Clifftop Perspective: wellbeing from above

What is compassion anyway? (…And how do we cultivate it?)

March 22, 2019

In the wake of the tragic terror events in Christchurch, NZ (15/03/19), the public have been called on to show compassion and to be kind to one another. 

The humanity in us understands that this is a positive and constructive response to collective hardship. Yet with the term compassion suddenly having so much prominence in our media discourse I wonder if we have a common understanding of the term.

Thankfully, the hot-off-the-press 2019 World Happiness Report confirms that pro-sociality impacts on happiness. In other words – carrying out actions that are good for others, is highly correlated with the happiness of both the actor and the group. These findings are by no means new or rocket science! Nevertheless – the good news is that the “kindness & compassion” advice is actually likely to help us, as persons and people, to be happier. 

But what is compassion anyway?

It turns out it is not an emotion and is separate from both love and kindness. It can be cultivated by anyone and has been found to lower self-criticism, improve relationships and physiology (increased heart-rate variability).

Dr Paul Gilbert, of the University of Derby, describes compassion as the antidote to the human dark side, where humans have the propensity to inflict pain, we also have the innate propensity to alleviate and prevent it. He further describes it as a motivation to be sensitive to suffering in self and others and empathetically engaging with it. Compassion goes further than empathy however as it involves a drive to alleviate said suffering and prevent it from occurring again.

So how can we cultivate compassion?

It’s hard to learn how to ride a bike without getting on one. Even then, there are times when you’ll fall off – and that’s okay. Here are some ideas to try. Figure out which “bike” fits you best and don’t be discouraged if you fall off.

Develop a sensitivity to hurt – Sitting with the idea of someone’s pain and suffering, remembering a time when you have felt suffering too. The aim here is to learn to accept suffering as a part of living, as opposed to something that should be shunned, or quickly quietened.

Mindfulness meditation – In particular mindfulness self-compassion and loving kindness meditation are really useful in developing self and other oriented compassion. You can find these exercise here on Dr Kristin Neff’s website with some other great resources for developing compassion.

Give your inner critic a character – You know that voice that tells you that you’ll probably fail? Give them a face, an expression, an intention. What do they look like? What are their intentions for you? Now reframe your character to be that of a friend – what intention and words would they use instead? Try to mindfully keep your inner friend and curb your critic. You will find this allows you to be more compassionate with yourself.

Get curious – ask questions in situations of suffering.Fact questions: What happened? Why? Who was involved? How were they affected?Moving to noticing connection: What would it be like, to be in their shoes? How was it, when something like this happened to me? How are we in fact similar?Moving to action: What can I do to ease the hurt felt by [who]? What can I do to prevent this happening again?

Find the right amount of generosity – no one is asking you to give your house to a homeless person. We all have a level of suffering-alleviation that we are comfortable with – and that’s okay. You may give monthly to a charity which supports a cause you are passionate about, you may treat homeless people with respect, you may, in the wake of the terror attacks in Christchurch, call out casual racism online and in person. Do what you can, where you are, without inflicting suffering upon yourself or your loved ones.

Specifically for the context of NZ right now – Think about how you might ease the pain of those in mourning and those who are feeling fearful and unsafe right now. How can you be a positive influence on the social climate of Muslim Kiwis? Creating open and caring workplaces, schools, and communities by using inclusive and compassionate language is one place you could start.

Stay at the clifftop,


Useful resources:

Aknin, L. B., Whillans, A. V., Norton, M. I., & Dunn, E. W. (2019, March 20). Happiness and Prosocial Behavior: An Evaluation of the Evidence. Retrieved 21 March 2019, from

Bergland, C. (2013, May 23). Compassion Can Be Trained. Retrieved 21 March 2019, from

Compassion Definition | What Is Compassion. (n.d.). Retrieved 22 March 2019, from

Crew, O. (2017, September 14). What Is Heart Rate Variability And What Can You Learn From It. Retrieved 21 March 2019, from

Gilbert, P. (2013, September 4). How to Turn Your Brain from Anger to Compassion. Retrieved 22 March 2019, from

Malcom, L. (n.d.). All in the Mind. Retrieved from

Ohlin, B. (2016, October 9). 5 Steps to Develop Self-Compassion & Overcome Your Inner Critic. Retrieved 22 March 2019, from

Rohrer, J. M., Richter, D., Brümmer, M., Wagner, G. G., & Schmukle, S. C. (2018). Successfully Striving for Happiness: Socially Engaged Pursuits Predict Increases in Life Satisfaction. Psychological Science, 29(8), 1291–1298.

Well, T. (2019, March 24). Compassion at the Mirror. Retrieved 25 March 2019, from

‘We will give him nothing, not even his name’: Jacinda Ardern’s response in 12 quotes. (2019, March 20). Newshub. Retrieved from

This post was initially shared on LinkedIn here.