Compassion, Empathy and Altruism; which are you striving for?

“Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.” Leo Buscaglia

After watching a TED talk from Buddhist roshi Joan Halifax on compassion and another TED talk from Matthieu Ricard on how to let altruism be your guide, I wondered at the difference, if there is one, between empathy and compassion. Or whether you can have one without the other.

To start with, I checked n the definitions of both. The term “empathy” is used to describe a wide range of experiences. Emotion researchers generally define empathy as the ability to sense other people’s emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling.

Researchers differentiate between two types of empathy: “Affective empathy” refers to the sensations and feelings we get in response to others’ emotions; this can include mirroring what that person is feeling, or just feeling stressed when we detect another’s fear or anxiety. “Cognitive empathy,” sometimes called “perspective taking,” refers to our ability to identify and understand other peoples’ emotions. I feel that this type of empathy, the ability to literally walk in their shoes, is what we strive for.

The term “compassion” literally means “to suffer together.” It is defined as the feeling that arises when you are confronted with another’s suffering and feel motivated to relieve that suffering.

Compassion is not the same as empathy or altruism, though the concepts are related. While empathy refers more generally to our ability to take the perspective of and feel the emotions of another person, compassion is when those feelings and thoughts include the desire to help.

Altruism, in turn, is the kind, selfless behavior often prompted by feelings of compassion, though one can feel compassion without acting on it, and altruism isn’t always motivated by compassion.

While cynics may dismiss compassion as touchy-feely or irrational, scientists have started to map the biological basis of compassion. Research has shown that when we feel compassion, our heart rate slows down, we secrete the “bonding hormone” oxytocin, and regions of the brain linked to empathy, care giving, and feelings of pleasure light up, which often results in our wanting to approach and care for other people.

So, the road to self can be summarised as start to develop Affective empathy, extend it to cognitive empathy. From there, develop the compassionate desire to help others, ending up at altruism.

Which road will you travel?

For the TED talk, from Joan Halifax, please refer to:

For the TED talk from Matthieu Ricard, please refer to:

I leave you with the following quote:

“When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.” ― Ernest Hemingway

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