By: Michelle Dierna
Positive Psychology:Psychotherapy & Compassion
What is compassion? For dozens of year’s clinical research has focused on elucidating on the psychology of human suffering. Suffering, an unpleasant part in life, often also has a lighter side, which unfortunately research has paid less attention to in prior studies: this being compassion.
How does compassion differentiate from altruism and empathy?
Empathy is described as an emotional experience of another person’s feelings. It is, in a sense, an automatic mirroring or understanding of others emotions. Pure empathy can be shown in various ways: if one is witnessing a loved one cry over a loss of their puppy that just died and made you cry as well; this is when empathy appears externally. Altruism can be correlated with empathy in some ways because when one performs actions of altruism, it is selflessness in purest form; it’s a positive characteristic trait to have, whether it is followed by compassion or empathy. A donation to a charity can be an example of an act of altruism; it is an action that benefits someone else.
- Compassion can involve both empathic and altruistic behavior because it is an emotional response when perceiving suffering and involves an authentic desire to help others.
Compared to other positive emotions, compassion has been predominantly neglected. Likely because, until psychology defines an emotion, it is extremely difficult to measure or study it. Often when something is not clearly defined, easily understood, measured or weighed, it is as though that idea does not exist. However, compassion and love do exist, they are real feelings just as real and important as anger and anxiety is. Although we cannot measure compassion as we could in tests performed for anxiety, mood disorders, depression etc. It is believed that we’re born with compassion but betrayal, abandonment and rejection displace it with other feelings like anger and resentment.
- “A growing body of scientific evidence suggests that this is just true, that both animals and humans might have what Dacher Keltner from the University of California calls a “compassionate instinct,” a natural response that ensures survival.”
- “In The Descent of Man and Selection In Relation to Sex, Charles Darwin argued for “the greater strength of the social or maternal instincts than that of any other instinct or motive.” In another passage, he comments “communities, which included the greatest number of the most sympathetic members, would flourish best, and rear the greatest number of offspring.” Compassion may indeed be a naturally evolved and adaptive trait. Without it, the survival and flourishing of our species would have been unlikely.”
In an approach to Western psychological tradition, our greatest thinkers and researchers have focused on understanding hysteria, obsessions, psychoses, compulsions, depression, anxiety, impulsive anger, personality disorders etc. On the other hand, very little scientific research or theoretical thought has gone into understanding positive emotions or the psychology of human strengths and well -being.
The reason a compassionate lifestyle can lead to healthier psychological well-being can be explained by the fact that the act of giving appears to be as pleasurable, if not more so, as the act of receiving. In a brain image study conducted by neuroscientist Jordan Grafman from the National Institutes of Health, it appeared that the act of giving is pleasurable just as much as receiving is; this study displays that the “pleasure centers” in the brain, i.e., the parts of the brain that are active when we experience pleasure (like dessert, money, and sex), are equally active when we observe someone giving money to charity as when we receive money ourselves! Thus, giving to others habitually increases over all well being, above and beyond what we experience when we spend money on ourselves.
In addition, Leading researcher in positive psychology, and APS James McKeen Cattell Fellow Martin Seligman, a pioneer of the psychology of happiness and human flourishing, suggests that connecting with others in a meaningful way helps us enjoy better mental and physical health and speeds up recovery from disease; furthermore has shown that it may even lengthen our life spans.
“Sometimes we imagine that we can find happiness outside of ourselves-in wealth, success, fame, work, or relationships. The truth is that the extent to which we are happy depends mainly on our emotions. Even if we together with someone close to us in a very beautiful setting, if we ourselves are feeling extremely anxious or angry then we certainly won’t be happy. On the other hand, if we’re feeling very strong love or compassion, then we can be happy even in difficult external circumstances.”
- Different forms of compassion: Paul Ekman, PhD, a world-renowned expert on facial expressions has classified compassion into the following forms:
- Emotion recognition: knowing how another person is feeling.
- Emotional resonance: Feeling the other person’s pain
- Familial Compassion: Planted through the caregiver-offspring bond is the seed of all compassion.
- Global Compassion: refers to feeling part of the whole.
- Sentient Compassion: Extended to all living things.
- Heroic Compassion: Is a form of altruism in which a person takes a risk
In the psychotherapy field, those who support compassion as a therapeutic tool, can believe that it helps patients gain not only self control and mental clarity, but also the capacity to observe others, feel their pain and respond with kindness, acceptance and compassion. This doesn’t just improve the relationship one has with themselves but also relationships with others.
If lack of passion is causing stress or anxiety, Feel free to contact the Bergen County, New Jersey and Manhattan offices of Arista Counseling and Psychotherapy, where psychotherapists, psychologists and psychiatrists with years of experience in cognitive behavioral therapy and other therapeutic techniques that can help you conquer current struggles. Call (201) 368-3700 or (212) 722-1920 to set up an appointment.
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