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7 Ways to Cultivate Compassion

Research shows helping others improves overall mental well-being

En español | The Golden Rule — "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" — is the bedrock of every spiritual tradition. And though we may aspire to practice compassion in our daily lives, we're not always so successful.

Still, it's worth the effort — for the benefit of others, as well as yourself. Scientific studies show that helping people actually relieves stress and improves psychological well being. As the Dalai Lama put it, "If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion."

These seven strategies will help you flex your compassion muscle.

A woman with a mirror in front of her face.

— Maak Roberts/Gallery Stock

1. Start with yourself. We've all heard it. Love yourself. Be your own best friend. Or in Gandhi's words, Be the change you want to see in the world. There's real wisdom behind the familiar phrases. After all, how can we show compassion to others if we dump on ourselves? The key here is awareness. When I catch myself flinging invective at myself — You look fat! You're stupid! Your hair resembles a fright wig! — I'm horrified. At these moments I try to imagine what I'd say to a friend who expressed such harsh, self-judgmental thoughts — and tell it to myself.

Next: Listen and say nothing. >>

Two women speaking to each other on a country home porch.

— Kim Carson/Getty Images

2. Listen and say nothing. Even though I may think I know what's best for the people in my life and long to tell them exactly what to do, unless they're about to get hit by a truck or are otherwise in danger, I try to stop myself before I open my mouth. I've discovered that lending my ear but not my opinion is one of the simplest yet most welcome acts of kindness. Reminder to self: Empathic listening works especially well with adult children, who need to learn from their own mistakes — just as I did.

Next: Mindful dialogue. >>

Husband and wife speaking to each other in bedroom.

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3. Mindful dialogue. Although silence may at times be golden, sometimes it's necessary to speak up, especially when conflict is brewing. The trick is to pause before responding in the heat of the moment. Pausing allows us to reflect on the real emotion behind our anger or distress. Are we reacting out of fear, pain, insecurity — or do we genuinely disagree? Here, too, self-knowledge rules. When we're mindful of our emotional hot spots, we're less likely to fly off the handle. Then we can have our say — without casting blame or putting others down.

Next: A little forgiveness goes a long way. >>

A hand on a woman's shoulder.

— Isabelle Rozenbaum/es Photography/Corbis

4. A little forgiveness goes a long way. I have a friend who jokes that "Everybody is horrible in his or her own way." What he means is that we're all flawed, vulnerable and doing our imperfect best — in other words, we're deeply human. When we can forgive ourselves our foibles, we begin to extend the same understanding to others, and the mind's distinction between Us and Them — the source of so much suffering in our personal lives, as well as globally — starts to soften, and empathy and compassion take root.

Next: Practice generosity. >>

A person fixes a spider's web.

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5. Practice generosity. Volunteer for a cause you believe in. Commit random acts of kindness. Care for someone in need. When I began caring for my 90-something mother several years ago, we disagreed on everything. Over time, however, her gratitude and my desire to do the right thing eclipsed petty old resentments. Bestselling author and psychologist Mary Pipher once told me, "We grow to love what we care for." Sometimes, it's a matter of going through the motions and trusting that the heart will catch up.

Next: Try "loving kindess meditation." >>

A woman holding a giant seed while meditating.

— Blend Images/Getty Images

6. Try "loving kindness meditation." This practice from the Buddhist tradition helps to sow the seeds of compassion. Start by sitting quietly, then offer the following phrases to yourself: May I be happy. May I be healthy. May I be safe. May I live with ease. Repeat several times, then switch the I to You, and bring others to mind, one at a time. The list may include a mentor or friend who has helped you; a loved one going through hard times; a neighbor or anyone you don't have strong feelings about; a colleague or family member who drives you crazy; and finally, all people and creatures everywhere. This is a profound practice. Just saying the phrases is sufficient — you don't need to stir up emotion to accompany them.

Next: Be a role model for your children and grandchildren. >>

A father and son walk in the park.

— Beau Lark/Corbis

7. Be a role model for your children and grandchildren. The great scientist and humanitarian George Washington Carver expressed our shared humanity this way: "How far you go in life depends on your being tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving and tolerant of the weak and strong. Because someday in your life you will have been all of these."

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