I want to explore the idea that living a compassionate life leads to happiness. Compassion for yourself, for others, for animals, and for the earth. Why do I list having compassion for yourself first? Because I truly believe that before you can have compassion for anyone or anything else, you must first have compassion for yourself. I talk about this in more detail in my free download (more information at the end of this blog), but in essence it means you must first love and take care of yourself so that you have the ability to do so with others. This includes allowing yourself to fail, to have flaws, and to need and accept compassion from others. It also means setting boundaries so that you don’t develop compassion exhaustion.
So what does it mean to have or feel compassionate? "To have" or "to feel" are verb conjunctions, which imply possession. When you say "have" or "feeling", these are root verbs and they imply an actual action. You need to have it before you can set your compassion in motion. Compassion from the Latin means to suffer with. It means to go beyond just having empathy (the ability to understand and share the feelings of another) for someone or something, but to want to help ease their suffering. And we all suffer every day. Perhaps it is suffering with pain, struggling through a loveless marriage, deciding on a career change, battling addiction or perhaps it is simply suffering from a bad cold.
Now that we have determined that having compassion for someone or something is an active form of empathy, how do we put our compassion in action?
- Your mother is in a nursing home. The majority of elderly people in nursing homes are rarely visit by their families. You can empathize with your mother. She is lonely and afraid of growing old. She is also a pain in the ass and always makes you feel bad for not visiting. And the guilt sitting on your chest every day is almost unbearable. I said almost. Instead you chose to fill up your day by going to work, grocery shopping, dropping the kids off at practice, making dinner and then falling into bed completely exhausted. Remember, having empathy is only the first step. Having compassion would be to have the courage to try to help ease her loneliness, despite your hectic schedule. It’s setting aside time in your week to visit. It’s hiring a companion to come in and read to her one afternoon a week. It’s calling her each night while you are making dinner and discussing the day. That guilt will lessen and you will feel joy.
- A new student lays her mat next to yours in yoga class. You can tell she has never done yoga before. You can also tell she is out of shape and uncomfortable in a room full of pert, cute, lulu-laden yogis. Sure, you empathize with her. You can remember when you first started practicing and how intimidated you were. Maybe you give her a little smile and let her know she should grab a block and strap. But take it a step further. Stay after class and ask her how she liked her first class. Let her know of some of your favorite classes or teachers. Tell her she did great and that you hope to see her next week. We all need encouragement and those few minutes of compassion you showed her will boost her confidence and bring a little light into your own day.
- You knew it was coming. Having compassion towards animals is essential to my own happiness. I think most people have a ton of empathy towards animals. We love our pets; they are family. We share pictures of baby goats and hedgehogs on Facebook. We are outraged at poachers killing for ivory or thoughtless people who leave their dogs in cars on hot days. And most people are compassionate enough to do something when they see animal abuse. But they still eat meat and buy laundry detergent and mascara that has been tested on animals, which really is animal abuse. I think most people, if they are honest with themselves, feel guilt over this. I know this because I felt this guilt for many, many years. Having compassion towards animals means more than just loving your dog and donating to the local shelter. It means not eating them and not buying products that are tested on them. It can also mean only buying your meat from local farms which prove to you that their animals live richer lives than slaughterhouse animals. And it can also mean simply cutting down your consumption of animal products. Small steps in the right direction is still progress. Regardless, it means caring enough to do something about any animal’s suffering. Having compassion towards animals has actually helped me to have more compassion for people and it as made me a much happier person in return.
I think we all have the ability to have compassion; it’s whether we chose to use it or not that determines our happiness. You can turn it on or you can turn it off. You can chose to have compassion or you can chose indifference. It’s amazing how often we forget that we are in charge of our own lives. All the power lies within each of us. We can chose positive over negative. We can chose courage over fear. But in order to make those choices and focus our energy in the right direction, we need to first understand the implications of being compassionate. To act compassionately is to not expect anything in return. It is selfless. It is an act solely for the benefit of others. Oh, but what you actually get in return is pure joy and happiness.
The Dalai Lama said, "If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” Why is happiness the result of being compassionate? Studies have show that the act of compassionate giving triggers pleasure sensors in our brains—the same sensors that are triggered by our own pleasure. For some reason, we are hard-wired to feel as much pleasure from giving as we do from receiving!
Still not convinced that living a compassionate life leads to happiness? Try these 6 ways to practice compassion.
Living a compassionate life is a practice and just like everything else, you will go through periods where you don’t feel like participating. That’s ok; allow yourself to take a break and work on your self-compassion as this is probably the reason you aren’t feeling very compassionate towards others. It’s all about balance.
Interested in learning more about how you can lead a more compassionate lifestyle? Sign up for my weekly emails by clicking the image below and you will receive my free guide, 5 Ways to a Healthy and Compassionate Lifestyle. Make sure you look for the confirmation email and add me to your contact list. xoxo