Why should we act compassionately? This is an important question for Westerners steeped in the Darwinian view that life is a selfish struggle. If only the toughest survive, isn’t compassion towards others self-defeating?
The belief that we are primarily competitors makes it difficult to see the benefits of compassion. But I’d like to suggest 3 ways in which we benefit by choosing compassion over selfishness.
#1 – Reduced Stress
Compassion is the natural human impulse to help relieve suffering. Studies show that our compassionate feelings release oxytocin, the same hormone that creates the bond between mother and child and reduces inflammation-related heart disease. Competition, on the other hand, increases our experience of stress, which is related to a whole constellation of harmful physical effects, including heart disease, digestive disorders, diabetes, sexual dysfunction and immune suppression.
Competition-related stress is subtly built into many aspects of our daily lives. Whether it’s the self-promotion required by the gig-economy or the hiding of our shortcomings on social media, carrying the weight of constant competition is exhausting. Compassion allows us to stop defending a better-than-reality version of ourselves and instead experience the joy of helping others. Having an open-hearted, compassionate view makes us more aware of the challenges faced by others and grants perspective to our own lives.
#2 – Increased social connection
Self-centeredness creates loneliness. Loneliness increases cortisol levels (which is associated with our fight or flight response) and has been shown to be more physically dangerous than smoking. But those who develop compassion go out of their way to help others and thereby create deeper and more durable human connections. Elderly people with strong social connections have a 14% lower death rate than their lonely counterparts.
#3 – Sense of Purpose
The Darwinian view suggests that our purpose is to compete with others in order to pass our genes to the next generation. While that may be part of the picture, is a life spent striving to defeat others worth living? In my work as a hospice chaplain, I never had a patient tell me they wished they had won more money or belongings. But I did hear frequent regrets about squandered relationships and missed opportunities to heal conflicts.
Compassionate people have a purpose that transcends self-interest. They feel more energized, effective, and in control. People like Nelson Mandela, Mother Theresa, and countless other quietly helpful people have faced significant personal difficulties yet find that their lives are filled with purpose and joy. They are energized by the work of compassion rather than enervated by the effects of competition. They have let go of the futile hope of controlling others and instead control their own happiness by acting with the hands and heart of compassion.
So maybe our goal is not rid ourselves of selfishness, but to become wisely selfish. Helping others helps us because it gives us purpose, connection, and well-being. Rather than banish selfishness, we learn to practice the selfishness that sees others’ happiness as our own, the selfishness that springs from self-concern so deep that it includes everyone, and the selfishness that recognizes the deep interconnection of everything. In short, we practice compassionate selfishness.
Perhaps the Dalai Lama said it best:
My advice is that if you must be selfish, be wisely selfish. Wise people serve others sincerely, putting the needs of others above their own. Ultimately you will be happier.
This post draws on research cited by the Stanford Medical School Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education and in the book, A Fearless Heart: How the Courage to Be Compassionate Can Transform Our Lives, by Thupten Jinpa, PhD.