Happy dog, happy heart

I find myself writing this piece today because it was 5 years ago on this day that my dog, Oscar (main photo), passed away from bone cancer at the age of just over 2. He came into my life two days before I started writing my book about self love / self esteem, ‘I Heart Me’, and he passed away two days before I submitted the final manuscript to my publisher (Hay House). He was in my life for the exact duration I was working on the book. It helped me deal with the loss to believe that he came into my life to help me.

One of the things he inspired me to do was research some of the beneficial effects of animals in our lives. It turns out that dogs are good for the heart.

In a study of 369 patients who’d had a heart attack, for example, the chances of them having another heart attack within a year was 400% less if they had a dog. While we might logically assume that this figure is entirely due to the exercise of taking a dog for a walk, research suggests that exercise is only part of it. A significant contributing factor is the quality of relationship a person has with their dog.

Research published in ‘Science’, found that when dog owners interacted warmly with their dogs for 30 minutes, for example, oxytocin levels increased by 300% in the humans (and by 130% in the dog). Yes, the dog benefits too. Key is that these numbers only apply to people with good human-dog relationships. There is much less change in oxytocin levels when relationships are not close.

What’s the importance of oxytocin? Well, as well as being a reproductive hormone, it has many other roles in the body. In the brain, it aids bonding and trusting behaviour. When we eat food, it helps digestion by improving gastric motility. It helps wound repair by aiding capillary growth and working with growth factors. But it plays a huge role in the cardiovascular system. It is a cardioprotective hormone – it protects the cardiovascular system. It does this in two main ways, first by reducing blood pressure and second by clearing blood vessels of inflammation and oxidative stress (free radicals).

We find the same kind of effect in human relationships too. People with better quality relationships tends to have healthier cardiovascular systems.

I call oxytocin ‘the kindness hormone’ and have done in my books on kindness (Why Kindness is Good for You, The Five Side Effects of Kindness’ and ‘The Little Book of Kindness (my illustrated book)’), because it is associated with feelings that can be brought on by kindness.

Closeness produces oxytocin, hugs produce it, love produces it, friendship produces it, affection, compassion, gentleness too. It is certainly associated with behaviours of the heart. It’s nice that Nature rewards these heart behaviours with a healthier heart. It’s as if Nature is saying, ‘Yes! More of this please’. Just as we train a dog by offering rewards for certain behaviour, perhaps Nature is training us humans by rewarding our good behaviours.

Dogs don’t ask for much. Other than food, they really just ask that you love them. That makes a happy dog. The emotional reward you get is some happiness. The physical reward is a boost to your cardiovascular system. Happy dog, happy heart!

Of course, the same also applies to other animals we bond with, like cats, rabbits, horses. Indeed, a study of rabbits indeed found that those shown more affection had healthier hearts. All animals have an oxytocin system. Oxytocin is so important to us, and animals, that the oxytocin gene is one of the oldest genes we have, at around 500 million years old. That it’s with us after all this time tells us how important it is for health – ours and that of animals.

It’s the love and kindness that we show each other and to animals that matters.

Be kind. Show compassion and affection. Be gentle. With each other and with animals.

Some things in life are really quite simple.

Do you see things as they are, or as You are?

virtual reality simulationLook at grass. We say it is green. But it’s not inherently green. It’s green for us because we have 3 photoreceptors in our eyes that are sensitive to specific wavelengths of light. If we had different photoreceptors, grass would appear different. Grass is beige to a dog because a dog has 2 photoreceptors. Green doesn’t exist for a dog.

Is grass green, then, or beige? It’s neither. It is what it is … for you!

What about the solid world around you? If you look inside the atoms that compose everything, they are mostly empty space. So why don’t we fall through the ground we’re standing on?

Your weight presses against the floor and pushes the trillions of atoms in the floor against each other. The electrical forces in the atoms repel and push back. We feel the push as something solid but the push is electrical, not physical.

It’s the same for you as you stand on the floor. It pushes your atoms into each other, so they electrically push back. Energy on energy!

You might really think of it as one field of energy (human) pushing against another field of energy (the floor). Energy interacting with energy. It’s the same when we interact with each other – energy interacting with energy.

The perception of things being solid (including ourselves) is due to the interaction of energy fields. The form and colours are produced by our eyes.

The form, appearance, and feeling of ‘reality’ for us, then, is related to our perceptive abilities. Perhaps our deep consciousness (subconscious) interprets and shows us what we expect to see. I wonder if the world that babies see is less tangible than ours, and only becomes more ‘solid’ as they learn to accept our assumptions. As we grow up, ‘reality’ becomes more or less consistent for us.

If we had enough computing power, we could generate the same effect in virtual reality simulators, electrically stimulating the brain when a visual representation of a hand touches a visual representation of an object. It’s the basis of the films, ‘The Matrix’ and ‘Ready Player One’.

So do we perceive the ‘truth’ of reality? I don’t believe so. Perhaps a version. We don’t perceive things as they are, but according to who we are.🤓🤔

Do what’s in your heart

Do what’s in your heart. Be yourself.

We often doubt ourselves and imagine that we have to change so that the world accepts us. We imagine we need to compromise on our dreams, on doing what makes our hearts sing, in order to succeed.

But instead of you bending to meet the world, be yourself, unapologetically, wholeheartedly, and the world often bends to meet you. It’s as if the Universe says, ‘Yes’, well done for being yourself and staying with what feels true for you’.

I remember writing my first book, ‘It’s the Thought that Counts’. I started in 2003 and self-published it two years later after being turned down by every publisher I contacted. Among some advice I received was that I needed to write a more self help-type book, and not just a book about the mind-body and mind-world connection.

It’s useful to take advice at times, of course, but I knew in my heart this was what I needed to write about. It’s what I knew about and I knew in my heart that I had to express what I knew, regardless of whether people would read it or not.

Nine books later and it was absolutely the right thing to do. It set the tone for most of my other books, including ‘How Your Mind Can Heal Your Body’, which was my route into HEAL documentary. My first book wasn’t a blockbuster, but it opened doors and helped me establish myself.

Even now, being myself is crucial. I write and speak a lot about kindness, yet kindness doesn’t sell as much as many other topics. I could easily dial it down, but I don’t. I am also very grateful to @hayhouseuk for supporting me in this way.

Writing and speaking about kindness is in my heart. It’s part of who I am. Regardless of whether any of my kindness books (I’ve written 3) ever becomes a bestseller, I know there’s a purpose in me doing it. I know this because it feels like the right thing to do.

Ultimately, being yourself isn’t about short term results. It’s about being in it for the long term. It’s about being and expressing You.

Seeming negatives in the short term are just part of the path to finding yourself.

Ultimately, if you be yourself, you’re already succeeding, regardless of what the world tells you.😊

Kindness is more than the things that we do

I was asked what kindness is during an interview a few weeks ago. It’s something I’m rarely asked as most of us assume we know what kindness is.

So I’ve turned it around and since asked a few groups what they think kindness is. The answer I receive the most is about doing helpful things for people, like acts of kindness.

That is absolutely a huge part of what kindness is, but I think we should also remember that there is much more to kindness than this. Kindness is also in how we think about people, whether we judge people in our minds, or the conversations we have with people in our minds that might not be so kind sometimes.

Of course, we need to vent and process issues. It’s not helpful to just pretend that everything is great. Doing so can just bury emotions.

However, I’ve found that if we have a willingness, just a willingness, to allow kindness to colour part of our thinking, it actually helps us to find softer, kinder, even more peaceful thoughts. It widens our perspective, and in so doing it allows us to see issues, and what might have been annoying us, from a wider, deeper, or clearer perspective. It helps us to heal, at times.

A good way to do this is to say, “Is it possible for me to find a kinder thought here? If so, what might it be?”

It doesn’t always work, and we’re all in different places in our lives, with different circumstances and different issues, but it can help … and more often than you might think.

As I said, it’s not about thinking kind for the sake of it. It’s simply about allowing kindness to be part of how we heal, allowing kindness to be like a fine rain that washes away dirt, to reveal what is underneath.

And what I’ve found to lie underneath is a sense of warmth and connection. Many people have asked me about the ‘best’ spiritual practice and often it is because people are seeking peace, freedom from their suffering, or enlightenment in some form.

Honestly, to think kindly is what I would say. It helps you find that warm, connected, non judgmental and expansive space. From here, peace is much easier to find.❤️🦋😊

Don’t judge people as you never know what they’re going through

I remember waiting in line a coffee shop once, and a woman drove over my foot on a mobility scooter. She didn’t look back to apologise. At the time I did have a thought that a person would usually have said sorry, but I let it go because, well, you never know.

Shortly afterwards, I found myself sitting at the next table along from her. She was flustered and was on the phone. It turned out she has MS and this was her first day with a mobility scooter. She wasn’t confident driving it and took refuge in the coffee shop, only she struggled to control it with having never driven one before.

She was upset because she’d stopped earlier and struggled to get it started again. She was worried about being stranded if it happened again so was asking the shop if there might be a fault and if someone could come and check.

I felt such compassion that I nearly cried. I also felt so guilty because I had judged her, even if for just a second. I remember beating myself up afterwards for even having had the thought in the first place.

The thing is, in life we really can’t know what a person is experiencing, or has experienced, in their life unless they tell us. We form all sorts of beliefs about people, whether this person is a good person or that person is a bad person, based on one or two interactions.

I try to be gentle with people, but I expect lots of people have judged me based on their interpretation of a single instance. And I’ll bet the same is true for you, regardless of the type of person you try to be.

We form much of our emotional world through perceptions of people and circumstances, but these are not truths, only beliefs.

I find it helps in finding some peace by reminding myself that I can’t know what influences or shapes a person’s actions without knowing their back story, and what’s currently happening in their life. Doing this allows us to step back from a situation and take a breath. Most of the time, judgement falls away and understanding or compassion at least has a chance to surface.

Be gentle with people. Be patient. Try to be understanding. And forgive yourself when you’re not. We’re all just trying to do the best we can.

Emotions are currency, the exchange rate is empathy

We live in a world where statistics tell us how things are and the chances of something happening. Many of us take statistics we hear as facts, assuming that they apply to each of us individually. While statistics are immensely useful and they can give us startling insights and make astonishing predictions, we all know that we are individuals, not statistics.

We would be correct in dismissing many statistics as impersonal and lacking a true meaning for anyone in particular.

For example, we hear that the average human lifespan is ‘x’ for females and ‘y’ for males, but that figure varies from one country to the next and also varies tremendously with any one person’s dietary or other lifestyle habits. So, while statistics might provide a loose guide, they are not specific to any of us in particular.

Similarly, we hear that the likelihood of cancer, or the survival rate from one disease or other is such and such a number, but again, that varies greatly from one person to the next. It is a statistic made up of average outcomes averaged over a large number of people whose life circumstances vary greatly and who live under a variety of conditions and have different dietary habits.

Hidden within statistics are details most of us miss. It’s these details that most of us resonate more strongly with. I’d like to illustrate this with the contagiousness of emotions, and happiness in particular because this is something that affects us all.

Using data from a large social network of around 5000 people, Nicholas Christakis, professor of social and natural sciences at Yale, and James Fowler, professor of medical genetics at UC San Diego, calculated that the chances of catching happiness from someone is 15%. That’s a figure that has since been banded around a bit and most people assume that it applies to each and every one of us.

The figure actually represents a social network of a typical town in the US (Framingham) and means that if someone you know, whether a family member, friend, work colleague, or social tie becomes happier, then there is a 15% chance that you will become happier as a consequence. But it is an average statistic.

First, before I explain, you’d be forgiven for wondering how it’s even possible to ‘catch’ happiness. Surely your happiness is your own and is down to your own choices and what happens in your life. Well, it happens in a couple of ways. One is through emotional contagion, the other is through social contagion.

Emotional contagion is where we directly catch someone’s emotions, mostly due to a brain circuit known as the Mirror Neuron System (MNS), which essentially copies (mirrors) a person’s emotional expression – the facial expressions as they express emotion, bodily expressions, vocal intonations, etc – which then replicates in you the emotion that corresponds to those muscle movements.

Social contagion is where we copy (not always intentionally) behaviour and attitudes. A person feeling happy might indulge in different behaviour from when they weren’t quite so happy, and if you are hanging with them then you might likely indulge in that behaviour too. Either way, we are always catching emotions from each other.

But to say that the chances of you catching happiness from someone is 15% misses something very important. Christakis and Fowler pointed out that the figure is an average, and one that varies from one person (or relationship) to the next, and from one set of circumstances to the next.

To illustrate, the 15% figure is an average over all your relationships – close friends, distant friends, family members, neighbours, work colleagues you interact with. If you were to just count your friends (so not your family members, neighbours, colleagues, etc) you would have a 25% chance of becoming happier if a friend becomes happier. Now, what if you only counted your closest friends, the ones you see most often and spend most time with? Now the figure jumps to 63%. You have a 63% chance of becoming happier if a close friend becomes happier.

There’s a world of difference between 15% and 63%, just as there is a world of difference in lifespan (and healthspan, i.e. vitality in old age) between two people who indulge in vastly different lifestyles.

As we know from online social networking, ‘friend’ has a rather broad meaning these days. Most people only have a small number of close friends – between 2 and 6. But if someone asked us to name our friends, we would likely name many more than this, and the quality of friendship would vary from one to the next. As ‘friends’ we would not only include close friends, we would also name people we see from time to time but are not that close with. In the study, the figure of 63% comes from close friends only, the ones we spend time with regularly. You can catch emotion in a single meeting, but it takes consistency for it to stick.

It turns out that catching happiness depends on the type of friendship, or more specifically, how you see the friendship. Happiness is more contagious if you’re close to someone, for example, or if you like them.

For example, if I named Adam as a friend, whether he named me or not his happiness would have about a 25% effect upon me. This is the 25% figure quoted above if you just count your friends. But if Adam named me as a friend and I didn’t name him, that is, it was a one-way friendship – he sees me as a friend, but I don’t see him in the same way – then the effect would only be 12%. Adam’s change in emotional state would have little effect on me because I don’t consider Adam to be as much of a friend as he sees me. As a result, his emotional state has less of an impact on me. But if we named each other as a friend, so the friendship is clearly mutual, it goes both ways, the likelihood of me catching his happiness is 63%.

It turns out that the contagiousness of happiness (and all emotions) depends on how you see the friendship. In my opinion, empathy is what matters. Emotional contagion, as it is called, depends on how much you empathise with a person, how much of them you let in. Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of someone. Empathy is, “I Feel with you,” according to Kristen Neff, associate professor in the department of emotional psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. “I see you” is another interpretation, made popular in the film, Avatar. It is how you ‘see’ a person, whether you see them as a friend or not.

In one sense, emotions are currency, they are exchanged from one person to the next. We can catch happiness, depression, even love and fear. But how much you catch depends on how you see a person. It depends on how much you empathise with them.

In addition, whether you accept what someone tells you or whether you will do as they ask – a transaction – will depend to a large extent on how the person makes you feel. If you don’t feel good, you don’t empathise with the person, or don’t like the person, you’re much less likely to do what he or she asks, and even if you do, you might resent the person. But if you do like them, you empathise with them, or like how they make you feel (perhaps because you agree with them or can see the value in what they ask you to do), then you will more likely do it. The transaction will be successful. This is the basis of leadership.

So, emotions are currency, and they regulate many things, but empathy is the exchange rate. So just like if someone gave you 1 unit of something, say 1 Euro or 1 dollar, it does not equate to 1 British pound. How much of the 1 unit you get depends upon the exchange rate. In the same way, how much of a person’s emotions you catch also depends on an exchange rate.

But here, the exchange rate is empathy.

Happiness is contagious, but how much you catch depends on how you feel about the person who shares it.

References
You can read more about this and similar studies, covering many aspects of emotional and social contagion, in David R Hamilton, PhD, ‘The Contagious Power of Thinking‘, Hay House (London, 2011).

Loving kindness slows ageing at the genetic level

I’ve written a lot about the links between kindness and ageing, and part of my focus has been that kindness is the opposite of stress, at least in terms of how it makes us feel and the physiological consequences of those feelings.

Just as feelings of stress produce stress hormones (like cortisol and adrenalin), so feelings associated with kindness produce kindness hormones (like oxytocin, aka, the love drug, the cuddle chemical).

As a result, while stress increases blood pressure, kindness reduces blood pressure. This is fairly obvious, and I’ve written about it in blogs as well as in two of my books, ‘The Five Side Effects of Kindness’ and ‘The Little Book of Kindness’.

But exciting new research has taken things further. In a 12-week randomised controlled trial led by scientists at the university of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, researchers measured the length of ‘telomeres’ before and after 6 weeks of daily meditation practice.

Telomeres are considered to be markers of ageing because they gradually reduce in length throughout our lives. Their length, and the rate at which their length reduces, not only gives a highly accurate indication of someone’s age but also how fast they are ageing.

They are end caps on DNA. A bit like the plastic ends on shoelaces that stop the shoelaces unravelling and thus ensure that you can thread the laces through the lace loopholes, telomeres help prevent DNA from totally unravelling. In so doing, they prolong the life of cells.

For the study, scientists compared the length of telomeres in people who practiced either, a) the ‘Loving Kindness Meditation’ (a Buddhist practice), where we think and feel kindness and compassion for ourselves and others, b) mindfulness meditation, or c) who did no meditation at all, to serve as a comparison. Blood samples were taken two weeks before and three weeks after the meditation practice.

Incredibly, while telomere length reduced in the mindfulness meditation group and in the control group (typical of 6 weeks of ageing), it did not reduce in the Loving Kindness group. The researchers wrote that, “… with participants in the LKM [Loving Kindness Meditation] group, on average, showing no significant telomere shortening over time.”

In other words, feelings of kindness and compassion seem to slow ageing at the genetic level. This offers further evidence that kindness brings about effects that are physiologically opposite to stress, because stress is one of the ways that telomere loss speeds up.

It is also worth noting that mindfulness meditation did also reduce the rate of loss of telomere length in comparison with the control group over the 6-week period, but only a little. We might expect this because mindfulness meditation is known to reduce stress, but the effect was not nearly so strong as it was for the loving kindness meditation. It is likely that longer term practice of mindfulness slows the rate of ageing, which is consistent with other research.

However, the effects of feelings of warmth, kindness and social connection, which we are encouraged to feel in practice of the loving kindness meditation (also known as metta bhavana), seem to produce much more powerful effects on ageing.

Exactly how it works is not fully understood, but it may involve oxytocin (the kindness hormone) and also the vagus nerve, which has been shown in research to increase in activity (vagal tone) due to practice of the loving kindness meditation.

Oxytocin has been shown to reduce stress and inflammation in immune cells, and thus prolong their health, and the vagus nerve controls the rest, relax and regenerate mode in the body, as well as the inflammatory reflex. Through the latter, increases in vagal tone have been shown to reduce inflammation. This has been cited as an explanation for the increased comparative health of stage 4 cancer patients with high vagal tone compared to those with low vagal tone (see article).

But regardless of how it works, the fact is that it does work. Kindness and compassion really do have powerful biological effects, and they might just have a significant effect on how long you live and how healthy you are.


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How searching for my lost suitcase led me to kindness

kindness is like magicI left my suitcase on a train recently. Believe it or not, I was meditating as the train approached the station. The only thing I wasn’t mindful of was that my case was on the rack above me. 🙂

I only realised this when I arrived at my hotel about half an hour later. I returned to Waterloo station in London, where my train had arrived, and a young man named Abdullah was so incredibly kind and compassionate as he took me from staff member to staff member around the station. He was so helpful, and kind, and went the extra mile to do everything he could to help me. I didn’t get my case but, as strange as it might sound, it was worth it for the time spent witnessing the kindness and compassion of another human being.

I write and speak a lot about kindness and try to quietly do my little but here and there, but I suppose maybe I’d forgotten what it’s like to need the kindness of another person.

As we were parting company, I had an intuition to offer him a copy of my book, ‘The Little Book of Kindness’, which I had on me at the time, as some way as saying ‘Thank You’. He was so genuinely grateful and then HE thanked ME … for having been so gentle, calm and understanding throughout the time we’d been trying to find my case.

It was a lovely exchange. Two males not trying to be manly, but just allowing an honest and sincere interaction to take place and honestly expressing what they felt in the moment.

So I spent the afternoon buying clothes, toiletries, etc, to keep me going for the next few days while I was in London. That’s when I received more kindness. I mentioned to the shop assistant that the reason I was buying such a mixture of stuff was because I’d left my case on a train. To my complete surprise, she briefly looked around her, as if to check if the coast was clear, then she put my purchases through on a staff discount. It was a mark of empathy for the situation I found myself in and I was incredibly touched.

So it was an interesting day. Very much enjoyable on the human connection front. I’m really not that bothered about losing my clothes; they can be replaced. But connection is invaluable. Receiving kindness and connection made it all worthwhile.

Acceptance vs Assertion

Mountain landscape with hiking trail and view of beautiful lakes Ponta Delgada, Sao Miguel Island, Azores, Portugal. (Mountain landscape with hiking trail and view of beautiful lakes Ponta Delgada, Sao Miguel Island, Azores, Portugal., ASCII, 118 compI’ve been thinking a bit recently about finding the balance between accepting things as they are and going with the flow and asserting your will or pushing for what you want. There’s a balance. There’s a time and a place for both, but the more I accept and go with the flow, the more things seem to work out better.

I was on a long-haul flight recently, flying BA from London to Sydney. During the second leg of the flight, after refuelling in Singapore, my TV screen wasn’t working. That meant I couldn’t watch the movie I was so looking forward to watching that would help pass the time over the next 7 and a half hours.

The air stewardess tried resetting the screen a few times, but it just didn’t work. I thought, ‘Oh well, a great opportunity to get on with some study and meditation’. She actually really appreciated the fact that I didn’t get upset or annoyed in the slightest. I just smiled and thanked her for trying. In gratitude for my seemingly relaxed and accepting attitude, she handed me a couple of mini-bottles of red wine. So, I got on with some studying that I really needed to do. It turns out that it was exactly the right thing as I made a few insights that I hadn’t made before that were really important.

A few hours later came meal time. They didn’t have any vegetarian meals (we were supposed to pre-order, but I hadn’t realised). The air stewardess (a different one) apologised. Again, I decided not to resist things and just go with the flow. Fasting is actually really healthy, so I accepted the fact that I’d do a kind of mini-fast. She seemed relieved that I didn’t make a fuss. Oh, and she also gave me a couple of mini bottles of red wine by way of apology.

About half an hour later, she appeared with a dish that she’d ‘borrowed’ from business class. It was really good – a tasty mushroom pasta dish that wasn’t available in economy class (coach), where I was seated. Since I had been so nice about it, she did everything she could to find me some food. Later, when we were being offered a sandwich before landing, she apologised once again, this time at the lack of vegetarian sandwiches. The first stewardess (of the TV screen) was in the opposite aisle and overheard. She quickly walked to the font of the plane and back again with a really lovely veggie sandwich for me.

Sometimes, we fight to get ourselves heard, or to get what we imagine we deserve and, granted, there are times when that is the right thing to do. I personally find, though, that when I don’t resist and look instead for the opportunity or hidden meaning in what’s happening, if I just shrug, accept, and get on with things, I find that things tend to work out better.

Acceptance in both instances brought me something better than the original thing I could have fought for. I got a lovely meal and a sandwich, great insights from my studies, accumulated 4 mini-bottles of red wine, and I brought a relieved and grateful smile to some faces due to my attitude.

Part of acceptance, for me, comes from a belief that we are always being nudged, directed, drawn (call it what you will) towards things that are best for us. That’s my belief, but it’s useful to have beliefs about what acceptance means for us, even if it’s just a belief that every cloud has a silver lining.

Some people find it useful to seek a deeper meaning in what’s happening, others find it a spiritual challenge to be able to accept and not resist; rising to the challenge of acceptance helps them shrug off seemingly challenging situations or even losses.

Acceptance can be also be about letting go of things. Buddhists talk of the law of impermanence, that all things are transient and must change. Everything must change. Everything evolves and grows, even you. People have to accept the changes in you, lest you feel pressured to remain the same for them. And so, you must also allow others to grow and change as they need to. As the Buddhists say, ‘Things come. Let them. Things go. Let them’.

Change is actually the only constant in the entire universe.

Change is inevitable … except from a vending machine.

Empathy Matters

elderly woman smiling with her caregiverEmpathy is the ability to understand and relate to other people and animals.

Empathy is being able to see the world or a situation from someone else’s perspective and also appreciate how they might feel.

Empathy can even be in walking in someone else’s shoes, so to speak.

It is the precursor to compassion and kindness. In the book, ‘Self Compassion’, Kristen Neff defines empathy as ‘I feel with you’.

Empathy then evolves into compassion, which we can think of as, ‘I feel for you’. The difference between empathy and compassion being that compassion is a move towards wishing the person freedom from their suffering.

To be honest, the difference is mostly academic and I don’t think, in most people’s everyday experience, it actually matters whether we call that sympathetic feeling (yes, we can think of sympathy in the same way) empathy or compassion. But if you wanted to recognise a difference then you may see it in brain activation.

Empathy (I feel with you) activates the insula of the brain (the empathy centre). Compassion activates the insula too, but it also activates the left side of the prefrontal cortex, a region associated with positive emotion and also conscious decision making. In other words, considering brain activation, you can think of compassion as experiencing someone’s pain with them (empathy), with the addition of a conscious wishing that they be free of their suffering (I feel for you instead of I feel with you).

But, as I said, the difference is mostly academic and I don’t feel it matters whether a person refers to the feeling of feeling another’s pain as empathy, compassion, or sympathy. The intent is the same.

Mostly, the word empathy conjures up the idea of empathising with others. But it helps a lot when someone empathises with us, when they share our pain. It even helps us physiologically.

In a study of over 700 patients who attended their doctor’s surgery for onset symptoms of cold, some received a normal consultation and others received an ‘enhanced’ consultation, where the doctor emphasised empathy. The patient filled out a CARE (Consultation and Relational Empathy) questionnaire so that researchers could asses empathy levels and they had their symptoms tracked for the study.

Those who received the empathy-enhanced visit (and scored the doctor a 10/10 for empathy) had lower severity of cold, recovered faster than everyone else, and also had significantly higher immune responses. Empathy mattered … a lot!

We can interpret this as the patient feeling listened to and reassured by the doctor. This activates part of the placebo mechanism, which helps them recover faster. And note that I wrote ‘placebo mechanism’ and not ‘placebo effect’. This is intentional, lest we assume that the placebo effect is all in our heads. As I’ve written in my books and in other blogs, belief or expectation produces physical changes in the brain. Brain chemistry changes in response to a person’s beliefs or expectations. The mechanism (the biological process that occurs) differs depending on the medical condition and the treatment given.

Another factor is that when a patient is shown empathy, it reduces their stress levels, which often accompany uncertainty regarding their symptoms, and this reduction in stress also leads to an increased immune response.

The bottom line in the study is that empathy was related to a better immune response and a faster recovery in the patients.

I think of empathy as a currency. In our ever-more interconnected world, the ability to understand, empathise, and relate to others is becoming increasingly more important.

Dollars, yuan, or Euros are not the currencies of the future. Empathy is the currency we all need to be investing in.

 

References:

P. Rakel, et al, ‘Perception of empathy in the therapeutic encounter: effects on the common cold’, Patient Education and Counselling 2011, 85, 390-97 (Link to study, DOI: 10.1016/j.pec.2011.01.009)