Nobel Laureate Albert Schweitzer wrote, “The purpose of human life is to serve, and to show compassion and the will to help others.” But what is compassion? Why is it so important? Why is it so lacking and what can we do to show more of it?

Many people use the words ‘sympathy,’ ‘empathy,’ and ‘compassion’ interchangeable and while the words are related, they are uniquely different. 

Sympathy is understanding what someone is going through. It’s a cognitive sense of sadness or pain when you hear about someone else’s troubles.  Sympathy is, in essence, feeling sorry for someone.

Empathy takes sympathy one step further. When an individual experiences empathy, they are viscerally feeling what another person feels. Empathy requires immersing yourself to experience and understand what that other person is going through.  Empathy requires a bit more of us because we are experiencing, in some capacity, what the other person is experiencing.  Although it requires a bit more of us, it produces much deeper connection than sympathy. 

Compassion takes both sympathy and empathy yet another step further. When we act with compassion, we recognize someone else’s pain, feel that pain, and then actively do something to alleviate that pain.

The key to compassion is action. Without action, there is no compassion, there is only thinking and feeling which are tantamount to the well-meaning but sometimes empty phrase: “You’re in my thoughts and prayers”.

Compassion Has Healing Effects: Emotionally, Relationally, Spiritually and Physically

Compassion heals our relationships but it also impacts us on a cellular level.  God created our bodies to operate at their best when we are showing compassion. Compassion is not only good for the hearts of those we serve, it’s good for our heart as well. Our bodies produce a hormone called oxytocin when we show compassion, and our physical hearts have built-in receptors for oxytocin. When oxytocin levels are high (when we are feeling and experiencing compassion), our heart receptors absorb that oxytocin being released into the heart. This hormone actually helps our heart cells regenerate and heal from damage that may have occurred.  Oxytocin also serves as an anti-inflammatory and antioxidant. 

How To Become More Compassionate

It’s easy to unknowingly put limits on our own capacity for extraordinary compassion. We convince ourselves we’re too busy, we’ve got our own problems, we can’t solve all the world’s problems, etc.

Kelly McGonigal, a research health psychologist at Stanford University, studies compassion: How it effects us and how we can grow our capacity for it. She highlights that there is a process which unfolds as we experience sympathy, then empathy and then compassion. However, that process can collapse at different points along the way.  True compassion requires us to, first of all, pay attention because when we are preoccupied with our own lives we won’t enter this process at all. Once we notice a need, be it the war in Ukraine or a struggle of our next-door neighbor, an interesting thing happens in the brain.  Our distress/threat circuitry area in the brain actually lights up.  We call it “empathetic distress” and it is in this state when we start to feel a bit of pain for someone else.  

We have a lot of ways we can stop the compassion process at the point of empathetic distress. We may tell ourselves, “Oh it’s not really that bad” or our biases of other groups can get in the way. We may feel we lack resources to meet the need. If we are unwilling to feel that bit of empathetic distress FOR someone else, the compassion process can collapse as well.  This happens in church communities when we may start to feel empathetic distress but halt the compassion process by spiritual bypassing, meaning, we just say “You should pray harder” or “You should check out this verse” instead of actually entering into the person’s experience and listening to them. Although prayer and bible verses have their place, this bypassing is one reason many folks are turned off to “church people” because they think, “These people speak about compassion but I don’t get a felt sense that they truly embody it.”

How do we embody compassion? From a neurological perspective, we train our neural networks to notice when someone is in need, we allow ourselves to feel empathetic distress and we start the process of doing something to help alleviate their pain. This practice of compassion takes time, repetition and intentionality. McGonigal hosts a class at Stanford called “Compassion training.” This class utilizes what we know about how the brain experiences compassion and teaches people how to grow that neural circuitry to make it a more automatic response to lean into suffering with compassion verses leaning out, ignoring or bypassing the pain of others.

The key to compassion is not just thinking or feeling, it’s actively doing something to help alleviate the pain or suffering of another person. Remember however, that compassion is often birthed in those initial raw feelings of sympathy and then true empathy.

Compassion Isn’t Always Easy

At times we idealize compassion. We may think helping others in distress is “supposed” to offer us a warm fuzzy feeling all the time. However, some of the most deeply compassionate people have experienced great pain to get there.  Attempting to avoid pain at all costs will not produce compassion because we may get stuck in the empathetic distress phase of the compassion process and shut down out of pain avoidance.

Brain studies of individuals experiencing compassion show that there are multiple areas of the brain being activated when someone feels compassion. A brain circuitry responsible for distress is activated but the area of the brain responsible for hope also gets activated when we feel compassion. When you are experiencing compassion and have a sense of connection to suffering, either your own or someone else’s, researchers see a very strong neural response connected to hope. 

Living a compassionate life isn’t always easy, but it’s almost always worth it. Ask yourself this question in regards to the difficult yet meaningful experience of building compassion into your life: Do I want to live an easy life without deeper purpose or do I want to take the risk to enter into a state of compassion and experience the depths of hope and connection that come with that risk?