Why Cultivating Compassion is Essential for Healthy Aging and Happiness
Compassion engages our capacity for love, wisdom, courage, and generosity. It’s a mental and emotional state that’s boundless and directionless, grounded in the great spiritual traditions of the world but available to every person simply by virtue of our being human. – Kristin Neff
Our society devalues age and glorifies youth. As a result, many people look at aging as a process of decline. Jane Fonda says that, while our bodies face challenges, our spirits do not need to decline. In fact, they can flourish.
In her 2011 TED Talk, Jane Fonda pointed out that people today have the chance the live approximately 30 years longer than the generations that came before us. She asked us to reimagine our lives. Just how we reimagine our lives in the Third Act is up to us.
I would like to propose that we embrace compassion as our compass to guide us in this moment of our lives as both a tool for healing ourselves and one another.
Compassion is defined as an emotional feeling that comes when you perceive that someone is suffering and respond with a genuine desire to help.
Recently, I spent the day at the Stanford Center for Compassion in Education. I am part of a working group that explores ways to infuse compassion into a child’s education. There, I learned about the latest research on compassion. I also explored some practices to cultivate compassion that can be effective for people of all ages.
It was such a moving day and I want to share what I have learned in a two-part blog.
In this first blog, I will share the research and concepts of compassion and in the second blog, I will share some practices that cultivate compassion.
Exploring the Latest Research on Compassion
In 2005, the Dalai Lama and Stanford researchers, from a wide range of fields from neuroscience, psychology, and medicine to religion, opened a conversation that lead to a new body of research on the connections between cognitive science, brain research, psychology and traditions of Buddhism and meditation.
Their research offered evidence that a compassionate lifestyle leads to greater happiness, better mental and physical health and maybe even increased longevity.
Here are some examples of the research, reported by Emma Seppala, in the Association for Psychological Science journal the Observer.
A brain-imaging study headed by neuroscientist Jordan Grafman from the National Institutes of Health showed that: “The ‘pleasure centers’ in the brain… are equally active when we observe someone giving money to charity as when we receive money ourselves! Giving to others even increases well-being above and beyond what we experience when we spend money on ourselves.”
Elizabeth Dunn, of the University of British Columbia, conducted a study where participants were asked to spend money on themselves or on others. The study showed that “Participants who had spent money on others felt significantly happier than those who had spent money on themselves.”
A study by Steve Cole, at the University of California, Los Angeles and APS Fellow, Barbara Fredrickson, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill evaluated the impact of different happiness drivers in inflammation, which has been connected with certain cancers.
They found that “People who were happy because they lived the ‘good life’ (sometimes also known as ‘hedonic happiness’) had high inflammation levels. On the other hand, people who were happy because they lived a life of purpose or meaning (sometimes also known as ‘eudaimonic happiness’) had low inflammation levels.” In other words, living with compassion can be good for our health on multiple levels.
Can Compassion Help Us to Deal with Suffering?
By our age, our experiences have brought us different degrees of physical and psychological suffering. Most of us have experienced stress and have had experiences that may have suppressed our sense of compassion.
Whether we have experienced the loss of a loved one, a serious illness, a divorce, or the loss of lost a job, suffering is a natural part of the human experience.
Maybe we have not been able to forgive ourselves or others. Yet, at any moment, we can make the choice to cultivate compassion. We can increase our feelings of compassion and embrace a compassionate lifestyle.
With practice and patience, we can train ourselves to nurture others, while developing our feelings of compassion. In the second part of this blog, I will share a few ways to cultivate compassion.
Do you agree that compassion is one of the most important emotions to cultivate in our lives after 60? What does compassion mean to you? Please join the conversation.