Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness (and Equality)!

To many, compassion is a doe eyed, naïve proposition that resonates with peaceniks and university students who have not yet tasted the *real world*. At the same time compassion is arguably  one of most difficult things we can do for others and ourselves. This is especially true in the United States, Given the emotionally avoidant competitive nature of the free market, the constant pressure to be the best, and obsession with self-esteem, and the drive to seek appreciation from others instead of the self. This goes hand in hand with ignoring suffering, our own, and other people’s. As we will soon discover, at the core compassion has to do with effectively responding to suffering. Further, since the avoidance of suffering does not remove the suffering, but rather increases it, a society which ignores pain and hardship is bound to become inundated in even larger doses of challenge and anguish. We propose that injecting our society with a steady dose of compassion will support individual and collective well-being, efficacy, inclusion and overall harmony. With all that said, arises the question, but what is compassion?

Compassion is multi-dimensional, covering a broad range of emotional, cognitive, motivational and behavioral constructs. At least three elements of compassion have been established: noticing another’s suffering, empathically feeling the person’s pain, and acting to ease the suffering . A related definition by the Compassionate Mind Foundation UK sees compassion as “A sensitivity to the suffering of self and others, with a commitment to try to alleviate and prevent it.” Consider a mashup of science and its potential application to understanding and studying compassion through the lens of a most important phrase from the US Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Life – Compassion and Health

Supportive, positive social relationships are necessary for well-being. Weinstein and Ryan’s (2010) review informs that helping behaviors are likely to increase wellbeing on a variety of dimensions, such as depression, experiencing greater personal happiness, life satisfaction and self-esteem. Furthermore, people high in well-being seem to have better social relationships than people low in well-being. For example, they are more likely to get married, stay married, and have rewarding marriages. Studies also demonstrate that giving help is related to higher levels of positive mental health, life adjustment, lower feelings of hopelessness and depression. Research also suggests that a compassionate lifestyle may improve longevity as it buffers stress and provides pleasure in the helper. Studies held by Sara Konrath and her colleagues (2012) found that in a sample of over 10,000 adults, volunteers lived longer than non-volunteers, though only if their volunteering was altruistic as opposed to self-serving. Work by Professor Paul Gilbert has too offered very thorough evidence to the effects of compassion on wellbeing, and overall functioning.

Liberty – Compassion and Business/Economics

Considering the amount of time Americans work, related stress, need for solutions, and the importance of work to our self-identity, there should be ample opportunities for compassion to manifest itself in organizational contexts. However, it is usually not made salient. Frequently, employers give no consideration until workers compensation claims are filed and their insurance costs increase. Importantly for organizations, compassion seems related to productivity driving pro-social behavior and organizational citizenship behavior (OCB). Compassion (including for the self by addressing personal pain) goes beyond empathy to actual action, whether or not the action achieves the goal of decreasing the suffering. Kasser & Ryan (1993) found that people aspiring to financial success achieve less self-actualization and vitality and suffer more depression and heightened anxiety. These various data points suggest the competent injection of compassion into the work place will increase not only well-being, but also employee engagement, individual outcomes, and teamwork driven production.

Happiness – Compassion and Happiness

Mongrain et. al. (2011) found participants in a compassionate action condition experienced sustained gains in happiness and self-esteem over 6 months, relative to participants in the control condition. Dunn et. al. (2008) found that spending one’s own income on others predicted greater happiness, and, participants who were randomly assigned to spend money on others experienced greater happiness than those assigned to spend money on themselves. Neff et. al. (2007) found that self-compassion had a significant positive association with self-reported measures of happiness, optimism, positive affect, wisdom, personal initiative, curiosity and exploration, agreeableness, extroversion, and conscientiousness. as well as a significant negative association with negative affect and neuroticism. Importantly, Self-compassion predicted significant variance in positive psychological health beyond that attributable to personality.

All men are created equal – Compassion and Inequality

Where great inequality exists, lower health, educational attainment, social capital, trust, co-operation and higher crime rates manifest (Wilkinson & Pickett, 2009). Economic Systems Justification (ESJ) suggests people justify, and accept and protect existing social/economic arrangements. ESJ posits that we justify the status quo to foster social group growth and cohesion through stereotypes and ideologies, even if the status quo is unequal. ESJ helps explain why groups on the bottom of the pyramid of economic/social hierarchies may use unrealistic standards of consumption (expensive, high status purchases), and buy into thinking theirs is an individual not group disadvantage in achieving the iconic “American Dream” (e.g. “Anyone can make it irrespective of status, if you work hard enough. If not, it is due to you/your groups own lack of ability”). For poor and rich alike, striving lives lived on a hedonic treadmill (quenching materialistic desires with no increase in happiness) can become an addiction to unrealistic levels of consumption financed by unsafe bank credit.

Accordingly, we would like to bring attention to not only the concept of compassion as something that is salient, behavioral and observable, but also give interested parties a well consolidated resource to familiarize themselves with every aspect of this important intrapersonal, interpersonal, and social reality across the science of multiple disciplines.

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