|Image courtesy Eastop.|
And we've read about the studies showing that most people only have a certain amount of compassion capacity -- that people are more likely to act or donate money if they learn about an individual's plight, versus a large group of people or entire species.
What we may often forget is that, just like a muscle (and remember that our hearts are muscles), we can strengthen our capacity for compassion, or, as a recent essay from our allies at Greater Good says, according to science, we can expand our "compassion bandwith."
According to studies, we think we tend to shut off our compassion when we believe extending our compassion will overly-tax us in some way (financially, emotionally, etc.) -- when we have reached our "natural limit." As researcher C. Daryl Cameron says:
"We find that when there are more suffering victims, people think they will feel more compassion. Given this expectation, people may become concerned about the financial and emotional costs of intense compassion. Compassion for many victims can be seen as an expensive proposition—one that will not make much of a difference. People may also become worried about being overwhelmed or burned out by compassion for many sufferers."Cameron's research discovered several things, including:
- When people didn't believe they were expected to help, they felt more compassion.
- People skilled at regulating their emotions were more likely to "restrict" their compassion.
"The upshot of this research is that people can choose whether or not to feel compassion for mass suffering. This choice will depend upon whether people are motivated to avoid compassion and whether they have the skills to regulate their emotions. If we can get people past their fears of being overwhelmed, and teach them strategies for staying with rather than avoiding compassion, then we can increase their compassion bandwidth."Fortunately, we can flex our compassion muscles so that our capacity for compassion (e.g., the range of beings we care about, and the numbers of those suffering) increases with practice.
Cameron offers several tips for both organizations and individuals wanting to increase humans' compassion capacity, including:
- Increase the sense that helping will make a difference.
- Streamline helping opportunities to make them seem less costly.
- Train our brains for compassion over the long term.
This is good news for us as humane educators and active citizens, both for our own well-being, and for helping us practice patience and persistence with those whom we're trying to inspire and empower.
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