Compassion: The Missing Link
There was a study at Princeton theological seminary that studied why we help out those in need at times, when at other times we don't. The students were told they had to give a practice sermon. Half of the students read the parable of the Good Samaritan where a man stops to help a stranger at the end of the road, while the other half were given other bible stories. Unbeknownst to students, a man who appeared in need was set up to be present on their walk home. Did those who read the Good Samaritan have more active compassion and stop to help more than the others. The answer....no. What mattered? It was more about how much of a hurry the students were in, were they late to their next class? What are the consequences of us living up in our heads or often thinking we are in a hurry? How might we be missing out on a strength that could support us in others when struggling?
Social neuroscience studies the circuitry of the brain when we are in relationship to others. Daniel Siegel, M.D., author of The Mindful Brain, writes about how our brains are wired to mirror the feelings in another's brain. So if someone is feeling angry, we automatically feel that, if someone is feeling hurt, we may feel that and naturally elicit compassion. So if we're naturally wired to feel compassion when someone is hurting, then why do the students not stop to help the suffering individual on the side of the road? Why is compassion a scarce commodity in our society?
We have become a self-absorbed nation. Between the sensational news, the addictive blackberry, and mounting world stress, we have become preoccupied and don't really notice other people. More often now than before people are thinking of themselves and even talking about themselves. It seems like this self-absorption is lending itself to a more narcissistic culture and this breeds disconnection which is not good for our mental health. When we give a donation, are we giving it so we feel good about ourselves or are we giving it to truly give joy to another person? When buying clothing, are we interested if it was made in sweat shop or just the bottom line price? When eating food, are we aware of all the hard work by many (including us), that brought that food to the plate before us?
Studies have found that compassion and altruism are strengths that can support us day to day. Not only that, people aren't usually attracted to others who are self-absorbed (with the exception of the eye candy attraction to our celebrity culture). When someone continues talking about themselves at a party, it gets pretty dull. So, when self-absorbed, we may miss out on cultivating relationships that can be supportive down the road. Also, when we're depressed we often ruminate on our own problems. Cultivating compassion and altruism enables us to step out of ourselves which can be a welcomed respite.
Do a little test today. See how many people you come in contact with inevitably talk about themselves and do that for yourself too. Also, take a compassion and altruism check-up today. Are you involved with any cause, but your own? Cultivating the ability to branch outside of ourselves and feel into others and even take action to support them (for them, not for us), can have wonderful effects on our mood, self-esteem, and pure joy in this world.
As always, please share your thoughts and questions below. Your additions here provide a living wisdom for us all to benefit from.
More Mental Health Articles - Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D. - Mar 6th 2009
I applaud your efforts... you can find more mental health articles of mine if you go to the archive for my weblog, "Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D. Weblog Archive" or you can look under many of the writers for mentalhelp.net.
I Strongly agree - Brittany - Mar 5th 2009
Due to the fact that not many people have to grow their own food, butcher their own animals, they don't take into consideration all the hard work put into their meal by other people. A major problem with the world is that we think that it revolves around us, and therefore we have made it (in our minds) to be as such. Some people even get angry at others for excelling in areas that they could not. As i am 15 years ols and still in highschool, i see alot of people on a daily basis. Many people will sit there for like an hour, talking about their day, and interupting you when you talk. I know a girl who has taken literally 1,225 pictures of herself in the last four days. If you have any more articles on mental health, please email me. If you have any experience in the mental health facility as either a staff or resident, please email me. my email is firstname.lastname@example.org I am doing a project for school and need your help.
I tune out others around me - Bryan Parker - Mar 4th 2009
I absolutly loved this article. I have noticed that I tend to do just what the article says and tune out others around me. I have found that it important for me to make a conscious effort before I walk out the door of my home to focus on others around me. I now look at shopping, paying bills, or any other event as an opportunity to sow into anothers life. This is an article more of us in this country should read and adhere to.