January 31, 2018
Why compassionate actions feel good
I believe that it is rewarding, literally, to engage in compassionate actions because such acts generate a feeling of compassion joy. It is not merely that such actions support a favorable view of oneself; whether or not anyone else knows what the compassionate person has done, it still feels good. Therefore, I am proposing that the feeling of compassion is an emotional one — a type of enjoyment that is experienced, independent of benefits to self-image and, likely, different in physiology than other types of enjoyment.
The science behind “compassion joy”
Although there is no direct evidence for compassion joy, research on oxytocin in relation to trust and empathy is consistent with my belief that an emotional feeling of compassion exists. Additional research supporting (but not proof of) my theory are studies of neural networks guiding altruistic and charitable actions so that when a person acts compassionately, they experience positive feedback (pleasurable feelings).
Acting compassionately benefits us
In addition to this good feeling generated by compassionate actions, there are three other potential benefits. One, already mentioned, is that it supports a positive view of oneself, as well as a sense of well-being and purpose. The second benefit is that when other people learn about the compassionate action, accidentally or by design (for example, donating money to build a hospital for those in poverty but with terms which include naming the hospital after the donor), their regard for the compassionate person may be increased. The anticipation or knowledge of said increase may generate, still, a third type of enjoyment in the compassionate actor.
Motivation, compassion and the Dalai Lama
The three benefits I have outlined above — an intrinsically good feeling (compassion joy), an increase in self-regard, and the approval of others — are, from the Dalai Lama’s perspective, contaminants. His explanation was that true, unbiased compassion must be carried out in a manner that is detached of selfish motivation. It is important to note, however, that the Dalai Lama has repeatedly said that even his compassionate actions sometimes benefit him more than they benefit those whose suffering are the focus of his compassion.
Excerpt from Dr. Paul Ekman’s book, Moving Toward Global Compassion.