As an ex-pharmaceutical scientist, I enjoy reframing the term ‘side-effects’. We typically think of side-effects in the negative, as in the side-effects of drugs. But many of our positive behaviors also have side-effects.
Below are 5 side-effects of compassion.
1) Compassion Wires the Brain
In some ways we can think of the brain like a muscle in that as we exercise certain regions they grow, just as muscles do when we exercise them.
Compassion causes growth on the left side of the brain’s prefrontal cortex region, which is the bit above the eyes. The effect of this is that we find it easier to be compassionate and kind. Compassion begets compassion through creating actual changes in the brain.
2) Compassion is Good for the Heart
Compassion fosters warm emotional contact. When we connect with others in this way, we produce the hormone ‘oxytocin’. One of its key roles is in the maintenance of cardiovascular health. It dilates the arteries and reduces blood pressure and also helps clear out potentially disease-causing agents.
3) Compassion Slows Ageing
Research shows a strong correlation between compassion and ‘vagal tone’, which is a term that describes the health and fitness of the vagus nerve, much as muscle tone describes the muscles.
The vagus nerve controls the body’s inflammatory response (knows as the Inflammatory Reflex). As we increase vagal tone, we improve the body’s ability to reduce inflammation. Research indeed shows that a practice of cultivation of compassion, where volunteers practiced the Loving Kindness Meditation, actually reduced inflammation.
As inflammation is one of the major agers of the body, compassion, through its affects on the vagus nerve, slows ageing.
4) Compassion Improves Relationships
Research shows that compassion improves relationships. It fosters emotional connections between two people. A structured practice of compassion meditation improves the quality of personal and professional relationships.
Compassion also breaks down barriers in relationships with people who challenge us. When we see someone suffering and we are moved to help, we forget reasons why we might have a difficulty with the person as our natural tendency to care takes over. In these moments, we see only good and express only good. Compassion brings us back to ourselves.
5) Compassion Motivates Kindness
When we see someone suffering we feel empathy. Empathy is ‘I feel with you’, as we imagine and share someone’s pain. Empathy evolves into compassion, which is ‘I feel for you’, as we not only share the pain but we want the person’s suffering eased. Compassion quickly evolves into kindness, where we are moved to do something to ease the person’s suffering.
I think of empathy – compassion – kindness as the growth of a flower from a seed. Empathy is the seed that grows into a stem of compassion, which then fully blooms into an act of kindness.
References: David R Hamilton, PhD, ‘Why Kindness is Good for You’ (Hay House, 2010).