Love and compassion are innate human qualities. While it is true that all people are born with an inherent capacity for love and compassion, this capacity is not always active. As we grow up, we learn to love those who love us and to be compassionate towards those who show compassion towards us.
What is Love?
Love is a powerful emotion of great affection. It is the feeling that drives us to protect, help, and care for those we treasure. Love can be a general affection for all people, or it can be specific such as the love we feel for our parents, children, pets, neighbors, or friends. When we feel love toward someone else, we generally want the best for them. We feel motivated to make sure they are safe and happy.
What is Compassion?
The word compassion derives from Latin (compati), meaning 'to suffer with.' It is about 'feeling for' others rather than simply 'feeling sorry' for them. At its core, it is a deep awareness of suffering coupled with a strong motivation to alleviate it.
Compassion is not the same thing as sympathy or 'feeling sorry' for someone, which implies a feeling of superiority. It also differs from altruism in that it does not necessarily require action.
How do love and compassion contribute to our Wellbeing?
Research has shown that people who have an active social life are less likely to die early compared to those who have less social interaction. Relationships, where we share love and compassion are those that are most likely to improve our health and Wellbeing.
Love and compassion can improve mental health by reducing stress, improving sleep quality, and increasing positive emotions. Studies have found that when people intentionally practice love, they experience improved moods and less anxiety. Love has been linked with reduced stress because it lowers levels of cortisol (the stress hormone).
When we are in the initial stages of falling in love, our brains release oxytocin, which lowers stress and cortisol levels, and increases dopamine — a feel-good neurotransmitter that can help us focus better. Specifically, it activates the reward and pleasure centers of our brain. These hormones and neurotransmitters work together to reduce anxiety and increase pleasure. Often times this even makes us feel euphoric.
As time goes on and we continue to fall more in love with someone, those same neurotransmitters can help us bond with them and feel more connected. They can also contribute to making us feel safe around each other. When we feel safe around someone, we bond with them even more. This bond is made stronger by physical touch as well — such as holding hands or hugging — which releases oxytocin into the brain.
Love can reduce pain by increasing activity in circuits that inhibit pain sensations while decreasing activity in sensory processing areas linked with pain perception. These increases in activity occur in regions of the brain linked with pleasure and reward, such as the nucleus accumbens (a key part of the reward circuit) as well as regions associated with motivation, including the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC).
Research shows that when we feel compassion, we experience increases in a positive mood, decreases in negative mood, and physiological responses associated with feelings of Wellbeing. In addition to these immediate benefits, studies suggest that people who experience greater levels of compassion are also more likely to engage in helping behaviors.
It makes sense that one of the keys to better Wellbeing is love and compassion. If you're someone who forgets to be kind to yourself, make compassion a part of your daily routine. Pause to think of something you're thankful for every morning. The satisfaction (or relief) of being kind to yourself will lead to greater Wellbeing in the long run. Love doesn't only happen by doing "selfless" acts but also through self-love