When you think of compassion, what other words come to mind? For many, it's words related to softness and nurturance. In fact, look in almost any thesaurus and you'll find the primary synonyms to be softheartedness, tenderness, mercy and consideration. Although these are certainly virtuous qualities, they also seem to share other unfortunate connotations: weakness and passivity. They're traits you might expect to find in individuals who are followers, not leaders. They're attributes you might guess characterize groups more likely to be cowed than to be hardy. But nothing could be further from the truth. In actuality, compassion equals strength and resilience
To see why, you can check out this video of a brief "Ted-type" presentation I gave at PopTech and the Rockefeller Foundation's Summit on Resilience (or keep reading below):
The past decade has witnessed an explosion of research confirming that what the Dalai Lama said is correct: "Love and compassion are necessities not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive." On scales both small and large, showing compassion leads to better outcomes. For instance, although it's certainly true that leaders can gain power through intimidation and punishment, fantastic work by Yale's David Rand shows that those who don't punish, but rather forgive when warranted, gain the most over the long haul. The same is true for communities. One need only look to a recent study on neighborhoods impacted by natural disasters to see this is so. In the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, the New York City communities that evidenced the highest levels of trust and compassion among neighbors were the ones that were most resilient. They were the strongest -- the ones that bounced back the quickest in the face of tremendous loss.
The upshot is clear. Compassion isn't a state to be avoided in attempts to build intra- and interpersonal strength. To the contrary, it's a state to be cultivated. The ability to foster social bonds through aiding others, though taking effort in the short term, is what makes us, both as individuals and as societies, more resilient in the long term.
Here again, the Dalai Lama was out in front: "If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion."
For more on emotional intelligence, click here.
For more by David DeSteno, click here.