Do you want to know how to be compassionate?

Research shows that having compassion for others strengthens our social bonds. 

Compassion is the key that separates people with merely “good” social skills from the people who are AMAZING at them. 

People with this skill can:

  • Capture the attention of people. (They’re never alone at a party!)
  • Relieve the suffering of others. (Your friends will appreciate you!)
  • Get on your boss’s good side. (And maybe get that raise?)
  • Build trust and loyalty with your friend / boss / lover / coworker / mailman / ____.
What is compassion?

Compassion is caring for another person’s struggles or problems and wanting to take actiion to solve it. The key here is wanting to take action, because true compassion helps other people– it’s not just a feeling.

Compassion equals empathy plus desire for action

In other words:

  • Empathy + Desire for Action = Compassion.
  • Empathy is simply understanding someone’s pain.
  • Having that understanding and wanting to take action to help is compassion.

And here’s the thing. You can just listen to people’s problems and know they feel bad. That’s great!

But having compassion for others will make your life SO much richer and fuller. You’ll be able to find and build more fulfilling relationships, which is one of the best things we can do in our lifetime.

And no worries, compassion is NOT something we either have or don’t. Studies show that compassion CAN be learned!

So let’s dive into five tips you can use to increase your compassion, so that one day you may even reach Elf levels of compassion.

#1: Silence Your Inner Critic

Remember, you are your toughest critic. And it’s easy to see why. Our heads are constantly filled with negative thoughts:

  • I dressed up nice today… but I still don’t look like those guys on GQ magazine.
  • I bought an expensive car… but it’s not as nice as my neighbor’s.
  • I got a pay raise… but it’s just not enough.
  • I have funny friends… but they’re even funnier than me.

We constantly want more, and more, and more… but the real problem is we are too negative. 

Negativity is the enemy of compassion. 

The thing is, it’s easy to be negative. We talk nice to our close friends but constantly talk bad about ourselves until it builds up in a downward spiral of ugly. I call this the negative thought loop.

An example of a negative thought loop, which decreases compassion.

But how do you break out of the negative thought loop? 

You just have to be compassionate to yourself.

Wait, that’s it? 

I know it’s simple, but not being self-compassionate can have more negative consequences than you might think.

This is some real science: Self-compassion researcher Kristen Neff found that being self-critical can really hurt your ability to connect with people

  • Self-criticism at age 12 predicted less involvement in high school activities.
  • At age 31, people who criticized themselves a lot had more personal and social problems, including anxiety disorders.

Research shows that even thinking thoughts such as “this person is better than me” fuels feelings of depression and envy

That’s why if you’re a natural self-criticizer, you need to pull yourself out of that black hole of darkness…

And deliver a LETHAL DOSE of self-compassion STRAIGHT TO YOUR HEART!

Extreme? Sure! Necessary? Double sure.

Think of compassion like a bucket. You need to fill your own bucket first before you can have enough compassion for others.

A stick figure holds out an empty bucket labelled "Compassion" to another person.

The Science of Self-Compassion

Now on to the million-dollar question:

How do I *even* become more self-compassionate?

To answer the question, we have to ask ourselves: What is self-compassion? 

According to Kristen Neff, self-compassion is made up of three components: self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness. 

The 3 components of self-compassion: self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness.

Here’s more about the three components:

  1. Self-Kindness is being gentle to ourselves. Instead of worrying… complaining… judging… and being angry, we can change those thoughts into positive ones and become our own best friend. We can work on our self-kindness by:
    • Practicing positive self-talk.
    • Making sure the food we eat is healthy for our bodies.
    • Taking time off from work to play games.
    • Saying no to phony people-pleasing.
    • Giving out hugs (to people you love, or even to kind strangers)!
  1. Common Humanity is recognizing that we all suffer:
    • We struggle.
    • We fail to achieve our goals.
    • We have failed relationships.
    • We feel separated and alone at times. 

But sometimes we forget that suffering is the thing that we all share in common. It’s what brings us together as emotional humans. It’s what makes us feel! When we understand common humanity, we can understand we’re all fighting the same fight.

  1. Mindfulness is simply being in the present moment and nothing else. Even when you’re struggling, focusing on the here and now just gives you that energy to SNAP OUT OF your negative thought loop. Here are some ways to be more mindful:
    • Stop what you’re doing now and just take a big, deep breath. 
    • Use a mindfulness app. I like to use Headspace.
    • Travel more to force yourself to pay attention to your surroundings.
    • Go on a digital detox.
    • Keep a mindful journal. 

Here’s the great thing about self-compassion: If you throw only one component in a blender, great! You’ve got some nice compassion juice. But when you combine all three, that’s when you’ve made one excellent compassionate smoothie. Practice all three and you’ll be a self-compassion Jedi in no time.

So go forth and spread your compassion, you amazing person, you.

I recommend watching Kristen Neff’s Ted Talk. She does a really amazing job at describing the #empowerment of self-compassion with science.

But wait, there’s more! A big part of being self-compassionate is building up your own inner confidence. Here are some actions you can take to increase your confidence:

  • Confidence Builder #1: Find your anthem

Go through the music charts and pick a song that makes you feel alive or that makes you feel like the best version of yourself. The best confidence songs make you feel like dancing. Play this song whenever you want to feel confident.

Here is a great list of confidence anthems from Billboard.

  • Confidence Builder #2: Get up and dance
A picture of Vanessa's signature awkward dance move

Did you just pick your anthem? Great, take a dance break. Don’t worry, no one can see you. Here’s an awkward picture of me dancing, to make you feel better:

  • Confidence Builder #3: Text 3 Awesome People

Text 3 people and tell them they are awesome. Do it RIGHT NOW! Sometimes the best way to feel confident is to help others feel confident. Look at your most recent texts or scroll back to texts from 1 month ago… who needs to be checked in with? Tell someone you miss them!

Want all 20 tips? Check out the rest of these Confidence Builders, which comes straight from our article: Self-Worth: 20 Ideas to Build Your Self-Esteem.

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#2: Give a Gift to Someone… Anyone, Really!

When was the last time you gave a gift to someone? Giving gifts not only makes a lasting impression; it makes for a more empathetic you.

Question time! Let me ask you this. If I gave you $5 every day for five days in a row, would you rather:

  1. Spend it on the exact same thing for yourself, or
  2. Spend it on the exact same thing for someone else

In 2018, researchers at the University of Chicago did an experiment that used this same setup. Participants spent the $5 on either themselves or on someone else, such as by donating it to the same charity every day. They found that:

  • People who spent money on themselves felt happy at first, but the feeling declined after a while.
  • People who spent money on other people felt joy and satisfaction every single time they gave.

And here’s the deal: you can give a gift to almost anyone.

  • Your friend
  • Your friend’s friend
  • Your landlord
  • Your cat
  • Your dog
  • Your lover
  • Your parent
  • Your travel buddy

The list is endless! The great thing is when you give gifts, you’re also rewarding yourself. You’ll be better at selflessly giving and not expecting anything in return. That’s the real meaning of the “gift” of giving.

Giving gifts is like sprinkling sugar on yourself. The more you give, the sweeter you become.

Here’s a compassion challenge: Go out and give someone a gift. Don’t wait, do it today!

Having trouble thinking of a gift? Start small. Studies show that people seem to get the most enjoyment from receiving small gifts like books and money. Here are some small gift ideas:

  • Coffee
  • Small bracelet
  • Postcard
  • Scented candle
  • Small photo album of you two
  • Dinner cooked by you
  • Gift you received but don’t like

Want to take it up a notch? Check out our article: Unique and Hilarious Gifts For Everyone On Your List [2020] or take on a Kindness Challenge!

And remember, the gift of giving has the power to set people free. 

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#3: Practice Metta Meditation

What is Metta (also known as loving-kindness)?

Metta: n A word from the Pali language that means universal love. Friendliness, goodwill, happiness, and nonviolence are all feelings that make up Metta. Meditate on this feeling and you’ll experience a whole new world of compassion.

Read this story and let me know if you can relate:

I stand on stage in front of a packed room. My heart is pounding in my ears.

Thump. Thump.

In twenty seconds, I have to walk up to the microphone and give an introduction to the audience. A horrible feeling is rising in my chest.

Terror. I feel terror.

I am an introvert. “I don’t do crowded venues,” I told myself after I was asked to give this introduction. I would rather take a plunge into the Arctic Sea than speak to a room full of people. 

People are afraid of public speaking. But do you ever notice how many world-class speakers seem so confident? They have that Zen-like calmness to them.

Researchers from Brown University conducted a study:

  • They compared two groups who were asked to give an impromptu speech: one group received mindfulness meditation training, and the other group did not.
  • They measured their levels of stress and found that the people who received meditation training had much lower levels of anxiety than those that didn’t.

Less anxiety is just one benefit of meditation. When you add in that Metta element to your meditation, you can increase your compassion as well!

Here’s a thought that perplexed me as a child: 

Eggs come from chickens.

Honey comes from bees.

Paper comes from trees.

So where does love come from?

It’s not until I got older that I realized love doesn’t just come from your mom, your friends, or your lover. You can create your own love by yourself! 

And what better way to do that than Metta meditation?

Metta meditation allows us to develop compassion for both ourselves and for others.

Yes, simply closing your eyes and focusing on loving vibes can make you more compassionate! That’s why Metta meditation is one of the easiest things you can do to boost your compassion right now.

Here are some more amazing benefits of meditation:

So how exactly do you reap these benefits? 

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How to Practice Metta Meditation:

Start with yourself. In a seated or lying-down position, close your eyes and repeat these chants silently or out loud:

May I be happy.

May I be healthy.

May I be safe.

May I live with ease.

The first step of Metta Meditation is to be with yourself, close your eyes, and repeat a mantra.

Next up, you can extend your compassion for others. Think of someone who is close to you like a romantic partner, close friend, or family member. Direct the chants to the other person. Try to send your loving vibes to them!

The second step in Metta Meditation is directing those chants to another person.

Great, now let’s move onto the third object of focus. Bring that same intensity of compassion you have for your loved one and extend it outwards. Using the same chants, extend your compassionate vibes out to the world and even the whole universe.

The third step in Metta Meditation is extending those chants to the universe.

Want to take your meditation a step further? If you’re up for a challenge, think of someone you don’t have a lot of compassion for. You can envision someone like:

  • An over-controlling boss
  • The angry lady at the post office
  • A toxic friend

You might really need to exercise those compassion muscles for this one, but send over that same level of compassion to them. You can do it!

The fourth and final step in Metta Meditation is transferring that positive energy to someone you dislike.

Did you do it? AWESOME! You are a champ. If not, there’s always next time, so no stress!

From here, you can get into your own meditation rhythm. There are many variations of Metta meditation. Experiment! Try different meditations! Find the best meditation for you.

Want more in-depth information on the different types of meditation and how to pick the best type? Read our article: 14 Amazing Benefits of Meditation That Can Actually Rewire Your Brain

Warning: Significant change takes time. You can feel the benefits right away, but lasting change requires discipline and time. In fact, my meditation journey looked something like this…

My own meditation journey filled with ups and downs, all laid out on a graph.

And your path might look something similar. Meditation practice is all about embracing the journey. So don’t be discouraged. Keep going and you’ll develop the compassion to last you a lifetime.

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#4: Get Nice and Cozy With a Good Fiction Book

Want to be smarter and become more compassionate at the same time? Read a good fiction book!

Wait, really?

Yes, reading books can make you more compassionate. Something as simple as cozying up with a hot coffee and popping open a magnificent book can lead to positive permanent effects on your brain. 

Psst… Check out our Book Club to find out the awesome books we like to read!

Researchers at Emory University did an experiment to see if there were permanent effects of reading on the brain. Here’s what they did:

  • They assigned people to read the novel Pompei and scanned their brains to see if there were any changes in brain activity.
  • The results? They found that reading fiction leads to longer-term changes in connectivity in our brain.

What kind of changes did they see? They saw heightened activity in areas of the brain that helps process language and movement. That’s because when we read fiction, we empathize with how characters feel and move.

So we definitely know that reading fiction is good for our brains. But how about reading nonfiction?

Dutch researchers sought out the answer in 2013 with their own study. They tested students by giving them both a nonfiction article and a novel. They also measured the students’ levels of empathy before and after reading.

Here’s where it gets really interesting…

  • They discovered that students who read the novel showed an increase in their levels of empathy both immediately after reading it and even a week later!
  • However, when reading non-fiction, students did not show an increase in empathy. 

You may be wondering: Why does reading fiction increase empathy, but reading non-fiction doesn’t? 

That’s because fiction books have the power to emotionally transport you. 

We come to like the characters we read in fiction. Sometimes we hate them. But the bottom line is we become so connected to these characters that we can feel their problems. Their hopes and dreams feel real to us.

…And the more emotionally invested in the characters we are, the higher dose of empathy we get. 

So whoever said crying when reading a novel is for babies? We’re developing empathy here!

The bottom line: Pick a fictional book that you can emotionally invest in to increase your empathy.

What books interest you? Do you get emotionally invested in books about troubled heroes rising to greatness? What about books about pets? Romance? Fantasy?

If you find the right book that compels you:

I know what you’re thinking… Yes, you can even Harry Potter

Studies show that reading Harry Potter increased readers’ empathy responses towards people in “outgroups” such as the LGBT community and immigrants. 

So whip out your wand and get to reading, because even super-high achievers are busy donning their reading glasses: 

  • Elon Musk used to read science-fiction books for up to 10 hours a day!
  • Oprah Winfrey hosts her own Book Club to read and discuss her favorite books. 
  • Barack Obama said that reading novels increased his empathy and taught him how to be a good citizen. 

We here at Science of People also love to read! Want recommendations on some awesome books to increase your empathy? Here are some great fictional books to get your compassion juices flowing:

Want more books? Check out a list of 100 fiction books.

P.S. Research shows you can increase empathy by watching compelling movies, too. So if reading’s not your thing, consider watching a good emotional movie or two!

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#5: Surround Yourself With Good Friends

Nothing grows your compassion more than being with people you care about the most. When you spend time with awesome people, you’ll spread your joy to others in a domino effect!

And as someone who’s been through many, many years of awkward searching, I’m incredibly grateful to have found an amazing group of friends. I’ve been able to do that because I’ve learned how to recognize the early signs of what makes a bad friend.

Want to learn how? You can watch this video on how to identify fake friends and what you can do to get them out of your life:

I wrote this article as a guide for myself as well as to help anyone who wants to boost their own compassion for others in their lives. And I hope you gain some compassion out of it, too.

Remember, social skills are not enough.

All the money, looks, and charm in the world won’t make you happy.

You need to know how to be compassionate and take action.

Really connect with people through your own compassion.

And when you cultivate compassion…

The world will become a better place because of YOU!

About Vanessa Van Edwards

Vanessa Van Edwards is a national best selling author & founder at Science of People. Her groundbreaking book, Captivate: The Science of Succeeding with People has been translated into more than 16 languages. As a recovering awkward person, Vanessa helps millions find their inner charisma. She regularly leads innovative corporate workshops and helps thousands of individual professionals in her online program People School. Vanessa works with entrepreneurs, growing businesses, and trillion dollar companies; and has been featured on CNN, BBC, CBS, Fast Company, Inc., Entrepreneur Magazine, USA Today, the Today Show and many more.

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