Why compassion may be good for your mental health

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Compassion can make you healthy.  Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

The Dalai Lama often shows an interest in the interface between mental health and Buddhist principles.  He seems keen to consult science in order to establish a connection between meditation, and what is known about our brains, bodies and behaviour.

It seems common sense to most people that the calm engendered by meditation is good for our health.  But it’s slightly less intuitive to think that compassion, even for those who do us wrong, may be similarly good for our health.  Why would this be?

WHAT IS COMPASSION?

Compassion is the ability to cherish others – to witness suffering, and not turn away, but want to help.  Ideally, compassion is universal.  It may sound a tall order, and it is.  Not many people are able to cherish equally friends and enemies, near and far.

OUR ANIMAL SELVES

Our evolution as animals, and in a sense our survival as a species, may have depended on a certain amount of selfishness.  A preference for self-interest can ensure that individuals, and groups look after themselves.  Prejudice may be inbuilt, in that those groups which exclude others might have better access to resources.  In those days past, it is quite possible that some selfishness promoted survival (and therefore health).

OUR SAFER SELVES

However, in recent milennia, humans have made themselves potentially safer.  Despite this, they have retained the old-style selfishness that helped them survive in the past.  The problem is, in the current environment, such selfishness does not serve human health in the same way.

SELF-CHERISHING IN MODERN SOCIETY IS COUNTER-PRODUCTIVE

Many mental health problems, and bodily health problems, are caused by fear and selfishness.  The problem of worry, for example, is in part a cycle of self-interest.  Think about it: if you did not fear loss, then you would not worry.  And loss, by definition, is a selfish thing.  It can only exist if there is something you are attached to, something you cannot let go of.  How could you feel loss if you weren’t attached to anything?

So we gather to ourselves extra friends, food, provisions and wealth.  We are gathering these things to ourselves in order to try to prevent loss.  In past millennia, this helped us survive; but now, it sets us against each other and creates war.  Rushing to acquire possessions, we ignore the effect on our environment.  As long as we have more, we are prepared to spoil the world around us. In these ways, the expression of our self-cherishing causes mental and physical damage to ourselves.

WHY SELFISHNESS IS EVEN UNHEALTHY ON AN INDIVIDUAL LEVEL

Even on an individual level, there is an argument for selfishness being an unhealthy attitude.  The main reasons are:

  1. Fear of loss (which selfishness is, basically) causes physiological damage.  It makes our immune systems weaker, partly because so much of our internal energy is spent on managing an incipient fight-or-flight response.
  2. Individual selfishness tends to result in social rejection (why would others spend time with you if you keep making sure you’re OK at their expense?  They’re not fools!)  This in turn results in loneliness.  Solitary confinement is often banned as a punishment because of its deleterious health effects.  But by being selfish, you end up imposing on yourself exactly this punishment, causing yourself ill health.  Not a good idea.
  3. Absence of play is a frequent result of a selfish attitude.  Look around you at your most selfish friends and enemies, and you will notice that their constant fear of loss makes them lose their sense of humour.  If you want the world to be a certain way, then your tolerance goes; and play relies on tolerance… the words mean the same thing!  In general, selfishness makes you less flexible, and less able to roll with the waves.
WHY COMPASSION IS GOOD MEDICINE

Compassion is essentially the opposite of selfishness.  It is a state in which fear of loss is absent, loneliness cannot exist, and play (in the sense of flexibility) is more prevalent, due to a tendency towards acceptance.

In short, compassionate thinking and behaviour reduces the ill health associated with fear; it socialises an individual; and it increases the ability to accept one’s surroundings and adapt to them.

The immune system will tend to be stronger, because you are not so busy rejecting things you don’t like.  You will enjoy all the benefits of association with the world around you: enhanced interest, curiosity and play.  And you will be more adaptable to change, and accepting of things you can’t change.

DEVELOPING COMPASSION

So how can we develop compassion?  I’d suggest a three stage process:

  1. First, get control of your mind (by which I mean develop your powers of concentration, and learn to manage your natural ability to be distracted).
  2. Secondly, teach your mind to spend short periods of time contemplating others’ suffering, and wishing the best for them (even your enemies!).
  3. Thirdly, incorporate this practice into your daily life until it becomes second nature.
I’m not saying this is easy.  It can take a lifetime and more to really get the hang of putting others first in your thoughts.  But, as a healthy way of life, it is hard to beat.

A NOTE ON SELF-CARE

Putting others first does not mean neglecting yourself.  If your job is to care for others, then it means that your body is a bit like an ambulance.  Therefore, you have to protect it, and care for it, so that it is in good condition.  The difference is your motivation.  Instead of acting in fear, you are acting in hope of being healthy to help others.

AN EXERCISE

Settle yourself down for a meditation session.  Then think of an enemy: someone you really do not have time for.  Spend twenty minutes or so thinking with compassion about how their life may not be easy; reflect on how they could be suffering, now or in the future.  See if you can see the world through their eyes, and get a sense of the suffering they may feel sometimes.  Just sit with that for a while.

The idea is to teach yourself to be less self-obsessed, and more focused on others’ happiness.  You don’t have to rush out and buy them a present or anything: just give them your kind thoughts for a while.

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SUMMARY

Compassion is healthy.  While humans were evolving, lack of compassion (selfishness) may have helped us survive.  Now, in the modern world, selfishness is creating war and ruining the environment.  On an individual level, selfishness means we risk fear, social rejection, and lack of time to play.  This can cause problems with our immune system, make us feel isolated, and destroy our ability to tolerate things not going our way.  We become ill, lonely and angry.

In contrast, compassion is good medicine, because it reduces ill health, socialises us, and makes us more adaptable.

A good practice is to take time to contemplate how others may be suffering, and teach yourself to move away from self-interest and towards compassion.  If it becomes second nature, then good health can result.  You don’t have to rush out and burn yourself out alleviating physical suffering.  That might damage you and stop you being able to help others consistently.  But you can take time and space to learn compassionate thoughts.  Mixed with wise actions, and a well-balanced life, you may find yourself happier and healthier.

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