Great piece on compassion from Stanford’s Emma Seppala, PhD, whose work on PTSD and veterans was recently covered here. Tackling the question of whether women are more innately compassionate than men, Seppala outlines some of the scientific research on the topic before concluding:
Rather than suggesting that [bonding and nurturing] tendencies might have made women more compassionate than men, I would argue that they would simply have altered the expression of compassion. While women’s expression may have become one of nurturing and bonding, men’s compassion was expressed through protecting and ensuring survival (hunting, warfare). Compassion just took on a different “look and feel” depending on our evolutionary needs for survival.
One reason we might think that women are more compassionate than men is that we think of compassion in only one way: nurturance, kindness, softness, gentleness, and emotional warmth. We think of compassion in mostly feminized terms. It may be that, in women, we are conditioned to think of compassion as involving caring and nurturing but that, in men, it takes on a fiercer more protective appearance. From my work with veterans and active-duty personnel, I have seen deep expressions of compassion that do not have nurturing and maternal features. Think of the many heroic acts that happen daily in which people throw themselves into dangerous situations to help others. These are fierce, courageous and even aggressive forms of compassion.
Generalizations are generally never accurate. We often all engage in both nurturing and fierce expressions of compassion. Think of a mother who yells and roughly pulls her child away from oncoming traffic (fierce compassion) or military service-members who hold each other in grief after the loss of a friend. Love, compassion, kindness are natural to all of us in their varied forms of expression.
Seppala is associate director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education.
Previously: The promise of yoga-based treatments to help veterans with PTSD, How practicing compassion could ease or eliminate chronic stress, How being compassionate can influence your health, The health benefits of compassion and tips for dealing with unpleasant people, interactions and Dalai Lama and Stanford researchers explore science of compassion and altruism
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