If you’re in the mental health field, you probably take it for granted that being able to connect with the emotional experiences of others is an important part of living a healthy life.
As researchers continue to investigate the impacts of compassion on health and well being, it’s increasingly evident that compassion training can be used as a tool to improve mental health and functioning.
Here are three compelling reasons why you might want to consider incorporating compassion into your work with clients, if you don’t already. If compassion is already a regular part of your practice, these reasons will help you communicate with clients, colleagues and supervisors about the motivation behind compassion training, and empower you to feel even more confident knowing that your work is empirically-supported.
1. Science says it works.
Emma Seppala, Ph.D., is the science director at Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education and author of The Happiness Track: How to Apply the Science of Happiness to Accelerate Your Success. She has focused much of her research on the benefits of compassion and social connection.
“Researchers agree that the benefits of connection are actually linked to your subjective sense of connection. In other words, if you feel connected to others on the inside, you reap the benefits thereof,” says Seppala.
Compassion, which connects us with the experiences of others, is a powerful tool that can help us manage feelings of loneliness and disconnection, regardless of whether we are in a room by ourselves, or in a crowd. This is significant, especially since a 2004 study revealed one quarter of all Americans reported having no one in whom to confide.
“People who feel more connected to others have lower levels of anxiety and depression. Studies show they also have higher self-esteem, greater empathy for others, are more trusting and cooperative and, as a consequence, others are more open to trusting and cooperating with them,” says Seppala.
Compassion training also shows great promise at the macro level. It can be applied in health care settings to address provider burnout and improve the quality of patient care. Applied in the workplace, compassion can boost productivity and improve communication.
Plus, a 2013 study revealed that when preschoolers were taught compassion and kindness exercises, they earned higher marks, were less selfish, and were more psychologically flexible.
Helen Weng, Ph.D., was the lead researcher in a groundbreaking 2013 study which found that the brain can be trained in compassion.
The study, which was conducted at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, showed an increase in altruistic behavior, empathy, and emotion regulation skills among those who practiced compassion exercises for just 30 minutes per day for two weeks.
“Participants’ neural responses changed when viewing images of people suffering. They increased activation in the inferior parietal cortex, a region implicated in empathy and in regions associated with emotion regulation.
We think [through compassion training] people are learning to regulate their emotions when they see suffering to have a more pro-social caring response, rather than negative responses like anxiety, aversion, and disgust,” says Weng.
Surely, the world would be a better place with more altruism, sharing, and empathy. But importantly, the findings don’t end there. Study participants reported experiencing increased kindness and self-acceptance, and decreased reactivity toward difficult people.
2. It’s convenient.
The science behind compassion training is solid, but citing the literature probably isn’t the way to get a skeptical client or supervisor on board with doing compassionate imagery exercises or loving kindness meditations.
Practitioners need language to communicate what exactly practicing compassion can do for clients, and how. In addition to the allure of attractive benefits like greater feelings of connection, reduced reactivity, and increased levels of self-acceptance, convenience may also be a selling point.
“I think the most important thing is to have some way to remind clients that you can offer kindness and compassion to yourself and others whenever you want. If people are not resonating with compassion meditation practice or other kinds of meditation skills, they should try something else,” says Weng.
For Weng, her own consistent practice of offering kindness and compassion to herself and others—even if just for a brief period of time each day—has been effective in cementing the skills she’s learned. She says she finds the process of findings ways to practice compassion creative and exciting.