How to cultivate compassion in times of adversity

There are multiple benefits to practising compassion. Here are a few ways to cultivate compassion during these adverse times

Hands reassuring hands | Cultivate compassion

In the year gone by, we have witnessed seemingly endless streams of suffering. First, multitudes of people in distant lands succumbed to the dreaded Coronavirus. Slowly but surely, those far-off statistics morphed into people we knew, as Covid-19 spread its deadly tentacles over the Indian subcontinent. The sheer desperation of migrant workers stranded without food or shelter, the hapless plight of healthcare workers toiling with inadequate protective gear, tens of thousands who joined the ranks of the unemployed on a daily basis, elderly people locked in without their usual support—unprecedented turmoil all around.

When hardship abounds, so does despair. Fortunately, humankind is also capable of experiencing another emotion when faced with adversity that can be cathartic for all concerned—compassion.

Compassion is natural in humans

Compassion, according to Emma Seppala, Science Director of the Centre for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University, entails an “emotional response when perceiving suffering” and “an authentic desire to help”.  Though we may be disheartened by global news coverage of our fractious and fragmented world, researchers posit that compassion is innate in animals and humans.

While our species can be callous, contemptuous and cruel, we also harbour a “natural tendency” towards compassion that has contributed to our survival, argues Seppala in a Psychology Today article.

In an experiment, conducted by Elizabeth Dunn and colleagues, participants were given a fixed amount of money. Half were instructed to spend it on themselves, while the other half were asked to spend it on others. Researchers then measured the happiness levels of all the participants. Contrary to what we might expect, the researchers found that people who spent money on others were more content than those who indulged themselves. Seppala argues that compassion benefits us at multiple levels.

Multiple benefits of compassion

Physiologically, people whose happiness stems from having a sense of purpose in life have low levels of cellular inflammation. In contrast, people who derive happiness from hedonistic pursuits exhibit high inflammation levels. Thus, purpose rather than pleasure seems to be conducive to our physical health. Further, lives imbued with purpose or meaning are more often other-directed as opposed to self-directed. Rather than viewing the world through a self-obsessed lens, a feature linked to many psychological problems like depression and anxiety, focussing our attention on others and their problems can widen our perspective.

Additionally, compassion also enhances our longevity, possibly by mitigating our stress levels. Seppala cites a study by Michal Poulin that found that stress is linked to mortality for most people. However, for “those who helped others,” the stress levels did not “predict mortality.”  Apparently, being of service to others nourishes the self.

How to cultivate compassion in times of adversity

In these bleak and uncertain times, are there things you can do to cultivate compassion? Indeed, there are! Let’s discuss a few ways you can cultivate compassion:

Meaningful contributions

In a blog post on PositivePsychology.com, psychologist Heather Lonczak suggests that we engage in acts of altruism. Though most of us may be home-bound, consider ways you can harness your skills and talents to make meaningful contributions, however small.

If you are adept at sewing, you can make masks that can be distributed to needy people.  Or, perhaps you can conduct pro-bono online cooking classes for kids to keep them engaged and occupied while their harried parents catch up on chores or work.

You may reach out to elderly family members to check if you can shop for them. Or consider making a donation to help migrant labourers who have lost their jobs.  In fact, there are opportunities aplenty at this time for you to tap into your altruistic spirit.

Avoiding judgement

Lonczak also exhorts us to avoid judging people through a negative lens. Often, we don’t fully understand the context behind a person’s compunctions. Though we may disapprove of another person’s actions in a particular situation, know that we can’t entirely predict our own reactions to the very same predicament. Instead of harping on the differences between you and the rest, trying to find similarities or areas of common ground can promote compassion.

Being grateful

Being grateful for all that is going well in your life can also make you more compassionate towards those who aren’t as fortunate. Engaging in meditation, specifically the Buddhist practice emphasizing loving-kindness, can increase the ambit of your compassion. And, most importantly, don’t forget to exercise self-compassion.

The key is to practising self-love

Often, we are harshest towards ourselves, especially when it comes to personal failings and inadequacies. But if you wish to cultivate compassion, you need to begin with yourself: stop berating and criticizing yourself. Psychologist Kristen Neff, who has studied self-compassion in depth, identifies three components on the website self-compassion.org:

  1. Avoid beating yourself up

First, when we fall short, we may deny our imperfections or judge ourselves harshly. Neff exhorts us to recognise our flaws without disparaging ourselves. Treat yourself with kindness and understanding, just as you would treat a friend.

2. Accept pain as an inevitability

Second, when you suffer, know that pain is part and parcel of the human experience.  Acknowledging your common humanity with others will make you feel less alone during trying periods. Even if those around you seem better off, remind yourself that almost everyone is hit by the vicissitudes of life and your pain too shall pass.

3. Practise mindfulness

Finally, cultivate mindfulness so that you can view your thoughts and feelings from an observer’s point of view without getting unduly mired in them.

Let’s cultivate compassion and make our world richer

If we thus hone our ability to exercise compassion, the world will definitely be richer for it.  While we hope that Covid-19 is curtailed sooner than later, the pandemic has given us a chance to plumb the reservoirs of human compassion.

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