Compassion: A complete guide on being a compassionate person

The Dalai Lama once said, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” But what is compassion and what does it mean? What are the techniques and behaviors used by compassionate people? Find out all of that and more in this article!



What is compassion?

“Sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of other”- “To suffer together”- that’s the literal definition of compassion. The word itself derives from Latin. Researchers who specialize in emotions define it as the “feeling that arises when you are confronted with another’s suffering and feel motivated to relieve that suffering.” Essentially, to relieve the stress of someone else’s situation. It is not running away from, becoming overwhelmed, or avoiding suffering. Rather, it is staying present with suffering.

What does compassion mean?

Scientists have discovered that when we feel compassionate, our heart rate slows and we release oxytocin, the bonding hormone, which is linked to feelings of pleasure and happiness. According to a study at the University of North Carolina, just seven weeks of mindfulness and compassion practice helped lead to an increased life of satisfaction and a decrease of depression. Other studies have shown that increased compassion can also lead to decrease bias towards others, decrease migraines and emotional tension, and increase the gray matter in our brains. But what does it look like? Some common traits and behaviors of compassionate people:

  • Notice when others are hurting
  • Take the time to stop and help
  • Sacrifice themselves for others
  • Are gentle
  • Are courageous


Compassion theories

Compassion and Psychology

Humans and animals have what some people call a “compassionate instinct”. Essentially, we are naturally compassionate- it isn’t something we learn. Research has shown that rats, chimpanzees, and human infants all can go out of their way in order to be compassionate. In fact, studies show that compassion simply feels rewarding. In one study about dating, both men and women ranked “kindness” as one of the top things they look for in a romantic partner. Research in positive psychology and social psychology has further shown that connecting with others in a meaningful way speeds up recovery time from diseases and that compassion can lengthen our life spans. This can be explained by the fact that we feel better after giving than receiving something.

Compassion and Neuropsychology

In 2009, the Brain and Creativity Institute studied feelings of compassion and how they interact with and change social pain and physical pain in others. Both feelings invoked changes in the anterior insula, anterior cingulate, hypothalamus, the posterior medial surface of each brain hemisphere (basic brain function) and in the midbrain. Being compassionate with social pain was found in the inferior and posterior regions while being compassionate for physical pain was found in exteroceptive and anterior/superior portions of the brain. Feelings of compassion in relation to other people had effects found in the prefrontal cortex, the frontal cortex, and the midbrain.

Some studies have shown that by looking at neuroimaging technology, we are able to see the brain’s “pleasure centers” which activate when we experience pleasure. For example, when we get money, have sex, or eat dessert. Our brain’s pleasure centers are just as active when we receive money as it is when we give money to charity. Essentially this means that the caudate nucleus and the anterior cingulate regions of the brain activated just as much when we got money as when we gave away money.


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Compassion and Medicine

Generally speaking, physicians try to put their patient’s interests first, which could include acts like no harm, proper care, and confidentiality. Being compassionate makes up a part of each of these acts because they have a direct relation to the recognition and treatment of suffering. Research suggests that a desire to be helpful isn’t a desire to be compassionate, but that it does create a connection between being compassionate and other motivating emotions that reduce tension brought on by emotions. Furthermore, the relationship and bond that occurs between a caregiver and a (suffering) patient prove that compassion is a social emotion that grows with the closeness between two people.

Compassion fatigue

It’s possible to get emotionally burned out. This is especially common in people who are highly sensitive, have a tendency to empathize with others or those who are around traumatic situations often. These people get what is known as compassion fatigue. Some of the symptoms range from anger, anxiety, nausea, dizziness, dissociation, night terrors, or feeling powerless.

Research shows that people who often experience traumatic situations, like ER personnel, psychologists, or caregivers, can experience trauma symptoms similar to those of their patients. Scientists speculate that hearing the traumatic stories can transmit through a psychological process that evokes strong empathy which later results in being compassionate.  


The process of self-kindness is called self-compassion. It can have positive effects on us such as an increase in happiness, optimism, wisdom, and agreeableness. It also implies self-appraisal, the capacity to notice, to care, and to respond to your own needs. This can involve things like valuing yourself, connecting with others to have a support system, and thinking about your ideas and needs compassionately. Research has shown that people who feel self-compassionate have a better psychological health than those who don’t.



Compassion vs empathy vs sympathy

We send sympathy cards, not compassion cards when someone dies. We feel empathy for the homeless person asking for money outside of the store, but we don’t feel compassion for them. Compassion, sympathy, and empathy are words that are used interchangeably when there is an honest difference between them. Compassion is the willingness to relieve someone else’s suffering. Empathy is the feeling of what someone else is feeling. Sympathy is seeing what someone else is feeling.

When we feel empathetic to someone else, it’s due to our mirror neurons, a neurotransmitter in our brain that makes someone else’s pain feel like our pain. It’s putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes. For example, if you see a friend get a papercut on their finger, you may feel a slight pain in your finger where they cut themselves due to our mirror neurons kicking in.

When we feel sympathetic to a situation, it’s because we understand the feeling, but we don’t feel that feeling. For example, your friend’s spouse passes away. While you may not feel the absolute pain that your friend feels, your brain understands that your friend is sad and understands why they are sad.

When we are compassionate to a situation, we combine the feeling of someone else’s pain (empathy) and recognizing that someone else is in pain (sympathy) to do our best to alleviate that person’s suffering. Compassion is simply empathy and sympathy in action.

Compassion vs pity

Pity derives from the Latin word pietas which means “duty” or “dutiful”. It is defined as the “the feeling of sorrow and compassion caused by the sufferings and misfortunes of others.” In order to feel pity, you must have experienced the same situation before and feel that someone else doesn’t deserve this “fate”. Sometimes pity can have contempt, benevolence, or dislike along with it.



The importance of compassion

All major religions of the world place incredible importance on compassion. For example, the good Samaritan (Christianity), the 13 attributes of compassion (Judaism), the beginning statement of “In the name of Allah the Compassionate, the Merciful,” in 113 out of 114 chapters of the Koran (Islam), or the statement that “loving kindness and compassion is all of our practice,” (Buddhism). Hindu philosophy and Hinduism uses compassion as a base for their beliefs.

However, ancient Roman and Greek philosophers didn’t trust this feeling. They believed that the voice of reason is what needed to guide us, not how we felt about things.

What are skills needed for compassion?

  • Easily finding commonalities with other people. One study suggests that it increases when there is a common connection with someone else. That is to say that they’ve been in the same boat.
  • Understanding that money isn’t everything. One study shows that those whose wealth increased had a decrease in being compassionate. Another study correlates these findings with the thesis that a higher social standing will negatively influence someone’s ability to pay attention to interactions with other people. That is to say that the study showed that the richer someone is, the less they pay attention to people.
  • Act on your empathy. A large part of compassion is giving back and acting on kindness. Some research says that the compassionate response will be more effective than the tough response in terms of the workplace.
  • Practicing self-love. A study done by the University of California in Berkeley says that people who practice self-love are more motivated to improve themselves and reach their goals.


What are some exercises to show compassion?

  • Check up on friends. Not everyone reaches out when they need help and sometimes checking up on someone can save a life.
  • Volunteer doing anything because help isn’t only needed by the sick or homeless.
  • Be encouraging. When you are encouraging, you are able to push others to do their best and succeed.
  • Love yourself because we often forget to. We give away our love to others while not using compassion with ourselves. People who practice mindfulness and meditation are great examples of people who are strong in loving themselves.

What are some examples of compassion in behavior?

  • There are many movies that inspire like Wonder Woman and the Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, among others.
  • There are loads of books, especially children’s books, that are based on acts of being compassionate. It’s also been scientifically proven that reading literary fiction, like Charles Dickens, promotes feelings of empathy, which can lead to being compassionate if acted upon.
  • There are many celebrities that are role models of compassion, too!
    • Olivia Wilde, Ellen DeGeneres, and Russell Brand are all advocates for, thus compassionate towards, animals by being strict vegans.
    • George Orwell was compassionate when he wrote Down and Out in Paris and London (1933) which talks about when he worked as a colonial police officer in Burma and the brutality of the situation.
    • Harriet Beecher Stowe who wrote the famous book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was compassionate towards getting rid of slavery. One of the most famous lines, “It was at his bed, and at his grave, that I learnt what a poor slave mother may feel when her child is torn away from her.”
    • Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King Jr., and Nelson Mandela are some of the world’s most well-known compassionate advocates.

How do you show compassion? Let us know in the comments below!

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