Kindness and Compassion Are Good for Your Brain
By Barbara Koltuska-Haskin, Ph.D.

Research shows that practicing both can make positive neural changes.

Key points

  • Kindness and compassion should be important parts of our everyday life.
  • Research suggests that self-compassion may serve as a protective factor against stress-induced inflammation and inflammation-related diseases.
  • People who practice self-compassion are more motivated to improve themselves.

Everybody seems to know what kindness means. Generally, it’s a tendency to feel concern for others. However, in our busy and stressful lives, we don’t always remember to practice it.

Compassion literally means “to suffer together.” It means feeling or showing sympathy and concern for others and also includes the desire to take action that will alleviate others’ distress. The Dalai Lama once said, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”

Research shows that practicing kindness and compassion makes positive changes in our brains. In a 2013 study (Leung, M.K. et al.), the researchers studied brain activity in people who practice loving-kindness meditations (LKM). The results suggest that LKM increases gray matter volume in the part of the brain that is associated with affective regulation.

In another study (Lee, T.M. et al., 2012), the results suggested that LKM practice is associated with activity in emotion processing regions, which may result in better emotional regulation.

Research studies on compassion training (Klimecki, O.M. et al 2014) indicated that it increases activities in parts of the brain involved in emotional regulation, mood regulation, decision-making, and helps overcome empathic distress and strengthens resilience.

Compassion and little acts of kindness can make a big difference. However, don’t feel guilty if you had a bad day and weren’t kind or compassionate enough. Try again the next day. Life can be difficult, but do not forget that others have bad days as well, and theirs may even be worse. We don’t know until they tell us. If somebody is rude to you, it’s about them, not about you. You can answer them with kindness and compassion.

Don’t forget to be kind and compassionate to yourself. Research suggests that self-compassion may serve as a protective factor against stress-induced inflammation and inflammation-related diseases (Breines, J. G. et al. 2014). Treat your body well by eating healthy and exercising, practicing mindfulness, and doing other things that make you feel good about yourself. If you’re kind and compassionate to yourself, it’ll be easier to have the same attitude toward others.

If you want to change bad habits or behaviors, instead of beating yourself up, start with self-compassion. According to a study from UCLA at Berkeley, people who practice self-compassion are more motivated to improve themselves (Breines, J. G. and Chen, S. 2012). You can also practice compassion by doing some compassionate things, such as volunteering to work with animals or people in need, giving money to your favorite charity, or simply being a shoulder to lean on for another person. It will instantly make you feel better.

Being compassionate to yourself also means being careful not to overextend or overcommit yourself at the expense of your physical and emotional health. Be compassionate to yourself first. You don’t need to drive your friend to the airport when you have multiple commitments that day, and you don’t have to agree to do another retreat for your church if you’ve already done a few and have other commitments scheduled. If you feel that you have too much on your plate, you probably do have too much on your plate and need to slow down in order to keep your sanity. Being stressed out, frustrated, and tired most of the time isn’t good for you or the people around you. It will cause unnecessary stress, tension, and conflicts in your social environment.

If you believe in karma, which is a spiritual law of cause and effect in Eastern religions, or other laws of the universe, you know that any act of kindness and compassion that you do to another person will come back to you. The same happens with unkindness and any bad act. It may not necessarily come immediately, or it may come in a different form, but it will show up in your life. If you helped another person get through their difficult day, somebody else may help you when you have a flat tire, or when you’re sick, your neighbor will shovel snow from your driveway. This is the true power of kindness and compassion.


Barbara Koltuska-Haskin, Ph.D., is a neuropsychologist in private practice in Albuquerque, New Mexico with over 30 years of clinical experience, and the author of How My Brain Works: A Guide to Understanding It Better and Keeping It Healthy. Her book has won 2 International Book Awards and 5 National Book Awards.


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