Compassion, both for ourselves and for others, is a key component of maintaining well-being as we age. A new study has uncovered which elements play a significant role in developing this deep sense of caring for others that endures, despite the passing of decades.
Researchers from the University of California, San Diego and the University of California, San Francisco, examined the personal traits and life experiences of over 1,000 older adults. They found that compassionate seniors were more likely to be women who had recently experienced significant personal trials—such as a serious illness or the loss of a spouse.
Age, race, education level and mental status didn’t appear to exert much influence over an individual’s capacity for compassion. But people who believed in their ability to positively respond to life crises garnered greater joy from helping others, and were also more likely to experience feelings of empathy for strangers who were suffering.
“Compassion is an important contributor to pro-social behavior and maintenance of interpersonal relationships,” the study authors write, “yet little is known about what factors influence compassion in late life.” They hope their findings will shed some much-needed light on how compassionate personalities develop.
The anti-aging benefits of compassion
Compassion is often confused with two closely-related terms, altruism and empathy. But the true definition of compassion is the emotional reaction to witnessing another’s suffering, coupled with the desire to help the person who is in pain.
Many experts believe human beings are naturally predisposed towards compassionate feelings, and that such instincts have aided in the survival of our species. Charles Darwin himself felt that compassion was an essential trait, chosen via the process of natural selection. In his well-known work, The Descent of Man, Darwin says of compassion, “In however complex a manner this feeling may have originated, as it is one of high importance to all those animals which aid and defend one another, it will have been increased through natural selection; for those communities, which included the greatest number of the most sympathetic members would flourish best, and rear the greatest number of offspring.”
Outside of the emotional benefits, practicing compassion on a consistent basis also results in reduced production of the stress hormone called cortisol that may accelerate the aging process. Compassion also promotes the creation of DHEA, a different hormone that, according to the National Institutes of Health, has been shown to slow aging, enhance cognitive functioning in the elderly, and perhaps play a role in hindering the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.
Meditation is one way to cultivate feelings of compassion. Regardless of what method of meditation you prefer—chanting a mantra, focusing on a particular feeling, or simply sitting in silent state of mindfulness—taking the time to be still and reflect on the things you have in common with other people, even those who’ve wronged you, can engender empathy for your fellow human beings. Read more about how to make meditation a part of your daily routine.
What are some of the techniques you use to nurture your inner sense of compassion?
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By Anne-Marie Botek, AgingCare.com Editor