Empathy and Compassion: The Awesome Sauce

04/01/2015 02:52 pm ET | Updated Jun 01, 2015
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"Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive." -- The Dalai Lama

The Dalai Lama will mark his 80th birthday this summer in Southern California with a three-day global summit on compassion, a virtue His Holiness calls fundamental to our survival as a species.

As demonstrated by the steady drumbeat of crime and violence in the daily news, Americans, while more compassionate than many of the world's cultures, still can receive no better than mixed reviews for their empathy toward other people.

But there is growing evidence that, as a society, we are becoming more compassionate regarding the plight of animals. Consider headlines this month announcing the decision by Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey to retire its circus elephants and the 2014 report of Sea World's decision to enlarge its whale pens, acts prompted by the compassion of their audiences. Upon observing the suffering of nonhumans, from circus elephants bloodied by bullhooks to the fallout from the film "Blackfish," Americans are increasingly using their wallets to show compassion across species.

Compassion can be defined as "a strong feeling of sympathy and sadness for the suffering or bad luck of others and a wish to help them." Think of compassion as empathy plus action, or in this case, inaction. People quit showing up. Where once they would flock to circus tents and arenas to watch elephants trotted around the grounds, trunk to tail, or to aquatic parks to thrill to the sight of an orca performing tricks on command, the growing public perception that the treatment or confinement of these majestic beasts is cruel has sent audiences in search of other uses for their entertainment dollars.

Cynics may dismiss compassion as irrational or misguided sentiment, but we know that people who help others are healthier, happier and live longer than those who don't. New research also shows that when healthcare is delivered with compassion, patients experience less pain and anxiety and have shorter hospital stays.

While many of the same cynics may also suggest that empathy for the suffering of "dumb animals" is particularly absurd, studies show that compassion for creatures is not a one-way street. Not only is it well-documented that domesticated animals display human feelings toward their masters, compassionate behavior is also evident in nonhumans toward other animals. For example, researchers have observed a marmoset comforting a dying family member, behavior that was previously thought to be unique to humans and chimpanzees. Stories abound about the compassionate nature of elephants, including a remarkable report by PBS of an elephant making repeated efforts to rescue a baby rhinoceros stuck in the mud despite the fact that its mother charged her each time. And in the first study of compassion in rodents, researchers at the University of Chicago have found that a rat will toil to free a caged companion for no reward other than relieving its fellow rat's distress. Rats choose to help each other out even when a stash of chocolate chips can be had instead.

Why Practice Compassion?

Compassion gets us out of the dumps - when our attention is on helping others, we get out of self, we begin to feel energized and before we know it, we feel better. Depression has been linked to excessive self-focus, a preoccupation with "me, myself and I."

One reason compassion might feel so good is that it's 100 percent natural. Functional MRI scans show that altruistic behavior is intrinsically rewarding to the human brain and it begins in early childhood. Scientists at the Max Planck Institute discovered that children as young as 14 months will help others by opening cabinets for them or fetching out-of-reach objects very likely with no concern for reciprocation.

Compassion can make us more attractive and feel better, and it's healthy. In fact, potential dating partners prefer a kind heart to physical allure. Why, you ask? Perhaps it's because compassion activates the limbic system (a.k.a. "pleasure center").

Among the presentations at the Dalai Lama's summer summit will be "Awakening Compassion." And, His Holiness will tell you, not just toward those of our species.

"Animals deserve our compassion," he has said. "We must know their pain."

Perhaps recent evidence that people are beginning to feel the pain of animals is a sign that increased compassion for other humans in need may not be far behind.

Jason Powers, MD, is chief medical officer at Promises Austin drug rehabilitation center and The Right Step network of addiction treatment programs in Texas. He is the pioneer of Positive Recovery, an approach to addiction treatment that helps people discover meaning and purpose in their lives, and writes a blog on addiction.