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Examine the meaning and the different forms of compassionate behavior, how to encourage it, and how to apply it to increase community well-being.


This and other sections in the Tool Box chapter on Spirituality and Community Building (Chapter 28) have been written with the support and contributions of experts connected with the Charter for Compassion. For more information about the Charter and its work, visit


Image of a pair of older hands clasping a pair of younger hands.


Introduction: The Value of Compassion

Compassion is a concept that is deeply embedded in our human consciousness. It may also prove to be crucial to our well-being in a world now shared by more than seven billion people. Indeed, the capacity for compassion in the human mind and heart, recently a topic of study in the neurosciences and the subject of ongoing discussions in psychology, ethics, literature, and theology, may be key to the very survival of humankind as well as the environment we share with other creatures.

Although we will propose a working definition and discuss practical applications of compassion for our everyday lives, this section begins with two stories intended to provoke your own thinking about the value of this spiritual asset as it might apply to community building. Because compassion is recognized as a significant and powerful value in both ancient and modern cultures, it holds exciting potential for humankind to create compassionate communities and, perhaps, a compassionate global community in which people take responsibility and care for each other, and where peaceful co-existence is a genuine possibility.

The two stories can help us formulate relevant questions—which we will then address in the context of what compassion can mean for community building.

The Story of Ebenezer Scrooge

Ebenezer Scrooge is the main character in a short novel by the English writer Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, published in 1843. A familiar story that has been adapted for film and stage in Western society, the story of Scrooge, indeed his very name, calls up images of a businessman who cares only about making and holding on to his money and who even defies the spirit of Christmas with his famous words, “Bah, humbug!”

But Mr. Scrooge’s story is finally one of redemption and transformation. He is visited by ghosts who remind him of the joy and hope of Christmases past, show him the harsh realities of life for people in his community during Christmas present, and give him a glimpse of possible future Christmases including his own death and terrible reputation. After the intervention of the ghosts, he becomes a new man, a man of compassion, who seizes upon opportunities to relieve the pain and suffering of family, friends, employees, and his community. By the end of the story, Scrooge is a man who has learned that empathy and compassion for others can make a positive difference in his own life and in the community.

Lessons and Questions from This Story

This story has important implications for community building, for it implies that personal transformation is possible, and that human beings are capable of developing a compassionate mindset that can affect the well-being of the wider community. It also leaves us to ponder significant questions: How can we (given that we cannot dispatch time-traveling ghosts) help to bring about such a change in human hearts? And taking this idea a step further – what prevents even kind and well-meaning people from acting with compassion within their own communities and beyond?

The Story of Avalokitesvara

Another much older story about compassion, from a Tibetan Buddhist tradition in the third century B.C., may also be useful in examining these issues. Long ago there lived a man named Avalokitesvara, who makes a vow to his spiritual teacher that he will be always mindful of compassion and that he will work to liberate all other beings from suffering. To seal this vow, Avalokitesvara declares that if he ever again has a selfish thought, “may my head be cracked into ten pieces . . . and may my body be split into a thousand pieces.”

After many years of staying true to his vow, Avalokitesvara finally breaks under the strain of seeing so much suffering and feels that his efforts to relieve that suffering have been insufficient. In anguish, he cries out, “What is the use? I can do nothing for them. It is better for me to be happy and peaceful myself.” Avalokitesvara falls apart—his head splits into ten pieces, and his body breaks into a thousand pieces.

Avalokitesvara is visited at this point in the story by his spiritual teacher, who is able to heal and transform him. Avalokitesvara’s new form has ten faces to look out in all directions (symbolizing his ability to view compassionately all the suffering in every direction without getting overwhelmed) as well as a radiant, eleventh head and a thousand arms, each with an eye in its palm indicating compassion’s capacity for vast awareness.

Lessons and Questions from This Story

Avalokitesvara learns from his breakdown not only that he cannot eliminate the world’s suffering despite his passionate intentions, but also that he cannot ignore his own needs by completely devoting himself to serving the needs of others. Today, Avalokitesvara is known to some as the bodhisattva of compassion or, to others, as the embodiment of the compassion of all the Buddhas who ever existed or ever will exist.

Avalokitesvara’s story, too, poses questions for us as community builders to ponder: What impact can we have, or what difference can we really make, when there is so much suffering all around us? How do we keep from compassion burnout (or “compassion fatigue”), that is, from feeling depression or even despair because of our inability to meet the challenge of suffering in our own communities and throughout the globe?

We will attempt to address all of the questions prompted by these stories, first by defining what we mean by “compassion,” then considering when and how this spiritual asset may be helpful in community building, and finally by suggesting how compassion can be developed and promoted in individuals and within the community.

Definition: The Many Faces of Compassion

Like Avalokitesvara, compassion has many faces, and to define it is not easy. We can consider the meaning and origins of the word “compassion” in various languages. We can read about the concept in discussions of ethics and morality. We can take into account the stories, parables, and theologies of various world religions. And in current scientific journals and academic studies as well as popular magazines, articles, and videos, we can read about compassion in the context of various related qualities and concepts.

An initial difficulty in pinning down a definition is that the concept of compassion is not one that translates easily in terms of either language or culture. The Oxford Dictionaries online defines compassion as “sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others” and traces the origin to ecclesiastical Latin’s “compati,” meaning to “suffer with.” Over the centuries, however, the term has become more complex and nuanced, as evidenced by the wide variety of definitions and approaches to this concept published on the website of The Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University School of Medicine.

Scientific Approaches to Compassion

A relatively recent approach to understanding compassion comes from scientific research and attempts to map the biological basis of compassion, including taking measurements of activity in the vagus nerve, heart rate, the secretion of the “bonding hormone” oxytocin, and activity in various regions of the brain. The Greater Good Science Center, based at the University of California, Berkeley, which studies the psychology, sociology, and neuroscience of well-being, provides a practical definition and one that may be useful for community builders: “[Compassion] is defined as the feeling that arises when you are confronted with another’s suffering and feel motivated to relieve that suffering.”

And in the same vein, Dan Martin, a professor and researcher in social psychology and business management at California State University, East Bay, proposes that taking action is an essential aspect of compassion. He views compassion as a complex idea that can manifest itself in myriad ways, and poses a three-part definition of compassion to include (1) noticing suffering, (2) feeling empathy, and (3) taking action to ameliorate the suffering, which cues others to see it in actual behavior.

For the purposes of this discussion, we have combined Martin’s definition with that of the Greater Good Science Foundation to provide a practical construct and a good place to begin in considering the importance of compassion in community building: Compassion is a feeling that arises when a person becomes aware of another’s suffering, feels empathy for that person, and takes action to ameliorate that suffering.

The Importance of Compassion for Community Building

The Need for Compassion

Now, in the early decades of the 21st century, we are all witnesses—through the internet, television, radio, and print media if not in actual experience—to the suffering brought about by natural catastrophes and man-made tragedies on an almost daily basis: destructive storms, diseases, acts of political terror, school shootings, soldier suicides, human trafficking, and discrimination against one or another group of people. We observe or hear about homelessness, hate crimes, and too many children living below poverty level or being traumatized by living in war zones.

Everywhere, every day, we learn of people suffering, in our own communities and in communities throughout the world. It is difficult not to be aware of all this suffering, yet most of us manage to keep it from the forefront of our everyday lives.

Possibly because the sheer number of issues and the amount of suffering can seem overwhelming, we tend to “cultivate our own gardens” if not actually bury our heads in the sand. While we often rely on our government and social agencies—local, national, and international—to deal with the many issues that cause people to suffer, it is everywhere evident that something more is needed. In our communities and in the world, we are now confronted with an urgent need to listen to and understand each other, to empathize with all those who suffer, and to act with compassion for the health and well-being of all people. We will explore how we might do this in the text that follows.

The Role of Compassion in Community Building

Community builders will be challenged to both bring awareness and build empathy; but to be successful, they will need to facilitate the design and delivery of compassionate actions among community members. Compassion will be a critical element throughout every stage of the organizing process, from assessment and planning through implementation and evaluation.

During initial assessment, if we do not take the time to really listen—with empathy and compassion-–to those who are affected by a challenge, we risk misunderstanding what the real issues are and what is needed to resolve those issues. A woman who experiences domestic violence, for example, may benefit from the opportunity to go to a safe house with her children rather than the more usual “solution” to have her husband arrested and her children removed from the home. Successful solutions cannot be imposed; they must be developed with understanding, empathy, and compassion for those who are suffering.

The implementation of any plan to relieve suffering also calls for empathy and compassionate action; we know that simply “throwing money” at a problem does not resolve the real issues and underlying causes. An attitude of compassion helps ensure that we do not impose a top-down solution on those who are affected—the homeless, the unemployed, minority youth, the mentally ill, the hungry; rather, we need to take the time to walk in their shoes, to listen, to understand. Compassionate action within a community takes time—to recognize the suffering, to truly empathize with those who suffer, and then to take compassionate action that will improve their situation.

Favorable Conditions for Use of Compassion

Under what conditions is it most appropriate or helpful to be compassionate? That very question may seem a bit strange, for we might well ask when is it not appropriate or helpful to act compassionately. Yet some situations so obviously call for compassion that we may not even be conscious of making a choice to take compassionate action—such as when a family member or a friend asks for help or just a listening ear, when a co-worker makes an error and faces ridicule or worse, when a neighbor has suffered a loss of property or a loved one.

All of these examples are about people with whom we have some personal relationship. Because they inhabit our personal sphere, we find it relatively easy to empathize with them, to feel their pain and want to help—to take compassionate action.

But what about the suffering outside our personal sphere? For many of us, seeing a child or an animal in distress will trigger our empathy and compassion even if we have no previous relationship with them. Similarly, if we notice someone who is relatively helpless (the elderly, the injured) and in obvious physical distress, we may also be moved to compassionate action—to provide assistance or comfort, or to call an ambulance. At some point, however, it becomes more difficult to jolt our awareness, our empathy, and certainly our compassionate action.

When and how do we recognize the suffering and extend our compassion to that ragged-looking homeless man or that “bag lady” pushing an overloaded cart down the street? When do we inquire into what services are available to the frail elderly, to the developmentally challenged, to the mentally ill and their families? When will we go beyond inquiry, and advocate for those services? What moves us to recognize and do something about people who suffer from poverty and hunger in our own communities or in communities far away? What can motivate us to reach out to relieve the suffering of people, perhaps immigrants who live amongst us, whose beliefs and cultures are so different from our own?

Most of us do not view ourselves as similar to either the self-absorbed “Bah, humbug” Ebenezer Scrooge who chooses to ignore the suffering of others in his community or the all-giving and compassionate Avalokitesvara who sets out to relieve all suffering wherever it is found. But like them, we struggle with how much we are willing to empathize, and then make a conscious choice to give of our time, energy, and wealth to improve life for others.

Compassion Predicaments

Laurette Folk, editor of The Compassion Project: An Anthology, gives a name to this struggle. She calls it a “compassion predicament”:

What I have discovered is that compassion is most often a predicament—something we begrudgingly choose (or choose not) to do. When we give eagerly, it’s during the holidays, because there is a bandwagon effect—everyone else is giving as well— and it makes us feel good.

I’ve had many compassion predicaments in my life, and I’m no exception. There was the elderly lady sitting on a bench outside the Stop & Shop with bags full of food who wanted a ride home; the ride she had arranged beforehand had left her stranded. I was taken aback by this proposition and perceived her as brazen, but being the softy that I am, I gave in. We loaded her groceries into the back of my Toyota Rav4, and I dropped her off at her apartment building down the road. She was especially appreciative, and although I initially felt annoyed and inconvenienced, I experienced a sudden rush of joy as I pulled away.

The concept of the compassion predicament can be extended further as we ask ourselves: just what is our responsibility in taking compassionate action? Is it when we happen to be made aware of suffering—getting a late night phone call from a friend or family member who is depressed, seeing an elderly woman sleeping in the cold in a doorway as we hurry down the sidewalk to work, or learning from the internet or a television broadcast about the suffering of families in a war-torn country halfway around the world? Does our responsibility extend to looking for suffering behind “closed doors”—of mental institutions, of prisons and youth detention facilities, of nursing homes? These questions will be important to ponder as we turn to how compassion can play a role in community building.

Whose suffering do we allow into our awareness? When do we allow ourselves to feel empathy? What does another person’s suffering require of us? These are questions that each of us must ask and answer for ourselves in the context of our own lives. Indeed, the answers may change depending on our current circumstances—our age, our sense of security, our abilities, and our own physical and mental health. For example, if you are just getting started in a career, perhaps raising young children, you may find plenty of opportunities for compassionate action within your sphere of family, your community of friends (including children’s activities), and perhaps a faith congregation. You may even make some modest monetary contributions to causes that you believe in; but you will probably not be giving up all your possessions and devoting yourself to help people who are suffering, say, somewhere in a war zone halfway across the globe.

As you age and grow in experience and wisdom—and hopefully compassion—you may find different answers to the compassion predicament, and you may find yourself reaching out more not only within your own community but across the world to strangers. We cannot prescribe a path for you, of course. Like both Ebenezer Scrooge and Avalokitesvara, each of us must make our own choices as we struggle to understand what it is to be human and how we are related to all other beings who share our planet.

How to Use Compassion in Community Building

Let’s remind ourselves here of our definition of compassion as an asset for community building: Compassion is a feeling that arises when a person becomes aware of another’s suffering, feels empathy for that person, and takes action to ameliorate that suffering. The challenges for us as community builders then are how to (1) build awareness, (2) encourage the development of empathy, and finally (3) help move people to compassionate action. We will consider each of these challenges in turn.

Building Awareness

We have all witnessed the outpouring of support that occurs when there is a particularly memorable or well-publicized catastrophe, whether that is a natural disaster or a heinous crime committed against some portion of humanity. We understand that the suffering of other beings can touch the hearts and minds of many people, even those who live thousands of miles away from the disasters. But do we need to wait for the occurrence of a disaster to ignite compassion within our communities?

The immediate challenge in community building is how to get people to pay attention to what is happening every day closer to home, in their own back yards. The pain and suffering that goes mostly unnoticed by many of us does not melt away because we choose not to see it. On the contrary, eventually the pain and suffering of an affected group—a marginalized ethnic population, minority youth, homeless veterans, the mentally ill—will spill over into the wider community, often with tragic consequences. So creating awareness is an essential first step in using compassion for community building. But how do we do it?

1. Include Many Perspectives. One of the major strategies in any community building effort is to engage as inclusive a group as possible—especially those directly affected by the issues—to gain the perspective and support of the various groups and individuals that make up the community. It is not a simple task to bring together disparate (and sometimes hostile) groups in an open discussion and to expose and explore their pain and suffering. Well-meaning community organizers may find that uninvited and negative guests –-anger, misunderstanding, ignorance, apathy, prejudice, privilege, miscommunication, fear, and selfishness—may arrive at a meeting to disrupt their efforts.

At such moments, compassion is needed more than ever by the community leaders, for compassionate listening and understanding of the stories behind all of these emotions and ideas can lead to greater empathy and compassion for all involved. Such compassion can bring about radical change in a community.

An example of how successful this approach can be is the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI), a non-profit community-based organization rooted in the Roxbury/North Dorchester neighborhoods of Boston. When a small foundation presented its plans to try to revitalize a neighborhood devastated by arson, neglect, illegal redlining practices, and outside speculation, they were surprised when some members of the community objected because they had been left out of the planning process. In the award-winning 1996 documentary, Holding Ground: The Rebirth of Dudley Street, the planners admit, “We made a mistake ... by not including residents.” The entire project was transformed by restructuring the board of directors to include members of each neighborhood ethnic group in addition to representatives of local housing and human services organizations, religious institutions, and local businesses. The 2012 follow-up documentary, Gaining Ground: Building Community on Dudley Street, provides further evidence of the effectiveness of listening to the diversity of voices, including community youth, and of working together to bring about the well-being of all members of the community.

2. Conduct Surveys and Assessments. Many approaches and tools are available to help bring about greater awareness and to facilitate an inclusive community discussion and assessment to identify the most pressing needs within the community. In some situations, a door-to-door survey may be most effective. In others, a facilitated discussion may be helpful.

An additional possibility for building awareness is the use of a checklist, index, or assessment that can provide a snapshot of the community’s status concerning various issues that relate to the wellbeing of the community. One example of such an instrument was the index developed for Santa Monica, California as part of its Wellbeing Project:

The Wellbeing Project measures a city in many ways at once. It digs deep into the city’s own data about what services it provides and programs it delivers. It adds Santa Monica data collected by other public and private agencies, mixes in analysis of social media posts to see what residents are saying about life in Santa Monica, and a survey to see what Santa Monica residents say about themselves. Our research teams invested more than a thousand hours filtering data across five dimensions:

  • Community: Often described as “social capital,” a community with strong connections among its inhabitants can flourish in good times and withstand the tough ones.
  • Place: The characteristics of the area in which people live—physical, social, environmental and economic –affect how well-being is fostered and supported.
  • Learning: Education is linked to virtually all well-being outcomes, but even beyond measures of high school or college graduations, lifelong learning in and out of the classroom is a key factor of well-being.
  • Health: Being and feeling healthy—or at least having the tools and resources needed to manage any health challenges—are essential to an overall sense of well-being.
  • Economic Opportunity: Economic conditions, including opportunities for upward mobility, are key to creating a community in which a diverse population can live and thrive.

Another helpful tool in the initial stages of community organizing is included in the Charter Tool Box on the website of the Charter for Compassion, within a section called “Compassionate Communities,” as well as our own section on the Tool Box. The Communities Assessment on the Charter’s website currently includes 19 topics with related questions that a community group—especially an inclusive group of formal and informal community leaders as well as people who are affected by existing issues –can use as a starting point to evaluate the status of their community. Going through the topic list and questions under each topic can assist community leaders in a first step toward identifying the issues that are most important to the community. The topics are:

3. Share Stories. Another organization, Threshold Collaborative, has developed an approach that uses stories to promote personal, organizational, and community change. Their work integrates “story sharing, photography, video, and public art projects to document, explore and learn about issues from the perspective of the resident experts—the people living, working and going to school in our communities.”

An example of their work is a project (and now also a book) entitled A Picture is Worth, which grew out of Reading, Pennsylvania’s unwelcome distinction in a 2011 New York Times article by Sabrina Tavernise as the American city with the highest poverty rate, elevated high school dropout numbers, and extraordinarily low college-degree attainments:

A Picture is Worth is a collaborative creation that engages people in sharing and crafting powerful stories about their lives. Audio narratives of 1000 words are linked to photographed portraits through easy to access technology, giving voice to the person whose photo hangs before you. The experience is at once intimate and powerful, helping the viewer to listen deeply and develop connections and understanding. A Picture is Worth is being used to share insights and create awareness about issues as diverse as domestic/sexual violence, teen parenting, youth leadership development and local food sustainability.

Encouraging Empathy

For those working to bring positive change and well-being to their own communities, the lesson is clear: people need to see and feel—and to empathize with – the suffering of other beings, to have it made real for them in a vivid and realistic way, in order to tap into their own well of compassion and reach out to help. How can we encourage the development of empathy?

1. Provide First-Hand Experiences. If homelessness is an issue, for example, it is in witnessing the pain and suffering of the homeless—perhaps by talking to homeless people, or visiting or volunteering at a shelter–more so than simply getting information about the cost to the local government and taxpayers, or the inconvenience to home or business owners, or the funding strategies and fund-raising goals of local non-profits or charities—that will move people to take compassionate action.

One example comes from a friend who shadowed a volunteer for Meals on Wheels (a nonprofit service that delivers nutritious meals to seniors living at home, unable to prepare their own meals or go out to eat, and having little or no nutritional assistance ) in order to decide whether to become a volunteer herself. As they visited the homes of each person on the list, she was taken aback by what she saw as the isolation of so many frail elderly people, and by their need not only for a nutritious meal but for connection with other human beings. While in theory she had thought it a good idea to help deliver meals, her awareness of the actual situation and the resulting empathy she felt for the receivers of this service made volunteering to help much more compelling and meaningful.

2. Read, Celebrate, and Work Together. The development of empathy in individuals may also be related to what they read, observe, think, and experience.  The broader their experience and knowledge of other people, the more likely they are to develop empathy for them.  People need to meet the “other” in their community, share their common humanity, and empathize with each other’s situation.  Opportunities to share each other’s culture, such as multicultural festivals that offer a variety of music, dance, art, and food, can encourage and increase empathy in a community. Art festivals and dramatic presentations can also serve to promote understanding and empathy in an audience.

Sharing Compassion through Art

One of many such examples of community sharing is the Appleton Art Project, in which a total of 10,436 students from kindergarten through 12th grade in Appleton, Wisconsin, were asked to illustrate their idea of compassion on a six-inch square tile. Showing thousands of different meanings for one word, the artwork within the Appleton Compassion Project, combined with a brief narrative, was turned into a special exhibition at Appleton’s Trout Museum of Art.

A number of recent studies have also cited reading fiction as a way to develop empathy and understanding of people and cultures that differ from our own (e.g., “Your Brain on Fiction” by Annie Murphy Paul). The Charter for Compassion website includes annotated lists of books, short stories, and articles that are related to compassion. By joining the Charter’s book club, people have access to a group on Facebook where they can meet to organize digital or in-person book clubs and share their insights. Some communities have also formed “Compassion Circles”, bringing people together to “be part of creating a 'wave of compassion' to transform how we care for ourselves, each other, and those most vulnerable and needing our support.”

Listening to the stories and diverse perspectives around various topics, and planning a project such as a community garden or neighborhood cleanup can also help to build empathy.  As one example, David H. Breaux went on a year-long Compassion Tour to raise awareness of compassion.  In Austin, Texas, Dr. Lesa Walker, a leader in the Compassionate Austin initiative, reached out to the Interfaith Action of Central Texas (iACT) who is offering the use of their Red Bench, a portable bench that is used to attract public discussion around a specific topic and asked David to collaborate.  David sat at the bench inviting people to share their concept of compassion.  Efforts to bring people together in these ways can plant seeds of understanding and empathy that will be helpful in creating a more compassionate community.

3. Appeal to Values. Empathy may also develop out of deeply held religious values, ethical and moral principles, gratitude accompanied by a desire to “give back,” political and economic ideals, and concern for children and grandchildren. An appeal to these sensibilities—in faith communities, in political speeches, in letters to the editor of the local paper, in radio announcements, on billboards, and in public lectures, films, and discussions – may encourage the development of empathy necessary to accomplish the work of community building.

Moving to Compassionate Action

Scientific inquiry and research has demonstrated that performing or even just observing acts of compassion (or kindness or niceness—also referred to as “pro-social acts”) – can be as contagious as a biological virus (e.g., “Cooperative Behavior Cascades in Human Social Networks” by James Fowler and Nicholas Christakis in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America). Instead of causing the flu, however, being infected by experiencing or observing such acts can cause “elevation,” a joyous lifting of one’s heart and mind. To put it more clinically, we experience an emotional response to witnessing others’ acts, which make us feel unselfish, often with a desire to act similarly.


You can try out the idea of elevation for yourself by watching a short video about a boy who has no coat and is shivering in the cold at a bus stop in Norway. The video was filmed as an experiment by the Norwegian branch of the SOS Children’s Villages International charity as part of a campaign to provide warm clothing for displaced children in Syria. As you will see, many bystanders were moved to offer their coats or gloves to the child.

The challenge for the SOS Children’s Villages International is, however, to make the connection between that child sitting in the cold and other children who are suffering even more in war-torn Syria. Bystanders could see for themselves that the child was suffering from the cold, which they could feel as well. They were able to empathize, to feel the child’s pain, and that led them to have compassion and offer comfort, even though that meant for some of them that they would be without gloves or a coat themselves. How can we reach people within our own communities? What will move them beyond recognizing and empathizing to taking action?

1. Contagion of Compassionate Actions. One hopeful approach stems from research that demonstrates the contagion of compassionate actions. A research study conducted by James Fowler, associate professor in political science at UC San Diego and Nicholas Christakis, professor of sociology, medicine, and medical sociology at Harvard, provided the first laboratory evidence that cooperative behavior is contagious and that it spreads from person to person to person. They demonstrated that when people benefit from kindness they "pay it forward" by helping others who were not originally involved, creating a cascade of cooperation that influences dozens more in a social network.

Our work over the past few years, examining the function of human social networks and their genetic origins, has led us to conclude that there is a deep and fundamental connection between social networks and goodness," said Christakis. "The flow of good and desirable properties like ideas, love and kindness is required for human social networks to endure, and, in turn, networks are required for such properties to spread. Humans form social networks because the benefits of a connected life outweigh the costs.”

2. Paying It Forward. The research around elevation and the potential to create a chain-reaction of compassion provides hope for the idea that in any community (and perhaps in the global community) we can unleash a revolution of compassion by “paying it forward,” committing to act with compassion for anyone we happen to interact with throughout the day.

  • —While shopping at the market, for example, we might help someone unload the items from their basket or perhaps take a moment to talk with the cashier who has had to cope with a difficult customer.
  • —We may listen patiently to the technician at the dentist’s office who is worried about an aging parent or a difficult teenager.
  • —While driving in traffic, we can make it a point to be especially considerate of other drivers, bicyclists, and pedestrians.
  • —If we are serving customers in a restaurant, a friendly attitude and willingness to be helpful (even with rude customers) can be the catalyst that influences those customers to act compassionately on their own.
  • Attending a meeting at the office, we can be alert to those who are feeling ignored or bullied and provide encouragement or speak up against the bully.
  • We can be compassionate in talking with telemarketers, caring for children, or talking to a homeless person on the street. The opportunities for such actions are endless.

Each of our compassionate acts can result in more compassionate actions, thus reaching far beyond the initial action. The spread of compassion from person to person is the topic of a recent documentary film, Kindness is Contagious, directed by David Gaz. The film is based on a simple premise: “…many small acts of kindness may make more of a difference than a few big ones.” The thought is that kindness is viral, and the documentary captures small acts of kindness, interspersed with commentary about the nature of kindness and the benefits it can have for individuals, for health, for social well-being and for community.

3. The Sum is Greater Than Its Parts. In their book Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives, renowned scientists Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler use the metaphor of the “bucket brigade” to emphasize the increased effectiveness of people working in connected networks as opposed to the same number of people working as individuals. For example, if a house is burning and a hundred people (who happen to have buckets) carry buckets back and forth from the river to douse the fire, they will be ten times less effective in putting out the fire than a line of people passing buckets of water from the river to the fire. The immense power of social networks is one that we, as community builders, need to harness.

While individual acts of compassion are to be encouraged, often they may not be enough to influence long-standing, entrenched, and emotionally-laden issues within a community—gang violence, drug use, domestic violence, police brutality, homelessness, racial injustice, chronic hunger, and prejudice against immigrants. Even those of us who feel great compassion around these issues may feel powerless and perhaps hopeless in trying to resolve them on an individual basis.

But once we are able to tap into our capacity for compassion, and join our efforts with others who feel the same—a kind of bucket brigade –we are better equipped to seek ways to relieve the pain and suffering that we may have pushed aside and tried to ignore. Together, the possibility for increasing compassion within the community grows exponentially. At the same time, our compassionate actions have a positive influence on others, not unlike the spread within social media of “viral videos” that depict particularly tender, comic, or heroic moments in the lives of people throughout the world.

Developing and Promoting Compassion

It is certainly true that people within every faith tradition and in every nation across the Earth yearn for a more compassionate and peaceful world in which all people—and the Earth itself—can experience less suffering and greater well-being for themselves, their families, their communities, and their environment. But how can we inspire more people to understand the urgency of joining together with compassion, to take responsibility and care for one another?

Recent developments in positive psychology, emotional intelligence, meditation practices, and mindfulness training all hold out the hope that we humans can teach and learn the skills that will help us extend the hands of compassion to others. We offer a few suggestions here for how to develop and promote compassion in individuals and within the community:

Teach and Learn Compassion

  • Scientific research into the measurable benefits of compassion indicates that individuals can benefit personally by learning to be more compassionate. Compassion training programs for adults are underway at several institutions including Stanford University, Emory University, and the University of California, Berkeley. While findings are still preliminary, the research suggests that compassion can be learned, that formal training can help, and also that being compassionate can improve health, well-being, and the quality of relationships.
  • The Greater Good Science Center at Berkeley indicates that many scientists believe that compassion may even be vital to the survival of our species. On the Greater Good website you can read about some of their research findings, which include benefits of compassion for the health and happiness of individuals, parents, spouses, friends, and employees. Communities, of course, are made up of all the people and relationships on this list. The hope is that as compassion increases in individuals, that compassion will spread to others—from family members to total strangers—to create a more compassionate community.
  • Another useful tool for bringing people together is provided by the Compassionate Listening Project, a non-profit organization that offers the services of independent facilitators who offer training in their Compassionate Listening curriculum. They are dedicated “to empowering individuals and communities to transform conflict and strengthen cultures of peace.”
  • Author Olivia McIvor, in her book Turning Compassion into Action, provides some practical suggestions for those who want to reach beyond themselves to develop their compassion. In discussing the sense of loneliness that seems to pervade everyday life in our technological society, McIvor asks, “What would compassion do?” to bridge the gap for individuals who are feeling lonely or isolated. She suggests:
    • Create a new circle of friendship
    • Meet someone from another generation
    • Talk to a neighbor
    • Create or join a compassion club
    • Reach beyond your current boundaries
    • Identify what makes you feel included and forward that to someone else
    • Volunteer in your community
    • Commit to a conscious act of kindness every week
    • Ensure everyone feels valued, respected, and heard
    • Acknowledge someone you usually ignore
    • Ask, “What do you think?”
    • Listen with love

Gain Emotional Intelligence Skills

The skills that contribute to the various components of emotional intelligence (often called EI, or EQ)—self-awareness, self-management, awareness of and interaction with others, and resilience—can provide an excellent foundation for community builders in their work to bring awareness, build empathy, and move people to compassionate action within their communities. Emotional intelligence may be viewed as prerequisites to the development of compassion.

One of the foundational aspects of emotional intelligence, for example, is self-awareness, which includes “emotional literacy,” the ability to identify your feelings and emotions in a given moment so that you can then learn how to manage them. Emotional literacy, like other skills of emotional intelligence, can be taught and learned. Empathy—the ability to recognize and identify with the emotions of others—is another significant aspect of emotional intelligence training. A well-developed sense of empathy, or “emotional resonance” with another, paves the way for the development of satisfying and productive relationships. It can also result in a greater understanding and a more compassionate view of all beings and their suffering.

Build Compassion Education in the Schools

While adding to the school curriculum may not be obviously related to community building, we would be remiss by not mentioning the opportunity to look to the future by introducing compassion and related concepts early and often in schools. Fortunately, there are a number of projects and curricula in many countries that purport to do just that. The Charter for Compassion website includes a great many resources in this vein and also invites schools and institutions of higher learning to sign the Charter for Compassionate Schools.

Join Efforts with Others in a Global Compassion Movement

In the past fifty years or so, largely due to technology and new modes of transportation and communication, we have moved closer to the realization that we can no longer live in isolated communities, that we are indeed interconnected and interdependent. As a species, we can build on and extend familial compassion to an extended or blended family, to friends, and perhaps to acquaintances who share our community (a neighborhood, a school or college, a town or city, a state or province, or even a country). Efforts to foster and build awareness, empathy, and compassion in our own communities may lead to efforts on a larger scale—toward the realization of a world of peaceful co-existence.

 It is our task as members of the community to nurture those seeds of compassion in each other, so that they thrive, flourish, and make us capable of assisting all beings who are suffering or in pain in any way, both in our own communities and in every place on Earth.

The Charter for Compassion

In 2008, author and religious historian Karen Armstrong won the $100,000 TED prize for her wish to create, launch, and propagate a global compassion movement based on the golden rule. She worked with a group of scholars and religious leaders from all over the world to write what is now known as the Charter for Compassion, launched in 2009. As a document that sets out the basic principles by which the signatories agree to live, the Charter has inspired many thousands of individuals, who have signed on to it and have committed themselves to “make compassion a clear, luminous, and dynamic force” toward creating a “peaceful global community.”

In addition, the document inspired the establishment of an organization, the Charter for Compassion, which operates as a “network of networks”—our own version of the bucket brigade – to connect individuals, organizations, and institutions, as well as several hundred compassionate communities worldwide, which are already making compassion their focus and motivating force. The vision articulated by Charter for  Compassion is the following:

We envision a world in which compassion and compassionate action, as articulated in our Charter, will become a transformative energy, motivating individuals and communities to care for each other, to relieve suffering wherever it is found, and to connect to other communities across the globe to ensure well-being for all beings on the planet.

Charter for Compassion invites individuals, groups and organizations, and communities of all sizes to sign the Charter and join in working for a more compassionate world. The organization’s vision is to connect individuals, organizations, and institutions that are working to make compassion central to their daily activities in their own communities toward realizing its global vision.

Imagine what our 21st-century world would be like if somehow we reached that proverbial “tipping point” where people all over the globe took conscious notice of their everyday thoughts and actions within their local communities so that they treated other beings with compassion. What if individual hearts and minds were transformed so that, like Ebenezer Scrooge, we became conscious of the suffering of all other beings with whom we share the world?

What if we were able to take responsibility and look beyond our differences—of gender, age, educational background, socio-economic status, sexual orientation, religious affiliation, ethnicity, physical or mental ability, or any other difference that keeps us apart—to care for one another? How would this change our communities? How might it transform our world community?

Challenges, Issues, and Reflection Questions

While the vision of a compassionate world is a compelling one, there is much work to be done in developing compassion in individuals, in communities, and throughout the world. We offer the following questions to encourage your thoughts and ideas about how to accomplish this great work:

  • In a society in which wealth, fame, possessions, and physical beauty are constantly held up before us in the media, how do we encourage compassion and compassionate action within our communities? How can a modern-day “Scrooge” find that reservoir of inner compassion?
  • Should we extend compassion to those who have committed heinous crimes? To the mentally ill? To those who declare hatred of some other group(s)? To those who have personally injured or offended us or our loved ones?
  • Can “pro-social” actions be effective if they are not motivated by compassion? What if such seemingly compassionate actions are based on selfish or self-aggrandizing motives—improving one’s status in the community, for example?
  • How do we create healthy boundaries so that, like Avalokitesvara, we don’t experience “compassion fatigue” or fall into hopelessness?
  • What about those individuals who did not experience “familial compassion” in their upbringing and might seemingly be incapable of compassion? We know now, for example, that many infants who were abandoned to over-populated and under-staffed orphanages developed later difficulties in relating successfully to other people. Can such people learn compassion?
  • When faced with a “compassion predicament,” how do we choose our response? How do we decide on the “limits” for compassion?

In Summary

  • Compassion is a quality—an asset—that most of us are born with and that first develops in the caregiver-infant bond. This fact provides hope for further igniting and encouraging compassion in individuals, in groups, in communities, and in the world community.
  • Compassion has a fundamental role to play in resolving the challenges of our 21st-century world, and now, more than ever before, is urgently needed to assist the more than seven billion humans on the Earth in finding a way to care for each other and for the planet.
  • Experiencing the suffering of others, acquiring empathy for the suffering of all beings, reaching out to help with compassionate action, and feeling the “elevation” that happens when we perform or observe acts of compassion are all qualities that can be developed through awareness, experience, and training. And all are significant concepts to keep in mind in community building, for they can improve the well-being of any community.
  • Research findings in the neurosciences and psychology, emotional intelligence, meditation, and mindfulness can also play beneficial roles in developing self-compassion and compassion for others.
  • Each individual act of compassion can have far-reaching effects. The everyday compassion we show to family members, friends, and those we interact with daily in business and in the community is the fuel that will carry us to a world of well-being and peace.
Barbara A. Kerr
Bill Berkowitz, Editor

Barbara A. Kerr, Ph.D., whose background includes higher education instruction, administration, and consulting, is the owner of Emotional Intelligence Insights, which offers online courses encouraging emotional intelligence in the workplace. She has recently developed an online course offered through the Charter for Compassion: Emotional Intelligence for a Compassionate World.


Online Resources

Acts of Kindness Spread Surprisingly Easily: Just a Few People Can Make a Difference from Science Daily, University of California, San Diego. March 10, 2010.

Appleton Compassion Project.

Charter for Compassion. This website includes a great many resources, including a Charter Tool Box for organizing compassionate communities, compassion readers and annotated bibliographies in a number of sectors, and continually updated events and stories related to compassion around the world.

Charter for Compassion Tool Box.

The Compassion Anthology by Laurette Folk.

The Compassion Tour and the Red Bench from the Charter for Compassion.

Compassionate Listening Project.

Compassions: Definitions from the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University School of Medicine.

Cooperative Behavior Cascades in Human Social Networks from Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, Vol. 107, No. 12, by James Fowler and Nicholas Christakis.

Elevation Mapping: Pro-Social Compassion Maps by Daniel Martin. February 14, 2014.

Emory University compassion training.

Emotional Intelligence Insights.

Gaining Ground: Building Community on Dudley Street is a 2012 documentary film available for rental or purchase.

The Greater Good Science Center studies the psychology, sociology, and neuroscience of well-being, and teaches skills that foster a thriving, resilient, and compassionate society. Based at the University of California, Berkeley, the GGSC is unique in its commitment to both science and practice.

Holding Ground: The Rebirth of Dudley Street is a 1996 documentary film available for rental or purchase.

Kindness is Contagious, directed by David Gaz, is a 2014 documentary film available for screening.

Measuring Compassion in the Body by Emiliana R. Simon-Thomas.

Monica Lewinsky: The Price of Shame is a video from TED of a speech given by Lewinsky about public shaming and the toll it takes. She advocates for a safer and more compassionate social media environment, drawing from her unique experiences at the epicenter of a media maelstrom in 1998.

Oxford Dictionaries.

A Picture Is Worth.

Reading, PA. Knew It Was Poor. Now It Knows Just How Poor by Sabrina Tavernise, New York Times, September 26, 2011.

Stanford University compassion training.

Threshold Collaborative.

University of California, Berkeley compassion training.

Wellbeing Project – Santa Monica, California, Project Findings.

What Happened When Strangers Saw a Little Boy Without A Coat by Sarah Barness.

Your Brain on Fiction by Annie Murphy Paul, New York Times, March 17, 2012.

Print Resources

Armstrong, Karen (2010). Twelve steps to a compassionate life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Fowler, James and Nicholas Christakis (2009). Connected: The surprising power of our social networks and how they shape our lives. Boston: Little, Brown.

Keltner, Dacher, Jason Marsh, and Jeremy Adam Smith (Eds.) (2010). The compassionate instinct. New York: W.W. Norton.

Ladner, Lorne (2004). The lost art of compassion: Discovering the practice of happiness in the meeting of Buddhism and psychology. HarperCollins e-books.

Lown, Beth A., (2014). Toward more compassionate healthcare systems. International Journal of Health Policy and Management.

McIvor, Olivia (2013). Turning compassion into action. Lions Bay, BC, Canada: FairWinds Press.

Neff, Kristen (2011). Self-Compassion: Stop beating yourself up and leave insecurity behind. (New York: William Morrow.)

Rogers, Frank (2014). Practicing compassion. (Nashville, TRAIN: Upper Room, Fresh Air Books,)

Tenzin Gyatso, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama (2003). The compassionate life. (Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications.