It has nothing to do with looks but it’s universally appealing.
by Rosemary K.M. Sword and Philip Zimbardo Ph.D.
- Studies indicate that compassion is one of the top traits people find attractive in others.
- Practicing compassion-focused meditation on a regular basis can slow aging and increase happiness.
- Research suggests that seeing someone helping another person creates a state of elevation in the onlooker.
Throughout our decades of research, we’ve found that compassion is the overarching trait that brings out the best in oneself, as well as others. Our work includes time perspective, post-trauma, shyness, evil, heroism, meditation, and the indigenous Hawaiian practice of ho’oponopono. Moreover, in recent years studies indicate that compassion is proving to keep people younger, more attractive, healthier, and happier. For us, that is one big wow.
Compassion may be defined as sympathy or concern for the suffering of others, but it’s much more than that. It involves feelings of empathy with someone else and an authentic desire to turn those feelings into pro-social action, when possible (Goetz, Keltner, et al, 2010). We also know that compassion can be taught through meditation training, and, for example, can increase prosocial affect and behavior (Condon, Desbordes, et al, 2012; Lieber, Klimecki, et al, 2011).
To experience true compassion, we must, on some level, feel a deep, emotional connection – empathy – with one or more other people. The recipients of our empathy may be total strangers, or perhaps animals, anywhere in the world. Curiously, for whatever reason, we relate to and connect with them and their situation.
Gain big benefits by being compassionate
While there are numerous benefits to having a compassionate nature – such as routinely taking kind actions that help others – there are also advantages for the compassionate person:
- Compassion can slow the aging process. Throughout our lives, telomeres – the genetic markers for aging – generally shorten. Scientists can determine by the length of telomeres, and how quickly their length diminishes, how old a person is, as well as how fast they’re aging1. In 2019, a team of researchers, including psychologists at the University of North Carolina, led by Khoa Le Nyugen, discovered something amazing after conducting a 12-week randomized controlled trial. They compared the length of telomeres in people who practiced loving-kindness meditations with those who didn’t. As expected, the length of telomeres in non-meditators shortened. But astonishingly, the length of telomeres in the loving-kindness meditators did not shorten at all2.
- Compassion makes you more attractive to others. Research also indicates that when a person exemplifies characteristics associated with compassion such as empathy, kindness, and selflessness, they are more desirable partners3. And according to a study conducted by University of Iowa social psychology professor Eva Klohnen we are genetically attracted to compassionate people4. This makes perfect sense as we all want to be around people who understand us and also love us.
- Compassion-focused meditations deliver multiple benefits. These meditations can heighten optimism and positive feelings5, increase stress immunity6, enhance feelings of closeness, connectedness, and social bonding7, and decrease posttraumatic stress symptoms8.
To paraphrase the Dalai Lama, compassion is innate and, like a muscle, it can be strengthened with exercise. According to master meditation instructor Vishen Lahkiani, “From a spiritual approach, you can train our brain to be kinder and more compassionate through meditation .… Think of it as the act of moving from judgment to caring, from isolation to connection from indifference or dislike to understanding.”
In case you are new to meditation, we share Lahkiani’s 6 steps to compassionate meditation below to help you get started. As he shares, “It will take a bit of practice, and it might feel weird or silly at first. But once you get the hang of it, it will become second nature.”
- Bring a loved one to mind. Take a deep breath, and on your exhale, see a loved one in front of you in the most vivid detail possible. If you’re not a visual person, just sense their presence. Internalize the feeling of compassion by tuning into the love they inspire within you. Bring awareness to your heart space, and give those feelings of love a color. It could be pink, light blue, green — whatever comes to mind. Allow your heart to marinate in that color.
- Allow the compassion you feel to encompass your body. Let yourself go from feeling compassion for your loved one in your heart to feeling the sensations all over your body. Feel it forming a comforting bubble around you. Try your best to find compassion for yourself. As a good friend of mine once put it: “Fill your cup first, only then can you serve from your overflow.”
- Expand compassion into the room you’re in. Take another deep breath, and as you exhale, see that bubble of compassion expanding. Imagine it growing and covering everything in the room, including people, plants, pets — no boundaries needed.
- Send your compassion to the streets. Now that you’ve got the hang of expanding compassion through a small space, you’re ready to go further afield into your neighborhood. Imagine your bubble of compassion spreading throughout your entire home first, touching anyone who lives there. Next, imagine it expanding to engulf your entire neighborhood.
- Allow compassion to encompass your city and country. Start with your city, then expand to your entire country. For this part, imagine a map of your town or city in your mind’s eye that zooms out into a map of your country. See the space beneath you as if you’re flying over it in a helicopter or viewing a drone shot of it.
- Allow your compassion to envelop the Earth. This is where things get interesting. Take a deep breath. From your country, you’re going to keep sending this compassion out into your continent on the exhale. Then make your way through every continent for each new exhale. This is the final stage of the practice that connects us not just to those closest to us, but to all of life on Earth.
If you get lost at any point, return to step one. See your loved one in front of you again, charge yourself up with love, and spread it outward again.
By practicing compassionate meditation for a few minutes each day, we can live a happier, healthier life as well as transform not only the way we think about ourselves and those we’re close to, but also the world. How? By the positive micro- and macro- actions we’ll make happen due to our expanded capacity for compassion. Research suggests that seeing someone helping another person creates a state of elevation in the onlooker (Algoe and Haidt, 2009). This data in turn proposes that elevation then inspires onlookers to help others—and it may just be the force behind a domino effect of greater empathy and giving.
Finally, we advance the proposition that compassion is contagious: Acts of generosity and kindness beget more generosity in a chain reaction of goodness going forward (Fowler and Christakis, 2010). Let us become the bright spark that illuminates the world.