Hardwired to help

Cultivating compassion is central to the human experience, and something the world needs right now. 

Story by Julie Saetre

When the pandemic changed the world in March 2020, members of the Kiwanis family jumped into action, finding ways to serve first responders, those isolated by or vulnerable to COVID-19 and those suddenly in need of life’s basics: food, shelter, supplies.  They did, basically, what our Kiwanis family members always do: show compassion.

Dr. James R. Doty

“The definition of compassion is the recognition of another’s suffering with the motivational desire to alleviate that suffering,” explains Dr. James R. Doty, a clinical professor of neurology and the founder and director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE) at Stanford University in California. 

Outside of the Kiwanis universe, however, human behavior in 2020 was a lot less reassuring. Yes, we saw much bravery and selflessness on the pandemic’s front lines and behind the scenes — but we also saw egregious examples of hoarding food and supplies, violating health regulations and finger-pointing. Add those behaviors to the toxic environment swirling around national and global politics, and compassion sometimes seemed hard to come by.

“People were afraid and anxious,” Doty says. “They felt threatened, and as a result, instead of being more open, inclusive, thoughtful and kind, they actually resorted to not being their best selves.”

A quick perusal of just about any social media site is enough to make anyone feel a bit hopeless that our divides are too large to bridge. Fortunately for all of us, compassion is hardwired into humans. Those who study it say we can cultivate it to create a kinder, gentler world.

Thupten Jinpa

“Compassion as an important human value has been recognized thousands of years ago,” says Thupten Jinpa, president of the Compassion Institute in Half Moon Bay, California, and the principal English translator to the Dalai Lama since 1985. “That’s why it is the foundation of all teachings in all religions.”

It’s also at the core of human survival. Unlike other species that raise offspring over a period of weeks or months, humans must nurture their children for close to two decades, ideally forming close bonds and developing important social skills. Parenting involves endless amounts of patience, endurance and sacrifice  — for years. And yet, it’s often described as a most rewarding experience. 

“When we care for another, one releases in their brain a neurotransmitter, or hormone, called oxytocin,” Doty explains. “Many people term that the ‘love’ or ‘caring’ hormone. When that is released, it engages the reward and pleasure centers in your brain. It was very important to our survival.”

Compassion kept the human species alive in the days of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, he adds.

“If a member of the tribe was hurting, in pain, suffering, if we did not respond to them, it put the entire group at risk. So it’s another significant motivator for us to care for others.”

That same instinct, however, also contributes to the conflicting behaviors that seem to have been exacerbated since March 2020. 

“Bonding within the tribal community is very important. And the tribal identities are defined by differentiation from other tribes,” says Jinpa. “So what we are seeing in this pandemic situation is whether that more compassionate nature comes out or whether that more tribal nature comes out.”

The good news is that we have the ability to determine which instinct will win out. And when we choose compassion, the result does more than improve the lives of others. It also makes us healthier, happier humans.

“Science demonstrates that when one is compassionate to another, this actually, in a positive way, affects your physiology,” says Doty. “Your cardiac function is improved. Your blood pressure’s improved. Your immune system is boosted. The level of stress hormones is diminished. The production of inflammatory proteins is diminished. And of course, these are associated with chronic disease states. So when you’re compassionate, it both has a positive effect on your peripheral physiology and also a positive effect on your brain.”

Look at it as the tale of two nervous systems. The sympathetic nervous system is associated with our “flight, fight or freeze” response to a threatening situation. The parasympathetic nervous system, meanwhile, helps us to “rest and digest.”

“Science demonstrates that when one is compassionate to another, this actually, in a positive way, affects your physiology.”

As parents have discovered, caring for others and alleviating their suffering — being compassionate — releases oxytocin, which in turn activates the parasympathetic nervous system. And that helps us make the world a better place.

“It’s the system in which we have access to those parts of our brain called the executive control areas,” Doty says, “and that allows us to be much more thoughtful, have access to prior experience and memories and be more creative. Plus we’re also much more open, thoughtful, honest and inclusive when we’re in that mode.”

But how do we jump-start compassion? In the face of direct suffering, it’s automatic. We see someone fall, two cars collide, a deck collapse, and we immediately react by running to the person, calling emergency services or rushing to pull away the rubble. But being proactively compassionate takes a bit more work and a broader outlook.

“We can choose compassion as our perspective to relate to others and situations,” Jinpa says. “Pay more attention and awareness to how compassion arises and focus more on making conscious decisions to bring compassion as an attitude in a situation. Because whenever we confront a challenge, even though it is a split second, we do have a choice. And at that moment, what mechanism we choose, whether we choose the mechanism of defensiveness and fear and denial, or whether we choose a mechanism that opens up and seeks connection and nurturing and soothing, makes all the difference.”

A great place to start: Take lessons from children. In 2012, a study led by Lara Aknin at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, found that toddlers as young as 2 were happier giving treats to others than receiving treats themselves. And it even applied when they engaged in what Aknin termed “costly giving” — forfeiting their own treats to another.

“With children, their natural compassion is much more fresh and palpable,” Jinpa says, “because that’s when the social nature is very, very evident. As we grow up and become more educated, we tend to emphasize our independence and the rational aspect of who we are.”

Tura Foster Gillespie

Tura Foster Gillespie of Arlington, Virginia, works to foster that compassionate nature through her project Teaching Cultural Compassion.

“Before we can truly learn about and honor cultures outside our own, we must first learn to see all humans with dignity and respect,” she writes on her website (teachingculturalcompassion.com).

She does so through children’s picture books. During her time as a student at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C., from 2013-2016, she worked at a bookstore to help put herself through school. One day, while covering the children’s section for a colleague on break, Gillespie met a customer who would set Teaching Cultural Compassion in motion.

“I was approached by an African-American mom who just looked distraught and looked at me and said, ‘Don’t you have any books that look like my kid?’”

Gillespie helped her customer search through all the children’s titles, but they were only able to find two books — both written in the 1960s.

“There is absolutely zero reason, 50 years later, I couldn’t come up with something better,” Gillespie says. “That’s not OK.”

She made it her mission to locate quality children’s picture books that represent the experiences of a diverse group of kids and organize those titles in a searchable online database. Today, that book search features more than 1,000 titles, with more added daily, and Gillespie spreads the word on why these inclusive stories are so important. 

“You have to be able to sit down and have a civil conversation and then listen and ask about why somebody feels this way, let the person express themselves.”

“Kids need to see themselves in books,” she says. “And kids need to see kids who are not like themselves as the heroes of books as well, so that we can all see the unique dignity in humanity, in ourselves and in each other. We need our kids to know that they can save the day, but we also need them to know that somebody who doesn’t look like them can save the day too. Knowing that someone who doesn’t look like them can also be the hero helps them make that assumption about people in their world that don’t look like them. Anybody can save the day.”

Adults, she finds, are every bit as interested in reading these stories. Diverse picture books can even open doors to discussing issues of inclusion, equity and compassion that otherwise might be difficult to approach.

“Picture books are the lowest common denominator as far as empathy,” she explains. “Seeing someone who is ‘the other’ in a children’s picture book is much easier to find empathy, because it is also the least threatening of any encounter you can have with the other. And seeing something from a kid’s point of view is also always going to be easier to find empathy, because that assumption of innocence is there. So it’s easier to find the empathy, even for adults, reading picture books. There’s a lot of growth that can happen there.”

And with that growth comes the opportunity for adults to practice compassion in their own lives, even in a world where conflict seems to thrive.

“You have to be able to sit down and have a civil conversation and then listen and ask about why somebody feels this way, let the person express themselves,” says CCARE’s Doty. “Then you’re able to understand the lens through which they see the world and be sympathetic to that. I think that’s really the thing that’s going to change the world.”

“Sharing the story of compassion is a powerful one,” Jinpa says, ”because this is something that is a natural part of who we are. We may choose to elevate or choose not to elevate it. That’s up to the individual. But it is there.”


This story originally appeared in the June/July 2021 issue of Kiwanis magazine.

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