Written by Emma Wheaton.
Our connected world means we are increasingly aware of the tragedies and sufferings of others – whether it is the effects of war thousands of kilometres away or the struggles of someone closer to home. That empathy we feel toward others and the desire to help them is known as compassion.
The Australian Unity Wellbeing Index has found that people’s wellbeing – and, in particular, their sense of community connection – may well rise in the aftermath of a major national disaster. Such events tend to make people realise they are part of something bigger than themselves. For instance, participants in the annual survey recorded enhanced wellbeing following bushfires in Victoria and floods in Queensland – a finding that Emma Seppälä believes demonstrates the importance of connection with others. “Studies show that socially connected individuals have higher self-esteem, are more empathic to others, more trusting and co-operative,” she says.
According to Emma Seppälä, Associate Director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE) at Stanford University, compassion can make a difference on a personal, local and even global scale. Here, she explains why.
How did compassion evolve – are we wired for kindness?
Absolutely. Our first instinct is to help someone in need. Living a life of purpose and care is so deeply beneficial that researchers believe this trait has emerged as a part of human evolution. At our core, we have what Professor Dacher Keltner at the University of California, Berkeley, coins a ‘compassionate instinct’: compassion is a natural and automatic response that has ensured our survival. Darwin’s message was not ‘survival of the fittest’, but rather ‘survival of the kindest’, because we need each other’s support and care to survive as a species.
For the individual, what are the benefits of being compassionate?
Compassion offers tremendous benefits for both physical and mental health and overall wellbeing. Research suggests that connecting with others in a meaningful way helps us enjoy better mental and physical healthand speeds up recovery from disease. Lack of social connection is a greater detriment to health than obesity, smoking and high blood pressure, and strong social connection leads to an increased chance of longevity.
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