Try a little compassion.
But if you’ve ever struggled to find loving kindness for the guy who cut you off on your morning commute, know you are not alone.
Compassion takes practice. But if you do practice, the experts promise the next time you get cut off, while you may not be happy about it, it won’t ruin your morning.
How do you get to compassion?
A whole industry exists to teach you compassion, but it doesn’t have to cost you money. You can start simply with a common exercise called the Loving Kindness Meditation. All you need is a quiet space and about 20 minutes, or 15 minutes if the thought of having to find 20 stresses you out.
In that quiet space, sit in a comfortable position. Focus on your breath and try to clear your mind. The key is to be present in that space in that time. Then mentally focus on your heart area and think about someone you feel tenderness toward. This could be your spouse or your mom or your child.
Dwell on those positive thoughts for a little bit. Then extend that same feeling toward yourself. Ruminate on that for a little while. Then expand that feeling out to others. Maybe think of someone you aren’t as close to and think tenderly about them.
As time allows add more people to that circle. After a little practice, you can add people who don’t automatically inspire tender thoughts. Serious practitioners eventually add in all of humanity.
Why does it work?
Compassion helps your brain become more flexible to instinctively help you become more altruistic, or pro-social, toward others.
The control group got basic memory training. When researchers looked at their brains before and after two training rounds, they saw a difference in reaction to the same distressing video.
The people with the compassion training still felt these negative emotions, like those with empathy training did, but the part of their brain connected with reward and positive effect also lit up.
For the empathy trained, the part of the brain associated with threat and social disconnection was engaged instead. That suggests they’d likely shy away from the pain they were seeing and not be as apt to help. That also meant those who had the compassion training saw an increased positive affect of the training and decreased negative affect, as compared to the other trainings.
Compassion prompts your brain to have a wider sense of what’s going on and it gives you access to more ideas on how to act. When your brain feels threatened like it does with pain, even someone else’s, it focuses on the pain only to make it go away, and shuts down those other avenues that incentivize you to help.
Who should you try compassion training?
“Creating an environment in which people can learn soft skills and emotional intelligence — these are so important,” Negi said.
The happiness that can come from compassion training is the kind that lasts, unlike the fleeting feeling of happiness that might come, for example, when you buy a new car. (Scientists call this the hedonic treadmill effect.) Happiness derived from compassion is sustainable.
“Developing compassion, sets a foundation for the stability of the mind,” Jha said. “And developing intrinsic compassion, a concern for the suffering of others and for oneself, that can be very powerful … for all involved.”