Growing Your Compassion Circle

By Richard Davidson, Ph.D. | Sep 09, 2016
Richie Blog

Our globalized world allows us to share ideas that connect with and help others across the planet. But this expanded network can also spread exploitation and apathy – a phenomenon that frequents our news feeds with images and stories of hate and violence.

At the Center for Healthy Minds, the research organization I lead, we believe that compassion – our ability to empathize and turn our feelings into action to relieve another being’s suffering ­– matters now more than ever, with multiple ways to cultivate and nurture it.

As a neuroscientist who studies the role emotions play in our daily lives, I’m fascinated with taking what we know about our minds and bodies, and figuring out how to expand our network of compassion to make a kinder, more peaceful world.

Through our research and experience, not only do I believe compassion can dramatically alter our societies, but I also believe it’s vital to our survival as a species. It has served and still guides our individual and communal relationships, which we now know comprise the highest predictive factors for happiness and well-being. Indeed the absence of social connection has been found to be an important risk factor for mortality.

A growing body of scientific evidence suggests that, if we were given a choice early on in life, we would choose the altruistic and warm-hearted option over the selfish one. For instance, Karen Wynn at Yale University’s Infant Cognition Center has conducted research that suggests babies prefer helping behaviors rather than hindering at an incredibly early age.

In this sense, it helps to view compassion the same way we look at language. Most scientists agree that we are all born with a capacity for language, but the normal development of language requires a typical linguistic community for it to be fully expressed.

Being deprived of compassionate exemplars around us, particularly in early life, is a form of emotional deprivation. And we are just beginning to understand the deleterious consequences this may produce. We know from studies we have done, for example, that babies exposed to early emotional deprivation suffer from insults to circuits in the brain that we know are critical for compassion. We seem to be wired for compassion, and when we don’t get it, we suffer immensely.

So how might we nurture these seeds for compassion? How do we reconnect with compassion when it’s undermined and stifled by our culture and daily habits?

I’m reminded of a practice called “Compassion Circle” from our lab’s work in classrooms, where we ask students to form circles based on their answers to simple questions like “Do you own a pet?” or “What’s your favorite color?” Students mix and converse with classmates they might not have known much about, encouraging them to relate differently to one another, to remove a sense of “otherness” that tends to block compassion.

I’ll never forget hearing from one of our education experts what happened when students were asked to form a circle based on their answer to the question, “Have you ever felt left out or bullied?” Nearly everyone came to the circle, and one young girl who consistently felt this way commented that she didn’t know others felt this way too. It brought her to tears to know she wasn’t alone, and it created a moment of shared compassion and appreciation for one another’s vulnerability among the students and instructors.

This expansion of relating with others is at the heart of another way we can reconnect with compassion through what we call “compassion” or “loving-kindness” meditation. In these practices, we intentionally recognize our innate basic goodness and acknowledge that all humans share this same capacity. 

Compassion meditations often involve bringing to mind a beloved family member, friend or pet, and cultivating your love for them, and then expanding those same feelings to others you know, people you struggle relating to, and eventually strangers in your community and the world. The practice typically includes silently repetition of phrases like, “May you be happy, may you be healthy, may you live with ease.”

Our research, led by Helen Weng, demonstrates that this intentional training produces actual changes in the brain and results in people behaving more generously toward others. This is in part because the brain is malleable and is being changed constantly – wittingly and unwittingly through a process called neuroplasticity. The invitation in this work is that we can more intentionally transform our brains to support healthy qualities of mind.

This was also an early focus when we collaborated with my dear friend and Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard in the early 2000s. We discovered through multiple studies (one in 2004 and another in 2008) that long-term meditators like Matthieu who have accumulated tens of thousands of hours of meditation experience showed markedly different patterns of brain activity when practicing compassion meditation compared with more novice practitioners.

The findings catalyzed our research in this area and continue to drive us to explore our own story as humans – why compassion matters and how we can expand our own compassion circles – even if it’s just a little at a time.

Richard J. Davidson is the William James and Vilas Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and Founder of the Center for Healthy Minds