Scientific evidence shows that we can teach our brains to feel more compassion, both for others and ourselves. Many of us know that if we want to become more physically healthy, we can exercise. What if we want to improve our emotional health? Are there ways to train emotional “muscles” such as compassion? Would such training improve our lives?
Compassion meditation is an ancient contemplative practice to strengthen feelings of compassion towards different kinds of people. The feeling of compassion itself is the emotional response of caring and wanting to help when encountering a person’s suffering.
In a study conducted at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, after only two weeks of online training, participants who practiced compassion meditation every day behaved more altruistically towards strangers compared to another group taught to simply regulate or control their negative emotions. Not only that, the people who were the most altruistic after receiving compassion training also were the individuals who showed the largest changes in how their brains responded to images of suffering. These findings suggest that compassion is a trainable skill, and that practice can actually alter the way our brains perceive suffering and increase our actions to relieve that suffering.