What’s in your compassion toolkit today?

From a young age, we are taught to be kind to one another. However, it seems as we move and grow up in life, this simple act of kindness loses its significance. I’m not saying everyone stops being kind to one another, but they fail to see that cultivating kindness towards others and compassion are key components to achieving success and should be adopted just as much as we get older, as we did when we were younger. 


The brain as a whole is complex. However, the individual neuro-networks can be relatively simple. In fact, recent studies have shown when we are compassionate to others, we activate the same neuropaths as we do when we are in love. Empathy is the ability to have the same feelings as another person, be it when they are experiencing a high or a low. However, when we display empathy we are acting the same neuro-networks as when we experience pain. Compassion on the other hand is the ability to show kindness towards others, activating the love network and prompting the individual to action. Both produce different ways of connecting and understanding others.  


Compassion is separate from empathy; both in the neuropaths activated and the action associated with it. A good way to think about empathy is like a fire. When we start a fire in the fireplace, contained by a fire barrier, empathy is controlled, however, when the fire breaches this protective layer, outside of the barrier, it can burn the house down. Empathy when it is controlled can lead to positive understanding, however, when we lack control over it, it can lead to detrimental problems. For example, in 1980, nurses were believed to have suffered from compassion burnout, however, in hindsight it was actually empathy burnout. This is because compassion, just like when you are in love, builds you up, and strengthens you, rather than burning you down like a wildfire. Empathy can steer individuals into problems, whilst compassion is a source of kindness that helps us manoeuvre through problems by moving us towards action.  


Similarly, thinking compassionately activates the hormone oxytocin that consequently activates the neurotransmitters of both dopamine and serotonin. Importantly to note, dopamine is associated with high reward and is activated when we get psyched up and doing something we enjoy. Serotonin on the other hand is associated with a calming effect. So my question to you is, who will have more success, someone who activates both the dopamine and serotonin systems or someone who does not but rather has negative cortisol flowing? Clearly, the individual who has their dopamine and serotonin systems going will be able to feel high and conquer the tasks put in front of them, but calm at the same time, thanks to dopamine and serotonin respectively. 


On a global scale, how can adopting compassion promote success in society? Oxytocin is related to social bonding and builds trust. So in communities where there is high levels of oxytocin, produced as a result of thinking compassionately, stronger communities exist, with both higher levels of trust and economic development. Compassion builds networks that leads to effective teams. Compassion also builds up one’s health and lowers blood pressure. In the workplace, this leads to increased productivity as individuals feel valued and respected, as well as leading to less turnover in people.  


The four steps for cultivating compassion:


L: Listen to Learn 

In society today, it is easy to listen to reply, however, when thinking compassionately, it is better to keep quiet, and actually take the time to listen what the others are saying – both in the words they speak and the silence they do not. As Mozart noted, the rests are the keys to understanding music. When we listen to others, we want to give them our full attention and this is done through listening to learning, not automatically listening to reply.  


U: Understand to Know 

This skill prompts the individual to understand what they need to know to help others. It is often easier to do this by clearing the space in front of you when an individual approaches you for help. Just like with co-ordinates, longitude and latitude coordinates by themselves mean nothing by themselves, however, together they provide a specific location. When we think compassionately, we want to connect with the individual in a holistic way, recognising the ways in which we can help.  


C: Connect to capabilities  

As humans, we are not all perfect, and we don’t have all the answers to everyone’s problems. However, as social beings, we are situated within a web of networks, that can provide the right answers. So when someone has a problem, we need to accept that perhaps we are not equipped to help them directly, however, we can help individuals indirectly by connecting them to someone with the right answers. So bringing in the first step of listening to learn, we need to listen and work out our capacity to help. 


A: Act to Solve 

This step is relatively simple and encourages the individual to step back. That is to say, sometimes we won’t have all the answers, however, we can help others by purposefully not doing something but encouraging them along the right track.  


Compassion is a fundamental skill that should be adopted more in society everyday. If individuals show more compassion, the world will both think and act in a compassionate way, leading to individuals bringing out both the best in themselves and others.  




Recommended further readings: 

The Compassionate Achiever by Chris Kukk  

Give and Take by Adam Grants 

Is Compassion the Key to Success? Podcast with Prof. Chris Kukk


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