In Your Corner: Developing compassion

After I wrote the article on developing patience last week, a teacher suggested that I go take each of the characteristic traits that are on the walls of every public school classroom in Hawai‘i, and speak about how to develop them. I’ve chosen to begin with compassion, because this article will come out on Sept. 21, the International Day of Peace, and the 6th annual Hawai‘i Peace Day. Hawai‘i was the first state to legislate its own peace day six years ago, to be held in conjunction with the International Day of Peace.

The Oxford Dictionary defines compassion as “The humane quality of understanding the suffering of others and wanting to do something about it.” Buddhists define it as “wanting others to be free from suffering.” We can get a fuller understanding of its meaning when we consider some of its synonyms: sympathy, empathy, fellow feeling, care, concern, sensitivity, warmth, love, tenderness, mercy, leniency, tolerance, kindness, humanity and charity. And honestly, wouldn’t we all like others to treat us compassionately?

So how do we develop compassion? Why should we care about others? It makes us feel better, and it may help us achieve what we really want. The following excerpts from a Huffington Post article may help us understand:

“In his book, ‘Leading With Kindness,’ public television personality Bill Baker relates how executives and companies that are kind to their employees and customers are more successful … .Dr. Wayne Dyer reports that endorphins, the body’s happy hormones, are not only released when you do an act of kindness, but they are also released in the bodies of the affected person as well as in people who are witnessing the act. Niceness is contagious.” (

I researched the “happy hormones,” and they are dopamine and oxytocin. They give us a sense of well being when they are released into our bodies. This is just more proof that our bodies are influenced by our thoughts and actions. It is nice to us to be nice to others. I’d like to recommend that you do your own research here. Pay attention to how you feel when you help someone out.

So how do we learn to become compassionate? Have you noticed that little babies will often cry when they hear another person cry, or laugh when they see and hear others laugh? “By age three, many children will make an effort to hug or comfort another child or parent who seems upset.” (

The article suggests that we continue to teach children to consider how others feel, whether it’s when watching TV, or as things come up in daily life. If a child causes another to cry, it would be important to ask why the child thinks the other child is crying, and what they could do about it.

Observing compassion in others is one of the best ways to learn it. I remember feeling so ill that I had to stay in bed, and being deeply touched when my young daughter with special needs brought me a glass of water. I would always bring her a glass of cool water to drink when she would cough, or complain of a sore throat. No one told her to do it. She just remembered that it made her feel better, and wanted me to feel better. We may be hardwired for compassion. Most of us would rather tell someone some good news than tell them some bad news.

If you have time to watch a five-and-a-half-minute video, you can go to http:// and watch two teens interview Dr. Paul Eckman, a specialist on emotions. He answers their questions about developing compassion. He says that first we must have a good sense of self worth, of feeling good about ourselves, before we can go out into the world and do compassionate acts for others. The second thing we need to believe is that we’ll be effective, that we’ll make a difference by helping others. Try things. There are soup kitchens you could serve at, thrift stores that benefit organizations that you could volunteer at, the food bank, the Humane Society, nursing homes, hospitals, parks and many ways you can develop an ability to serve. And by all means, help your family. Learn how to cook your favorite food, and volunteer to make it once a week. Everybody benefits. Fold some laundry while you’re watching TV. Water the garden while you’re on your phone.

Then we need to begin to understand how and why other people’s welfare affects us. That may be more difficult to learn, but here’s an example that might help you get it. When someone in your family is sick, it affects everyone, doesn’t it? Think about it. Even if it is the littlest one, everyone feels a little worse, and works a little harder to help ease the pain. It really makes a different if it is a parent, for they carry a huge load in a family.

Dr. Eckman says that between the ages of 10 and 15 kids are asking themselves “What’s the purpose of life, and how do I fit in?” This isn’t looked at deeply again until we get into our 50s and 60s! So use this time well, and ask questions. One of the interviewers had contributed to a tsunami relief fund, and Dr. Eckman stated that she’d already reached a big step. The first time we do a compassionate act, and help others it affects us, and we may be more likely to do it again. But he didn’t know what that magical moment was inside people that made them decide to begin a compassionate walk. I sure would love to hear your stories about what it was that caused you to act with compassion for another. Peace to you today and always!

• Hale ‘Opio Kaua‘i convened a support group of adults in our community to ‘step into the corner’ for our teens, to answer questions and give support to youth and their families on a wide variety of issues. Email questions or concerns facing youth and families today to Annaleah Atkinson at


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