‘Happiness and its causes’ sounds like it could be the title to a fluffy, feel-good Disney movie but it’s actually the largest conference on happiness in the world, hosted every year in Sydney. The speakers are a diverse bunch from internationally renowned, psychologists and researchers (like Roy Baumiester and Dr Kristin Neff) to spiritual leaders (the Dalai Lama joined on live feed), and ordinary people with stories of finding meaning in extraordinary adversity (Rosie Batty and Dr Reena Kotecha). Spanning the broad range of perspectives was one overarching theme; Compassion toward self and others and its central role in our work and life happiness.
What is compassion and how does it help us?
The Latin roots of compassion literally mean ‘co-suffering’. It is the ability to recognise and empathise with others’ pain and vulnerabilities and to offer non-judgemental help (not just pity). Self-compassion is applying that same warmth and kindness to ourselves.
The hard science around self-compassion shows strongly that people who exhibit high levels of self-compassion are much happier and have a healthier immune function. In real-life terms, they are also much nicer to be around, more caring, and make better colleagues and partners. In the workplace, compassion can be the antidote to ego and politics and make for a much better, more collegiate culture.
Myth vs Reality
Most of the myths around self-compassion stem from only seeing the empathetic comfort side. The cynic within us (including within me in the past) sees the self-indulgent, lazy, cop-out manifestation of self-compassion. I remember responding with extreme judgment to an ex-girlfriend who was trying to exercise self-compassion after we were late and missed a sold-out gig. Her: “Everything happens for a reason”. Me: “yeah, the reason is you took an hour doing your hair in the bathroom!” The reality, however, is that the other side of self-compassion is about taking action, making tough decisions, and changing our behaviors. Academic research shows that it’s a source of strength, increases motivation, promotes social behavior, and enhances interpersonal relations.
How can we get more compassion in the workplace?
It starts with being more caring to ourselves. According to Dr Kristin Neff, the pioneering researcher in the field of self-compassion, “we shouldn’t do unto others as we would do unto ourselves” because most of us are incredibly hard on ourselves and we’d get fired if we said to others out loud the criticisms we reserve for ourselves! A better way is to be kind to ourselves in the same way we’d be kind to a best friend. Ask yourself what you’d say to a close friend if they just messed something up at work?
Within a work team, compassion for others is borne out of trust. Dr Fiona Kerr, an expert in the neuroscience of human connection, explained how “humans have developed our brains for maximum interpersonal neural connection”. In other words, the more we get to know the people in our teams, the more we build strong emotional connections, empathy, and trust. This starts with dialogue and understanding. If you want more trust why not organise a weekly informal team lunch? Ask people about their hopes and dreams, what’s going on in their lives.
We can all find room to be more compassionate to ourselves and others. Try it! It’s actually a fun exercise to make a conscious effort and you might surprise yourself with the results. In the words of the Dalai Lama, “if you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion”.