lama. CCARE’s mission is to investigate methods for cultivating compassion and promoting altruism within individuals and society through rigorous research, scientific collaborations, and academic conferences.
Emma Seppälä, Ph.D., is the Science Director of CCARE. Seppälä studies compassion and its effects on our culture. “A brain-imaging study headed by neuroscientist Jordan Grafman from the National Institutes of Health revealed that ‘’pleasure centers’’ in the brain reflect the same activity when one witnesses someone donating money to charity as when one actually receives money,” says Seppälä. “The implications of our findings subvert conventional notions of happiness associated with security and creature comforts, implying that what is truly satisfying is not receiving but giving.”
In addition to improved life satisfaction and better health, practicing compassion can also lead to deeper spiritual growth. “When we are feeling compassion, our stress level goes down, and this in turn reduces the negative impact of stress. But in the deepest way, cultivating compassion allows us to inhabit a fuller sense of our own potential. It helps us open our hearts and learn to love without holding back,” says Tara Brach, a psychologist and well-known American Buddhist practitioner and teacher. Brach has written numerous books on the practice of compassion, self-acceptance, and meditation, and she lectures around the world.
To help you develop more compassion in your daily life, start with these simple practices from Brach.
1. Meditate. Meditating daily allows you to nurture a well of quiet within that can fortify your mental state and provide a sense of ease. Here is a simple exercise from Brach: “Bring to mind someone you care about. Reflect on what life is like for this person, how they are struggling. Mentally whisper a wish for their well-being, that their suffering be eased. You can also do this for yourself, and if you want to make the self-compassion very powerful, explore gently placing your hand on your heart as you offer yourself a message of kindness and comfort.”
2. Let go of negativity. We have a strong evolutionary negativity bias, meaning we tend to look for what is wrong in things. For this reason, cultivating compassion requires clear intention and practice. Brach explains, “The process of awakening our hearts begins with a capacity to be mindful of suffering—to be aware of the vulnerability, fear, hurt, or shame that we and others are experiencing. If you can open yourself to the realness of suffering, the tenderness of compassion will naturally arise.”
3. Embrace kindness. “When we start regarding ourselves and those in our life with increasing kindness, we feel more connection. Our fears start fading, and we are free to enjoy our life, to be spontaneous and creative, and to discover a genuine sense of intimacy with our world,” says Brach.
Simple practices of self-forgetting and interconnectivity can offer significance for individual contentment and health along with igniting social change. As the famous quote from Aesop reveals, “No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.”