The United States consumes 25% of the world’s resources and has one of the highest standards of living in the world. Unfortunately, it also has one of the highest levels of loneliness, depression and anxiety. Some of this is, no doubt, caused by the worldwide economic crisis but perhaps it’s a more complex picture than that?
Dr. James R. Doty, director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE) at Stanford University, maintains that the fundamental cause of this unhappiness is not a lack of money but rather a lack of compassion. And this is not just his opinion, it is a point of view backed up by scientific evidence.
According to Dr. Doty the Dalai Lama hit the nail on the head when he said –
“If we say, oh, the practice of compassion is something holy, nobody will listen. If we say, warm-heartedness really reduces your blood pressure, your anxiety, your stress and improves your health, then people pay attention.”
Thing is – according to James R. Doty – compassion really does do all of those things.
So what exactly is compassion?
Compassion is simply being able to see that others are suffering and wanting to help relieve that suffering. But this innately human capacity seems to require a vital component that is in short supply – social connectedness. Due to the change in the structure of Western societies in particular, this pattern of connecting with others has diminished drastically. According to Dr. Doty, one survey showed that 25% of Americans feel they have nobody with whom they can share a problem. This does not just result in a lonely life for these people, it can also have a negative effect even on their physical health.
A UCLA study has found that loneliness has a very significant effect on the immune system and another study has suggested that not having a feeling of belonging is a greater health risk than smoking, obesity, high blood-pressure or lack of exercise. So feeling connected to others and having all the support systems and safety nets that go along with this is not just a way of life – it can, literally, save your life.
Interestingly, it is not just being at the receiving end of compassion that alleviates our own suffering. Many studies show that performing acts of compassion contributes just as much to the well-being and happiness of the ‘giver’ as the ‘receiver.’ So perhaps part of the antidote to the suffering we all will inevitably experience in life is not to withdraw into ourselves, lick our wounds and demand salves for our suffering but rather to reach out into the world and see if there is any way we can relieve the suffering of another. Dr. Doty and his team – and countless teams of researchers around the world – are coming to believe that showing compassion to others may well be an essential mechanism not just for the creation of nicer, more connected societies but also in order to help us to cope with and relieve our own personal pain and suffering.
But maybe we already know this intuitively? Maybe we’d know what to do if we were better connected to our real selves rather than struggling to be somebody else’s idea of happy and successful and fulfilled?
After all, it’s all already there in our pop songs…