Coming off a hot, sometimes angry summer – and following an election season that could be charitably described as “testy” – it’s a good time to ponder compassion and empathy and how we can maximize both in ourselves and the world around us.
True, there are some things people will never agree on. But even the knottiest problems are easier to address when the opposing sides are respectful and kind to each other.
And, at the individual level, how much better would your day be if you were able to deflect the world’s slights, from the aggressive driver who nearly clipped you or the cashier who was rude to you, all the way to the co-worker who stole credit for your work or the bully who made your son afraid to go back to school?
True, some slights (like those last two) can’t be ignored, but when your reaction is motivated by logic and compassion – as opposed to anger and adrenaline – you’re more likely to find a workable solution and less likely to worsen an already bad situation.
There are few upsides to a life lived in anger, aside from the immediate adrenaline rush you might get from telling off the guy who brought his terrified toddler to an R-rated horror movie or giving the finger to the driver who cut you off.
Unfortunately, the ripple effects of those knee-jerk reactions don’t help anybody. The terrible parent didn’t learn his lesson, and the bad driver probably didn’t even see you. Worse, when you consistently operate in “fight or flight” mode, your health can take a pounding from cardiovascular disease, depression, PTSD and a weakened immune system.
As actor Carrie Fisher said, “Resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.”
Reacting more compassionately, however, has multiple benefits. It may not prevent jerks from being jerky, but neither does it elevate the conflict. It’s hard to keep yelling at someone who isn’t yelling back.
In addition, living a compassionate, forgiving life can lead to less depression and pain, and overall better health because our bodies aren’t in a near-constant state of anger and stress.
More globally, compassion creates a kind of psychic compound interest, multiplying the positive benefits onto those around us. Unexpected acts of kindness – think of the “Free Hugs” man at this summer ’s protests, or the comfort dogs sent to Dallas after the police shootings – are profoundly contagious.
Try these tips to boost your CQ (compassion quotient):
Start in the Mirror: Those who are unforgiving to others often honed those skills on themselves. But it’s time to show your inner critic the door. Listen, we’re all secretly a bundle of neuroses, so accept that you’re no better or worse than the rest of us and give yourself a break. Show the same patience with yourself that you would like to show with others.
Meditate: In addition to improving focus and just about every facet of physical and mental health, a dedicated meditation routine has also been proven to make practitioners more compassionate. A 2012 study showed that participants who went through 8 weeks of meditation training were much more compassionate than the control group that didn’t take the training (as measured by the number of participants who offered a disabled person a chair in a staged waiting room).
Breathe Better: “Breathing properly can make us kinder and more compassionate,” says Belisa Vranich, a New York-based psychologist and author of the forthcoming book Breathe: The Simple, Revolutionary 14-Day Program to Improve your Mental and Physical Health. “Anger usually comes from not pausing and seeing the other person’s perspective. If you really do take a breath, it’s not a cliché, it can put you in a space where you feel more logical and thoughtful, that considers the outcome and repercussions of your actions.” She recommends this five- minute exercise to kick-start better breathing:
- Lie on your back with nothing under your head, one hand on your belly and the other on your chest.
- Inhale deeply through your mouth. Your bottom hand should be the only one that moves. Keep inhaling until your belly is extended and you feel you can’t take in any more air–then take in just a little bit more to “top off” the breath.
- Exhale through your mouth, pushing out all the air in one breath and feeling your belly contract. Do this several times.
- Return to a more natural rhythm of deep inhales and exhales, through your nose if you want.
- Keep up that rhythm for five minutes or longer.
Refuse to Marinate in It: The best way to stay mad is to stew over your grievance and, even better, tell everyone you know about how you were wronged. Unfortunately, reliving your bad times won’t change them, and will only keep those wounds fresh.
Compassion is Action: Maybe you can’t dedicate your life to helping those less fortunate than you, but you can give some of your time or financial support to a worthy cause. That could be a charity or it could be a neighbor, friend or family member going through a rough time. Look around you. It shouldn’t be hard to find a recipient.
Broaden Your View: Most of us spend our days interacting with people who are, more or less, like us. That can limit our empathy because we literally have no idea how people who aren’t like us live or what challenges they face on a regular basis. To fix this, start small with books or movies about people completely unlike you. If you’re ready to step it up, volunteer in a community unlike your own and get to know how others live.
Finding compassion for the inherently sympathetic is easy. Who doesn’t tear up over those Sarah Maclachlan ASPCA ads? The challenge is in showing love – or, at least, some patience – to the jerks and creeps in our path. But letting those slights go, or responding with kindness instead of anger, doesn’t just de-escalate the conflict. It can dramatically improve our own, and the world’s, well-being.
©2016. As originally published in Issue 29 of Straightline, by Andrews Kurth Kenyon LLP. This article is for general informational purposes only; content does not constitute legal advice. Attorney Advertising.