"Live a good life, and in the end, it's not the years in the life, it's the life in the years."

Why helping others helps us, too

By on November 24, 2019 in Columnist with 0 Comments

By June Darling

“Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.” 

— Dalai Lama 

Over the holidays last year, we were visiting my older son, Hoby, and his family in Park City, Utah. Deep snow covered all. The skiers loved it, but some of us were worried. 

Friends were supposedly coming for dinner, but the hour had passed when they were to arrive. Hoby was not there either. He wasn’t answering his cell phone. 

Suddenly, the door flew open. Four, out-of-breath, beaming young men, including Hoby, swooshed in. What just happened? Bad news? Good news? Both.

As Hoby and his friends had neared the house, they noticed that a car had slipped into a steep ditch. All the guys stopped, assessed the situation, heaved and hoed, and finally were able to free the folks; send them on their way to celebrate the holidays. 

No surprise that the freed folks were exuberant afterwards. But why were Hoby and his friends bordering on jubilant? Researchers tell us that human beings are wired to be compassionate, to want to help, and to feel good when they do. 

Research on compassion for others (as well as self-compassion) is relatively young, a few decades old. 

Researchers like Dacher Keltner believe that initially human beings had to have what he calls a “compassion instinct” because we have these big-headed babies who cannot take care of themselves.

We will learn more, but for now, there are lots of definitions and descriptions. 

I’ve read hundreds. Here is how I synthesize what seems to be going on when we experience this complex phenomenon called compassion.

Compassion comes about when we notice that someone is suffering. 

We emotionally resonate; we empathize with their suffering. We feel what it must be like to be in their shoes. We have a sense of comradery as fellow human beings — for example, it could have just as easily been us who slipped into the ditch. 

Often, we experience distress over the situation, but our sense of nurturing allows us to tolerate the distress and push on. We discern what to do and take some action intended to alleviate the suffering of our fellow human being.

These thoughts, emotions, and behaviors associated with the compassion process cause various parts of our brains to activate. Pleasurable and motivating chemicals like oxytocin and dopamine are secreted. All this seems to optimize our immune system as well. 

Bottom line. Compassion is good not just for the people pulled out of a ditch, but also for the rescuers. 

The Dalai Lama captures this idea well in his oft quoted words: “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.

What then, is the problem? 

We have this amazing, innate compassion available to us. When we use it, it’s good for us and everyone else. Sounds like we should all be on the compassion train. But we aren’t.

Compassion can get stuffed down and become stunted for many reasons. 

Some of those reasons may include a lack of understanding about compassion (what is it, how does it work) and fear. Yes, we can have a fear of compassion (both giving and receiving it). 

Could compassion make me fuzzy-headed, unable to do my job? Could compassion make me do something stupid like love people who deserve a kick in the rear?

Seems to me the best ideas for working with compassion involve becoming more knowledgeable and more open to it. If you’ve read this article, you’ve already learned more about compassion. Reading about the benefits may help you become more receptive. 

Here’s something my husband and I do that you may want to try at least once or twice this December. 

Each Sunday afternoon we ask each other, “Where did you notice, give, or receive compassion this week? What blocks or fears did you notice?” 

Usually we end up talking about anything related to compassion. These few compassion-focused minutes together never fails to give us good conversation; connect us, leave us with deep thoughts to ponder or further investigate; and warm our hearts. 

I recently read a comprehensive review of happiness interventions. The paper concludes by noting the link between self-transcendence and physical and emotional well-being. 

Compassion (along with gratitude and awe) was proposed as the ultimate path to the good life. 

Funny. Seems like somebody said that about 2,000 years ago. Maybe it’s time we take it seriously.

How might you get back in touch with your natural compassion and move up to The Good Life?

 June Darling, Ph.D. can be contacted at drjunedarling1@gmail.com; website: www.summitgroupresources.com. Her bio and many of her books can be found at amazon.com/author/junedarling.

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