The world is a competitive place. That is why it's important to remember the value of kindness and compassion, or we might be taken over by a will to succeed at all costs and never have any fun or experience true joy. There is a quote from the Dalai Lama: "If you want others to be happy, practice compassion," the Dalai Lama says. "If you want to be happy, practice compassion." Apparently, in order to be happy, we better learn about compassion.
In the same way that an airline attendant will tell passengers in pre-flight instructions to secure their own oxygen mask before assisting others, in life we need to learn how to feel compassion for ourselves first, before we can be happy or contribute to others' happiness. Researchers like Richard J. Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin - Madison, are now studying the brain science of what is called self-compassion, the capacity for healthy nurturing of the self. Similarly, Daniel J. Siegel at UCLA School of Medicine is examining the neurobiology of happiness and what he terms intra and interpersonal connection or "attunement" -- attunement first with oneself, and then with others. According to new scientific findings, researchers are discovering that happiness is really all in our minds and starts with our self-view.
The theory is that when we can feel a deep sense of gratitude toward ourselves, appreciating our basic good nature, when we feel self-love, self-worth and self-compassion, we are more capable of meeting life's challenges with success and grace, minimizing a lot of anxiety and depression. There's simply no possibility of having fun in life -- enjoying the precious experience that life is -- without first generating self-compassion. The Sanskrit translation is maitri, which means unconditional friendliness to one's self. Scientific research has started to call this dynamic "self affiliation."
This feeling of self-compassion can be created at any time through a simple exercise, preferably sitting quietly in a chair. First, start by slowing down, bringing attention to your relaxed breathing: breath going out, breath coming in. Second, bring to mind someone from your childhood who really believed in you, someone who "got" you, who understood you, someone with whom you connected at a heart level. Bring this person to mind, and remember how he or she made you feel. Let this warm feeling wash over you. Now, let yourself generate that feeling. Feel the same warmth, compassion and love for yourself. Being able to create such "positive self-regard" helps us be kinder and gentler with ourselves, and in turn, we end up treating others more gently, too. With self-compassion fully activated, the ground is set for a fuller enjoyment of life, and a greater ability to have fun. One person at a time, this practice would make the world a nicer place for everyone.
Having fun is serious business. Social psychologist Erik Erikson famously stated, "The richest and fullest lives attempt to achieve an inner balance between three realms: work, love and play." Without play, no matter what our age, we miss out on life's most exuberant joys, and could even contribute to our own declining health. In The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion, author Christopher Germer acknowledges that a Western view of self-compassion may seem "selfish or inappropriate." In a more Eastern sense, however, self-compassion is a very important component to enlightened living. "Without it, we blame ourselves for our problems, for our inability to solve them all," he says, "all of which end in our feeling even more pain."
A positive outlook has been linked to the ability to effectively manage and reduce stress. "Play is not the silly sibling of work and love," the late Positive Psychology author Christopher Peterson wrote in a Psychology Today blog. "Play is built as deeply within people as are work and love. We certainly enjoy play, not only as children but also throughout our lives. Leisure activities (play) are a common source of flow and a robust predictor of how satisfied we are with our lives. In play we find and pursue our passions."
About.com lists the benefits of laughter and having fun on health and well-being, suggesting that we:
• Have friends over more often
• Tell jokes
• Have a regular game night
• Be "in the now"
• Maintain a sense of humor
Since we are social beings who thrive when interacting with each other, spending time with friends is a good way to have more fun. Just make sure you choose people who you enjoy being with. And since obligation and fun do not mix, finding something for which to be grateful is a surefire way to get through even the most obligatory events. As far as joke telling, some people are better at it than others, though having a couple handy certainly couldn't hurt. Having a regular game night sounds pretty old fashioned, but with the economy the way it is, a night of Scrabble may not be a bad way to go. Being "In the Now" and maintaining a sense of humor are, perhaps, the most vital skills to cultivate. Being conscious of the here-and-now, like savoring a warm bubble bath, takes you away from the "mind chatter" that is constantly judging, evaluating, and criticizing. It opens your eyes to being present -- right here, right now. After all, it is pretty much impossible to have fun if you're not really here.
Generating self-compassion and a sense of humor also contribute to better physical health by enhancing the body's immune function. Through stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system, which makes us feel relaxed, calm and at ease, rather than activating the sympathetic nervous system, which triggers the release of adrenaline, cortisol and the fight-or-flight response, we stay healthier and actually live longer. This is because cortisol production has been linked to cardio-vascular disease, hypertension, some cancers, and other stress-related illnesses.
It turns out to be a rather healthy choice to practice self-compassion, and to remember, while we're feeling good about ourselves, to kick back and have some fun. Smile. What are you waiting for?
This column was originally published in Ambassador Magazine.