Solution? More compassion!
Apparently life expectancy in the United States has fallen somewhat dramatically in recent years. “Experts are not sure what is behind the stall”, I read. On article suggested that the experts suspect obesity which is an underlying factor in the some of the largest causes of death, particularly heart disease.
I believe one of the leading causes of this alarming trend is lack of compassion and the strong, positive social connections it creates. Compassion generates tremendous health benefits.
In my experience compassion is rapidly disappearing from our lives. Sure maybe we donate money to good causes but that is not the same as living a compassionate life. A compassionate life is one where we give of ourselves to help others. That is a job that cannot always be delegated to another at least not if we want to reap the benefits of improved health and well-being.
When my husband was dying from ALS – Lou Gehrig’s disease – I really became aware of the absence of compassion. When my youngest child was two weeks old we received the diagnosis. There is no treatment or cure, so a diagnosis is a death sentence. ALS is often called the coffin disease because the person has all of his/her faculties but is trapped in a dead body. Not that there are any good diseases but this is an incredibly horrible disease.
As my husband’s body began to deteriorate and my children and I started our descent into the depths of despair we had visitors and support. However, as the disease progressed the number of visitors decreased until at the end no one came to visit. My children’s teachers treated them with disdain and even hatred as they acted out their pain and grief. We felt alone and isolated.
After my husband’s death we began the healing process. It would take many, many years for us to heal. At the beginning of this process I was bitter and angry for many reasons including the fact that the world seemed to turn its back on us when we needed it the most. Compassion helped me heal and come back from this angry and bitter place just as it was compassion that enabled me to care for my husband at home until his death.
My husband was very angry until the day he died. His behavior was often hostile and outright mean. When I wanted to lash back at him or just run away I would ask myself, “How do I know how I would feel if I was in his shoes?” How self-righteous of me to believe that I would handle the situation any better! I had no right to judge him.
I believe compassion begins when we put ourselves in the shoes of the other person. “The Greatest Generation”, as they are sometimes called, seemed to naturally incorporate compassion into their lives. Perhaps that is because they lived through the Great Depression and WWII when everyone was suffering and sacrificing. No one was exempt. The sufferers could not be blamed. Suffering and heartache were everywhere. They developed their compassionate instinct which never left them.
Yes, we have a compassionate instinct. The psychologists have established that we are not biologically programmed, as current thinking would have us believe, for survival of the fittest. We are instead biologically wired to be caretakers and givers.
Psychologists and social scientists have also established that compassion and connecting in meaningful ways with others helps us enjoy better physical and mental health. This is a dynamic area of study taking place at Universities all across the county including Stanford and UC Berkeley. They are redefining health as more than the absence of disease.
It turns out that compassion, and the strong social connections it creates, speeds up recovery from disease, strengthens our immune system, lowers our blood pressure, decreases anxiety and depression and may even lengthen our lifespan.
What is compassion? It is not to be confused with empathy and altruism. Empathy refers to our ability to take the perspective of and feel the emotions of another person. Compassion includes the feeling of empathy – taking on the perspective of and feeling the pain or suffering of another person but it goes further to include a desire to help alleviate the suffering.
Presently, in our culture, there is an obsession with individualism and assessing blame for failings, shortcomings and even just mistakes. We will need to readjust that perspective if we are to become more compassionate and healthy as a society and as individuals. In compassion there is no judgment or blame, only a sense of caring and a desire to help.
But, aren’t we too busy to take on the task of generating more compassion in our lives? Compassion can be just a small, simple act of giving to others. It turns out that giving is (biologically) very pleasurable and good for us. Psychologists have established that those who volunteer live longer than their non-volunteering peers.
Showing that we care about how another person feels is a basic form of giving. Showing compassion can be as simple as asking someone how they are feeling and actually listening to the response. It can be helping by opening the door for someone and saying thank you when someone does that for you. I would suggest that doing anything that shows you care and want to help is an act of compassion. Think about how you felt the last time someone did any of these things for you. It creates a warm feeling in us – the giver and receiver. It connects us and reminds us of our common humanity. We are all in this together.
Compassion is contagious it turns out. So your simple act of compassion will generate more acts of compassion for both the giver and receiver.
Let’s practice compassion in everything we do and with everyone we meet. You will reap tremendous physical and mental health benefits. And we can reverse the current trend of decreasing life expectancies.