The Difference Between Empathy and Compassion Is Everything

We often conflate the words 'compassion' and 'empathy' but they have different meanings for a very important reason.


Compassion and mindfulness are two wings of the same bird, and we need both in order to live in a wise way. "Mindfulness" is the word du jour, with so many articles claiming its spectacular results that some have dubbed it “McMindfulness.” But what about compassion? The folks over at NPR have started a conversation about it, and have invited their audience to send them stories of random acts of compassion. What is compassion? How is it different from empathy? How do we implement it in our daily lives — and what is the science behind all this, anyway?


Empathy is a gateway to compassion. It’s understanding how someone feels, and trying to imagine how that might feel for you — it’s a mode of relating. Compassion takes it further. It’s feeling what that person is feeling, holding it, accepting it, and taking some kind of action. In metta or loving-kindness meditation practice, one can silently repeat phrases to others as a way of acknowledging them and our own interconnectedness. It’s easy and highly portable. When I’m on the train, I silently repeat phrases like, “May you be happy; may you be safe; may you be at ease; may you be free from suffering,” to the passengers, particularly those who look like they need it most. This plants the seeds of compassion, and we can find ourselves acting in compassionate ways that never would have occurred to us before. As it turns out, this ancient practice has some amazing scientific discoveries to give it cred.

Barbara Fredrickson led a study at the University of North Carolina that showed that with just seven weeks of metta practice, participants were found to have increased life satisfaction and reduced depressive symptoms. It’s also been proven to decrease your bias toward othersdecrease migraines and emotional tension, and increase gray matter in our brains. Compassion is empathy in action, and your actions don’t have to be big or life-changing. Maybe you give a homeless man a poncho in the pouring rain, or maybe you give your full attention to someone who really needs to talk. Compassion is all about realizing that we ultimately all want the same things out of life (love, safety, health, happiness) and responding in an appropriate way. With a little practice, we can all become more compassionate toward ourselves and others. It’s a bold, brilliant, and radical choice to go against the stream of self-interest and self-centeredness, but then, I’ve always been a fan of disruption and revolution. Viva la metta revolution!

For more reading on loving-kindness practice, check out this book by Sharon Salzberg.

--

Image caption: PHILADELPHIA, PA - SEPTEMBER 22: Craig, who is homeless, sits with his dog Chester at the Broad Street Ministry, (BSM) which serves thousands of free meals five days per week while also providing the homeless with a mail center, a clothes mending facility, counselling and medical screenings for the homeless and those that are in financial distress, on September 22, 2015 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Lori Chandler is a writer and comedian living in Brooklyn, NY. She has been published in The New York Times and on CollegeHumor. You can follow her on Twitter @LilBoodleChild to keep up with her latest pieces, performance dates, and wry observations. 

PHOTO CREDIT: Keystone-France/Gamma Keystone

How to vaccinate the world’s most vulnerable? Build global partnerships.

Pfizer's partnerships strengthen their ability to deliver vaccines in developing countries.

Susan Silbermann, Global President of Pfizer Vaccines, looks on as a health care worker administers a vaccine in Rwanda. Photo: Courtesy of Pfizer.
  • Community healthcare workers face many challenges in their work, including often traveling far distances to see their clients
  • Pfizer is helping to drive the UN's sustainable development goals through partnerships.
  • Pfizer partnered with AMP and the World Health Organization to develop a training program for healthcare workers.
Keep reading Show less
Sponsored

Why Henry David Thoreau was drawn to yoga

The famed author headed to the pond thanks to Indian philosophy.

Image: Public Domain / Shutterstock / Big Think
Personal Growth
  • The famed author was heavily influenced by Indian literature, informing his decision to self-exile on Walden Pond.
  • He was introduced to these texts by his good friend's father, William Emerson.
  • Yoga philosophy was in America a century before any physical practices were introduced.
Keep reading Show less

How to split the USA into two countries: Red and Blue

Progressive America would be half as big, but twice as populated as its conservative twin.

Image: Dicken Schrader
Strange Maps
  • America's two political tribes have consolidated into 'red' and 'blue' nations, with seemingly irreconcilable differences.
  • Perhaps the best way to stop the infighting is to go for a divorce and give the two nations a country each
  • Based on the UN's partition plan for Israel/Palestine, this proposal provides territorial contiguity and sea access to both 'red' and 'blue' America
Keep reading Show less
Photo: Shutterstock / Big Think
Personal Growth
    • A recent study from the Department of Health and Human Services found that 80 percent of Americans don't exercise enough.
    • Small breaks from work add up, causing experts to recommend short doses of movement rather than waiting to do longer workouts.
    • Rethinking what exercise is can help you frame how you move throughout your day.
    Keep reading Show less