What Does Compassion Mean?


What does compassion mean?


While there is no single all-encompassing definition of compassion, it is generally understood to be a response to the suffering of another person.

The kind of suffering we're responding to could be a variety of things ranging from physical, emotional or mental pain brought on by anything from disease to injury to a general dissatisfaction with life. The cause of the discomfort may come form external or interpersonal events, real or imagined. In any case, it is our care or concern for the person suffering that is considered compassion.


What are the different types of compassion?

Compassionate Responses

As mentioned, there are many interpretations of compassion, focusing on different aspects of our response to suffering. One way to categorize different types of compassion is by the varying focus of our response, including our feelings, actions, concerns, and intentions:

  • empathic compassion: focusing on feeling the emotions experienced by the person who is suffering.

  • action compassion: focusing on actions that attempt to relieve physical and emotional pain.

  • concerned compassion: concern for the person who is suffering, emphasizing the compassionate person’s motivation (a desire, urge, or feeling) to alleviate suffering.

  • aspirational compassion: Buddhists describe something somewhat different, a compassion that is more cognitive than emotional, an aspiration or intention.


Immediacy of Compassion

Compassion can also be distinguished by the immediacy of response: responding to the current or future anticipated suffering of someone.

  • Proximal compassion: compassion to alleviate suffering felt right now. Proximal compassion is often closely tied with our current emotional state.

    • Example: listening empathically to a friend in distress.

  • Distal compassion: compassion to avoid suffering in the future. Distal compassion often involves more cognition as it involves 2 components:

    1. Recognizing the problem that lies ahead
    2. Being willing to engage in actions necessary to avoid future suffering, even if it requires some sacrifices now
    • Example: telling your child to wear their helmet when riding their bicycle to avoid injury.


Target of Compassion

We can feel compassion towards our family members, friends, strangers, and even animals. Dr. Ekman distinguishes four main targets of our compassion:


Is compassion an emotion?

While it's not considered one of the seven universal emotions, the concerns and actions of compassion can certainly elicit a range of emotions and feelings.

Why compassionate actions feel good

Being compassionate often elicits happiness, as it usually feels good to be helpful and be thanked. Watching others engaged in a compassionate act can also make us feel good. To describe the pleasurable feeling of helping others Dr. Ekman has coined the term compassion joy.
  • familial compassion: compassion we have for a family member who is suffering. Familial compassion is not a one-time event; it is an enduring feature, even when not evident, and it is ready to be called up when there is suffering, or a threat of suffering, or the anticipation of future suffering of offspring. Like the emotions, it is universal to the species, permanently in place and like the emotions, it can be observed in other species. Though, there are exceptions-parents who do not experience familial compassion- and various explanation for why and when this occurs.

  • familiar compassion: compassion for people we have some form of relationship with. Presumably the closer the relationship, the more acknowledge interdependence, the greater likelihood that familiars compassion will be felt (although more research must be conducted to verify this hypothesis).

  • stranger compassion: compassion for people we do not know. Unlike familial or familiars compassion, stranger compassion is not universal to our species or to any other species (although Dr. Ekman explores the possibility that stranger compassion may be universal early in life but not sustained without certain later experience.) Stranger compassion varies in the scope of those towards whom it is felt (for some it may encompass only those who share certain characteristics or identities). Stranger compassion also varies in the centrality or degree to which that concern is the organizing principle behind a person's life choices (i.e. ranging from an occasional act of compassion, to the motivation that guide's a person's life work).

  • sentient being compassion: compassion towards all living beings (not just humans). This type of compassion is sometimes aligned with certain religions and philosophies.
Dr. Ekman believes that it is not merely that compassionate actions support a favorable view of oneself, as whether or not anyone else knows what the compassionate person has done, it still feels good. Therefore, Dr. Ekman proposes 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.
Dr. Ekman also discusses with the Dalai Lama how we are inspired by the compassionate action of others by feeling gratitude and rejoicing.

What are the benefits of compassion?

The conversations between Dr. Ekman and the Dalai Lama have highlighted some philosophical questions regarding the nature of compassion and our motivations and intentions behind acting compassionately. The Dalai Lama believes that unbiased compassion must be carried out in a manner that is detached from selfish motivation, however he has also acknowledged how compassionate actions can benefit ourselves as well.

Whether or not an action may be considered truly compassionate if it is also in some way self-serving, Dr. Ekman takes the stand that it is helpful to hold a perspective of enlightened self-interest, in which we consider the ways that helping others can also help ourselves. In that light, Dr. Ekman outlines three benefits of compassion:

  1. It generates an intrinsically good feeling (compassion joy).
  2. It can increase our self-regard; it supports a positive view of oneself, as well as a sense of well-being and purpose.
  3. It can elicit the approval of others: when other people learn about the compassionate action, accidentally or by design, their regard for the compassionate person may be increased. In turn this acknowledgment and approval may elicit further enjoyment in the compassionate actor.



What is Global Compassion?


It is Dr. Ekman's conviction that human society must move toward what he has called global compassion: a concern to alleviate the suffering of anyone, regardless of their nationality, language, culture, or religion. Global compassion is when compassion is felt toward all human beings, and it is a central concern in someone's life.

In this series of webisodes, Dr. Ekman and the Dalai Lama define global challenges that affect us and discuss how we can begin to answer those challenges. They identify what unites every human being and how to introduce change and move closer towards global compassion.

How to learn compassion

The question of how to develop compassion has inspired a series of exploratory conversations, books, and webisodes between Dr. Ekman and the Dalai Lama. Some highlights from these conversations include the importance of cultivating connectedness and practicing gratitude.
Developed by Dr.'s Paul and Eve Ekman in collaboration with other emotions scholars and Buddhist monks, Cultivating Emotional Balance is a holistic training focused on finding balance, happiness and compassion in our lives. To get started, Dr. Eve Ekman offers a free guided meditation on compassion here.

Additional Resources


Learn to recognize and respond to the emotional expressions of others with our online micro expressions training tools to increase your ability to detect deception and catch subtle emotional cues.


Expand your knowledge of emotional skills and competencies with in-person workshops offered through Paul Ekman International.


Delve into personal exploration and transformation with Cultivating Emotional Balance.


Build your emotional vocabulary with the Atlas of Emotions, a free, interactive learning tool created by Drs. Paul and Eve Ekman at the request of the Dalai Lama.


Read Dr. Ekman’s guide to emotions in his best-seller, Emotions Revealed


Additional Resources

Dr. Ekman and the Dalai Lama discuss how we can cultivate compassion within ourselves and extend it to others on a global scale.
Expand your knowledge of emotional skills and competencies with in-person workshops offered through Paul Ekman International.
Learn more about the unique friendship and professional partnership between Dr. Ekman and the Dalai Lama.