THE BLOG

It's Time to Confront Our Compassion Phobia

07/11/2014 11:45 GMT | Updated 06/01/2015 10:59 GMT

When I was first invited to take part in Compassion Week, I had a bit of a reaction.

It's not that I didn't want to get involved in next week's events in San Francisco - it's just that I have a problem with the word compassion. Maybe it's a guy thing, but compassion has always sounded a little too soft and fluffy for my liking, and I wondered whether some might just dismiss the idea of Compassion Week without stopping to find out what it was all about.

The people behind Compassion Week want to give the c-word a bit of a makeover. They have called on the City of San Francisco and the State of California "to make compassion a guiding principle for their businesses and public services", and are staging a series of gatherings and discussions from Monday to Sunday to explain what this means - and how it can be achieved.

My own small contribution will be to introduce the speakers at a two-day conference called Empathy and Compassion in Society, which will explore the theme of compassion at work. The line-up includes city mayors, healthcare professionals, neuroscientists, psychologists, lawyers, a fund manager, Facebook's 'Mr Nice', and even one of the Sopranos.

I don't have a crystal ball but I'm pretty sure their message will be that when organizations of any kind adopt a more people-focused approach, everyone wins.

We will hear from one man who has applied the same principle to an entire city. Since his election as Mayor of Louisville, Kentucky, Greg Fischer has made it his mission to transform Muhammad Ali's hometown into "the most compassionate city in the world".

Taking inspiration from Karen Armstrong's Charter for Compassion - a global movement to put compassion at the center of religious, moral and political life - Mayor Fischer has introduced a 'compassion curriculum' for Louisville's public schools. He has encouraged healthcare providers and other institutions to make a commitment to compassion, and even persuaded the people of Louisville to carry out over 144,000 acts of compassion during a week of service in April.

Another key figure in the compassion revolution is James Doty, a neurosurgeon who founded one of the world's leading institutions for investigating empathy and compassion, Stanford University's Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE).

Dr. Doty is determined to get to the root of why some people are naturally inclined to help others and some are not, and to find out what happens when we actively try to strengthen our "compassion muscle". He will have a busy Compassion Week, as CCARE is organizing conferences on The Science of Compassion and Compassion & Healthcare.

Scientific research supports the case for compassion. Studies suggest that living a life of purpose, social connection and caring for others can result in better health and greater longevity. Acts of altruism and kindness make us feel good and can spread out in a ripple effect to reach people three degrees of separation away from us.

Research has also shown that meditation and mindfulness, along with practices for deliberately cultivating empathy and compassion, can bring a wide range of benefits. Compassion training programs have proved to be effective in protecting healthcare professionals, caregivers and teachers from the effects of stress and burnout, and to enhance their ability to care for others.

Organizations that look after their staff gain more motivated, resilient and productive employees who take less sick days. Managers and team leaders who demonstrate empathy, compassion and humility enjoy greater success. And co-workers start to see each other as team-mates rather than rivals.

Efforts to teach empathy in schools have also shown promise, and Compassion Week will include a gathering of over 200 high school students, organized by the Tenzin Gyatso Institute, which will explore hot topics such as bullying and how to handle emotions.

When we bring all these different pieces together, and consider the stories of real people behind the studies and statistics, compassion phobia starts to loosen its grip. Whatever we choose to call it - compassion, kindness, treating others as we wish to be treated ourselves, or normal human behavior - it doesn't really matter.

The people who are out there making a difference in their communities, their workplace, or even on a global scale, probably don't have a name for what they do - and they definitely don't all look the same or subscribe to one particular belief system. They just do it because it feels right.

So I'll be going to Compassion Week with an open mind - and if I do somehow manage to come up with a magic word that sums it all up in a way that will resonate with absolutely everyone, I'll let you know.

The Empathy and Compassion in Society conference is on Thursday 13th and Friday 14th November at San Francisco's Fort Mason Center.

For info on all the Compassion Week events, check out the website