At first it may seem silly or naïve to believe that thinking good thoughts about other people will improve your relationship with them, whether it’s in marriage, friendship, with colleagues at work or even strangers.
But brain science has found that it works.
Psychologist Brent Atkinson, author of Emotional Intelligence in Couples Therapy: Advances from Neurobiology and the Science of Intimate Relationships, explains the power of mental rehearsal and how feelings can be changed through mental exercise.
"Over the past decade, dozens of studies have been published on a particular form of mental rehearsal known as compassion meditation," Atkinson says in an article, "The Power of Mental Rehearsal," in Psychotherapy Networker. The exercise involves spending extended periods of time focusing on the intent and desire to develop feelings of compassion and loving-kindness for others.
"In fact, brain scans have revealed that brain circuits involved in empathy, positive emotion and emotional regulation are dramatically changed in subjects who’d extensively practiced compassion meditation," said Atkinson.
Using this practice, Atkinson says partners who come to The Couples Clinic, which is in the Chicago area, may be asked to spend five minutes a day just thinking about things they like about their mates. Good moments spent together are an important part of this compassion meditation.
Atkinson said that focusing on the good feelings the partners have for each other may strengthen the neural circuits that generate feelings of connection.
Research on compassion meditation by Stefan G. Hofmann, a Boston University professor who directs the Social Anxiety Program at the Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders, confirms the potentially positive effects in an article, "Loving-Kindness and Compassion Meditation: Potential for Psychological Interventions," for the National Institutes of Health.
"Neuroimaging studies suggest that loving-kindness mediation and compassion meditation may enhance activation of brain areas that are involved in emotional processing and empathy," Hofmann said. "Preliminary intervention studies support application of these strategies in clinical populations."
Hoffmann’s research concluded that, "… combined with empirically supported treatments, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, loving-kindness meditation and compassion mediation may provide potentially useful strategies for targeting a variety of different psychological problems that involve interpersonal processes, such as social anxiety, marital conflict, anger and coping with the strains of long-term caregiving."
Neuropsychologist Rick Hanson, author of Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Science of Happiness, Love and Wisdom, says the benefits of compassion are positive for the person who is compassionate, as well as those who receive the benefits of your compassion.
"Compassion by itself opens your heart and nourishes people you care about," said Hanson." Those who receive your compassion are more likely to be patient, forgiving, and compassionate with you."
Exercises to Increase Your Compassion
Hanson suggests a few simple steps or exercises to increase your compassion that can be done in a minute, anywhere, any time:
Remember the feeling of being with someone who cares about you.
As it turns out, this new suggestion of compassion meditation to improve life and relationships has been understood by wise people for a long time.
In "The Kindness Cure," in The Atlantic in 2015, David Desteno said that "…meditation’s effects on memory, health and cognitive skills, though positive, were traditionally considered secondary benefits by Buddhist sages. "
What was the main goal of Buddhist meditative practices?
"The primary objective of calming the mind and heightening attention was to attain a form of enlightenment that would lead to a deep, abiding compassion and resulting beneficence," Desteno learned from Trungram Gyaltrul Rinpoche, one the highest lamas in the Tibetan tradition.
So while the sages of many ages placed the highest priority on meditating to achieve compassion for the human race and the world, meditation applied in the over-stimulated and overly busy 21st Century has to be suitable and accessible for our time.
So Destano set out to find out how compassion meditation works now. His research group at Northeastern University conducted a compassion experiment with 39 people. Half the group took an eight-week course in meditation with a Buddhist teacher. The other half was put on a waitlist for the course.
The test situation was having an actor on crutches, and in apparent pain, go into a waiting room with both groups, with no place for the "person in pain" to sit.
Three of those who had not mediated and were still on the waitlist offered the actor a chair. Ten of those who had meditated for eight weeks immediately offered the actor on crutches a chair.
"Eight weeks of meditation proved enough to triple the likelihood of this benevolent behavior," said Destano. "As any research psychologist will tell you, an intervention that can shift human behavior by three-fold holds a lot of promise."
Destano expanded the same research project to a larger group of 56 people and added the use of a Smartphone mindfulness app.
The results were that 14 percent of the non-meditators offered a chair to the actor on crutches, while 37 percent of the meditators offered a chair to help the actor relieve the pain.
A recent study found that "…levels of compassion and empathy are lower now than at any time in the past 30 years," said Destano.
That’s why he suggests that this may be an important time for individuals to cultivate compassion.
Hofmann, Stefan G., "Loving-Kindness and Compassion Meditation: Potential for Psychological Interventions," U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, Nov. 3, 2011
Desteno, David, "The Kindness Cure," The Atlantic, July 21, 2015
Condon, Paul and Destano, David, "Meditation Increases Compassionate Responses to Suffering," Psychological Science, Aug. 21, 2013.
Lim, Daniel and Condon, Paul and Destano, David, "Mindfulness and Compassion: An Examination of Mechanism and Scalability," Plos One, Feb. 17, 2015.
Atkinson, Brent, "The Power of Mental Rehearsal," Psychotherapy Networker, July 16, 2014
Hanson, Rick, "Practicing the Compassion Meditation," Huffington Post, Dec. 23, 2011.