The Dalai Lama: “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”

Dalai Lama

While it’s quite clear that others may benefit from our compassionate activity, the second part of His Holiness’s observation flies in the face of an assumption that is, for most of us, extremely deep-rooted: that is, the assumption that my individual welfare is best served if I primarily focus on my interests.

But recent scientific research on happiness and brain function suggests that we do help ourselves — by becoming happier — when we help others.

Time magazine recently named Professor Davidson of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, as one of the world’s 100 most influential thinkers. For years Davidson has been researching happiness, sometimes studying Buddhist monks in his lab, the Brain Imaging Laboratory, to examine how feelings of well-being correlate with activity in the brain.

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In experiments run by Davidson and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers studied the brain functions of experienced meditators. Each of the practitioners – six were Buddhist monks and two were lay people – had completed over 10,000 (and up to 50,000) hours of meditation, which is about the same amount of time it takes to become expert in a musical instrument.

These experienced meditators were compared with a group of 10 students who had undertaken a week of meditative training involving 45 minutes of practice a day.

Davidson’s principal tool for examining the meditators was functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans, which reveal in real time which parts of the brain are most active. In earlier experiments Davidson had shown that fMRI can image where different emotional states take place in the brain. When people experience negative states such as anxiety or depression, brain areas that are most active are the amygdala and the right prefrontal cortex. When people experience positive emotions — happiness, love, confidence, etc — activity in the left prefrontal cortex is heightened. So remember: left is positive, right is negative.

In the more recent study, brain activity was studied both when the meditators’ brains were in a neutral state and while they cultivated unconditional loving-kindness (metta) and compassion. For the beginners there were only minor changes in brain activity between the neutral state and the meditation on lovingkindness, but for the experienced meditators there were massive changes — the degree of change being correlated with the number of hours of meditation each individual had done.

When the experienced meditators generated strong feelings of compassion there was a strong increase in activity in the left (or positive) side of the prefrontal cortex and a decrease in activity on the right (or negative) side. Developing compassion, then, results in the same kinds of brain activity that are shown when someone is in an particularly strong state of wellbeing and happiness. Meditators of course have long known experientially that feelings of love and compassion are accompanied by feelings of happiness, wellbeing, and even of bliss, but in scientific circles these subjective observations have to be backed up by measurements before they can be trusted as reliable data.

But why does compassion make us happy?

Three reasons spring to mind: diversion, perspective, and connectedness.

  1. First is “diversion.” As His Holiness wrote in Ethics for the New Millennium, “When we worry less about ourselves, the experience of our own suffering is less intense.” Taking our focus away from what’s wrong in our lives helps us to be less self-obsessed. Compassion therefore diverts our attention away from problems which, when focused upon, loom large in our minds. Compassion in effect displaces negative emotions from the mind because we can only focus on one primary emotional state at a time.
  2. Second, concern for others reminds us that we are not alone with our problems, and that others have even greater difficulties. From time to time in our lives we’ll be struggling with our normal quotient of suffering — worrying about paying bills, bickering over some disagreement, for example — when we encounter real suffering, such as bereavement or a serious accident. At such times we realize that we’ve been giving undue attention to problems that are, in reality, not such a big deal. So compassion helps us to put our own difficulties into perspective.
  3. But third, the very act of connecting with others in a compassionate way enhances our lives in a very positive way. We are at heart social beings, and we cannot be truly happy unless we establish positive connections with others. Compassion and love give our lives a sense of meaning and fulfillment, and compassion is inherently pleasurable and rewarding. When we are caught up in our own anxieties and longings we are not fully able to connect with others and so our experience is impoverished. Compassion is therefore enriching.

This doesn’t of course mean that we should neglect ourselves and be concerned only with others. Compassion for others is ideally an extension of a healthy self-cherishing attitude in which we take our own needs seriously. In Buddhist practice compassion is developed for all beings, including ourselves, and in fact in meditations such as the metta bhavana (development of lovingkindness) and karuna bhavana (development of compassion) we begin by cultivating love towards ourselves. Ultimately, however, the best hope we have for attaining happiness ourselves is to pay more attention to the wellbeing of others.

Finally, for anyone daunted by the thought of 10,000 hours of meditation (that’s three hours a day for nine years, in case you’re wondering) remember that even those who had been meditating for 45 minutes a day for only a week showed greater happiness and even improved immune function. That’s a big reward for a modest effort.

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11 Comments. Leave new

  • I find the above article very instructive, informative and uplifting – in fact, I have found subscribing to Wildmind extremely life-enhancing ( I have been receiving your newsletters for over six years). Thankyou.

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  • […] read a blog post from Wildmind that offers a look at compassion and science, along with information on Buddist practice and […]

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  • I try to live my life this way, incorporating compassion in my daily life, interacting with others.

    But I find that it is difficult, if not impossible, to feel true compassion when those you live with, and surround you, are immature, selfish, insecure, greedy, jealous, thoughtless and antagonistic towards the compassionate actions you perform for everyone you meet.

  • […] Practising compassion results in increased well-being. It’s been proven by scientists. You can read about it here. Recently I was challenged and encouraged to not only focus on cultivating compassion but also […]

  • Thomas Armstrong
    June 8, 2013 3:30 pm

    There is a big push in American Buddhism for “self-compassion” — using the quote of the Dalai Lama that serves as the title of this blogpost as, ironically, justification for self-compassion. Bodhipaksa, you understood the quote and the reality correctly in 2007 — based on my reading and research — and you interpretation has only more-so been substantiated in subsequent years.

    • You might want to refer to a conversation with the Dalai Lama recorded in “Visions of Compassion”:

      HHDL: The Tibetan word for compassion is tsewa, which need not necessarily imply that it is directed to someone else. One can have that feeling toward oneself as well … Compassion, or tsewa, as it is understood in the Tibetan tradition, is a state of mind or way of being where you extend how you related to yourself toward others as well. Whatever or whoever the object of your affection, you wish it to be free of suffering.

      Anne Harrington: And that object may be yourself as well.

      HHDL: Yourself first, and then in a more advanced was the aspiration will embrace others.

      As I wrote in a comment recently to someone else who was questioning the validity of self-compassion, an understanding of anatta renders the distinction between self-compassion and other-directed compassion moot:

      …suffering is suffering, whether it’s arising within oneself or within others, and compassion is the appropriate response to suffering. Therefore, self-compassion is an appropriate response to one’s own suffering. To single out one’s own suffering as unique in that it doesn’t require your compassion is what the Buddha called manas, or conceit.

      Strictly speaking, though, one’s compassion is directed at the pain one is experiencing, not at one’s self as a whole. That should be obvious, but not understanding that could cause confusion…

  • Thomas Armstrong
    June 8, 2013 5:45 pm

    Thanks, Bodhipaksa. I will further investigate along the lines of the bounty of information you provide.

    I confess [Have compassion for me!] that I am dubious. Our experience of ourself and that of others is different. It is also the case that I find HHDL’s expansive words to that quote and other words on compassion to seem, clearly, to support only the idea of outwardly directed compassion — but then I am not doing my research in an organized way, as I should and will.

    Again, thanks. If I unearth anything powerful or that takes things down an unsuspected path, I’ll let you know.

  • […] will get your happiness if you help other people find theirs. The Dalai Lama says, “If you want to be happy, practice […]


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