One of the Dalai Lama’s best-known quotes from The Art of Happiness is, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion. ?
Compassion is responding to the needs of others and protecting those who are suffering or in need. There are many cultural variations in the definition of the word, but for our purposes, compassion is the expression of love, kindness, and caring to those who need help.
Feeling compassion puts you in the mindset of the giver or caretaker.
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It can spur you to spread humor among the sad, offer friendship to the lonely, and provide food for the hungry. It can also help you alleviate your pain. You may be thinking, “How on earth can my being compassionate help me with my pain? Shouldn’t I be the one receiving compassion from my doctors, family, and friends? ?
Well, yes and no!
Certainly, you deserve empathy, kindness, respect, and the prayers of those around you. But, believe it or not, the good thoughts, words, and deeds that emanate from you will, in turn, come right back. That’s because compassion helps you gain a better perspective of your own situation. Remember that no matter what your own challenges may be, there is always someone out there who is worse off than you and could benefit from your kindness.
As we discussed earlier, one of the negatives of living with chronic pain is feeling that you are less loved. A great to way to invite more love into your life is to feel and express compassion toward others. I often see patients who are working hard to overcome their own chronic pain challenges reach out to others who are having a rough time. People who do this are special in my eyes, and they seem to attract the affection, support, and respect of others.
Some fascinating research suggests human beings have a built-in “compassionate instinct” that drives us to care about and help others. We have learned that the act of being compassionate causes the release of brain chemicals that make us feel happy and content. Using advanced brain-imaging techniques, researchers have shown that the brain’s pleasure centers become more active when people receive money, a good dessert, or some other pleasurable thing. And these same brain centers become equally active when people witness money being given to charity! Other studies have shown that children as young as 2 years old derive as much pleasure from giving treats to others as they do from receiving treats—and they are too young to be driven by the social conventions of politeness and fairness!
Just as importantly, the brain chemicals released through compassion can counteract the effects of other brain chemicals that promote stress. Thus, compassion can serve as an antidote to stress, anger, catastrophic thinking, and other negative thoughts. In addition, many studies have shown that compassion can:
• Increase your resistance to stress.
• Improve your marital relations, friendships, and workplace relationships.
• Reduce your risk of heart disease.
• Lessen your desire to get even with or harm those who have harmed you.
• Lengthen your life.
One of the key ways compassion works is by increasing your connections to other people, deepening existing connections and helping to forge new ones, as when you reach out to help strangers. Such “social connections” have been shown to reduce inflammation, anxiety, and depression, which, in all three cases, can add years to your life and life to your years.
Compassion also helps you take your mind off yourself—very important for chronic pain patients who often spend a great deal of time focusing on their pain, difficulty getting around, problems at work and at home, and so on. Simply thinking about others can help break the chain of negative thinking.
Finally, being compassionate enhances your ability to give and receive love—one of the five things that pain patients want most, and a goal of any successful pain management plan. When you fill your heart with compassion and gratitude, you can’t help but love others and feel their love in return.
A great tool to add to your program is the “Counting Kindness” exercise. Record every act of kindness you perform each day in your Gratitude Journal. Research suggests that this will increase your self-awareness and your general level of happiness in as little as one week.
Bringing It Together.
Start writing in your daily Gratitude Journal today. The journal should have three columns on each page: one to list what you are grateful for, a second to record your accomplishments and valuable life experiences, and a third to acknowledge your acts of kindness. Write something in each column every single day. This regular exercise can help you transform the way you see yourself, and reroute your path toward relief.
Overriding negative thought processes like catastrophizing, fear, and anger, and replacing them with gratitude, resilience, compassion, and kindness, will rewire your “pain brain” in a positive manner. This fascinating process will become clear as you make a written record of your thoughts of gratitude, acts of kindness, and the unhealthy fears you wish to overcome. As your negative thoughts are replaced by positive ones, you will find it easier to manage your pain, and that, over time, pain will become less and less a part of your life.