3 Habits of Highly Compassionate People

Is the world a less considerate place than it was 30 years ago? Researchers certainly seem to think so, which makes it more crucial than ever to cultivate kindness and become a gentler, more compassionate person.

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How to Be a More Compassionate Person

In a world filled with headlines about mass shootings and terrorist attacks, it’s easy to wonder, “What’s wrong with people these days?”

That’s a fair question. One study that was released by the University of Michigan in 2010 seems to suggest we’re collectively becoming less considerate. After surveying college students, lead researcher Sarah Konrath discovered a 40 per cent decline in empathy—the ability to relate to the feelings and perspectives of others—over the previous 30 years. Konrath and her team attributed this trend to an overall spike in narcissism, individualism and material self-interest and linked it to a waning inclination to show concern for others and adopt their perspectives. While this rate of decline appeared to be relatively stable between 1979 and 1999, it nearly tripled after the year 2000.

That study started a public conversation about whether we’re collectively becoming more heartless in general. But before you bemoan the collapse of civilized society, fear not: experts say we can take steps to reverse this trend, and learn how to be a more compassionate person.

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Compassionate People Make Time to Connect

In their 2010 book, Born for Love: Why Empathy Is Essential—and Endangered, American psychiatrist Bruce D. Perry and journalist Maia Szalavitz suggest our culture faces a crisis of disconnection. Between 1985 and 2004, they report, the proportion of people who claimed they had no confidants at all jumped from 10 to 24.6 per cent, while 80 per cent of respondents said they’d only confide in family members.

According to Mary Gordon, the founder and president of the Canadian not-for-profit group Roots of Empathy, the pace of modern life is partly to blame for waning levels of consideration. We may be in touch with our friends through quick texts and emails, she says, but “face to face, someone can smile at you, touch your arm, give you a hug or have a laugh with you—all things that release endorphins.” With fewer in-person interactions, it’s hard to decipher what might be going on in the hearts and minds of those around us, knowledge that informs our behaviour toward one another.

To remedy this, make your social life a priority, says Gordon. She recommends going for lunch with a friend or colleague instead of eating at your desk. At the Roots of Empathy office, co-workers walk the stairs together for exercise, and from time to time, the group organizes staff bowling trips in an effort to strengthen collegial connections. If your weekends are too full of family obligations to contemplate a dinner party, she suggests doing something simple, like grocery shopping with a friend and grabbing a coffee afterwards.

Take a closer look at the surprising science behind friendship.

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They’re Mindful of Stress Levels

“Life has become more stressful, and any kind of stress may minimize our empathetic capacities,” says Gordon. If you’re preoccupied by worries that you might lose your job, for example, it’s easy to develop a kind of tunnel vision. (Here are the signs of stress you might be ignoring.)

Loren Martin, an assistant professor in the department of psychology based out of the University of Toronto Mississauga, has studied the relationship between anxiety and compassion. Based on his research, he posits that stress may interfere with “higher-order cognitive empathetic behaviours”—like being able to appreciate the perspective of others.

Gordon suggests we remember that link in our everyday interactions. “It’s not that people are deliberately being selfish or narcissistic,” she says. They may just be reacting to adverse factors in their environments. If someone is curt or critical, she offers, “try saying something kind, like, ‘It’s chaotic in here. It must be challenging.’ If we demonstrate empathy, we’re far more likely to receive it in return.”

Here’s practical advice on how to sharpen your social skills after two years of lockdowns.

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Compassionate People Feed Their Sense of Wonder

A growing body of evidence points to a connection between empathy and experiences that inspire awe, like taking in the view from a mountaintop or marvelling at undersea life while scuba diving. Research that was published by the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2015 found that being exposed to wonder helps us focus on the world beyond ourselves and keeps us attuned to the welfare of others.

So try embarking on that great Canadian road trip you’ve always contemplated. Not only will it feed your yen for adventure, but it may ultimately wind up teaching you how to be a more compassionate person.

Next, check out expert advice on how to make new friends as an adult.

Reader's Digest Canada
Originally Published in Reader's Digest Canada

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