Sunday, September 7, 2014

Teaching Compassion

"A Hint of Autumn"
-At the Desert Retreat House-

In this "back-to-school" season, results of some recent Harvard University research has just been released regarding the "values" held by America's school children.  I was not at all surprised to discover that, for the most part,  a vast majority of the kids in our schools today prize academic achievement  and individual happiness far above "caring for others." This should come as no surprise to anyone considering the fact that the main thrust of education in America over the past few decades has focused on fostering an individual child's personal success in the classroom.

The study goes on to conclude that this emphasis on personal happiness and individual academic achievement isn't really making anyone happy.  It creates a climate of bullying and aggression toward others - kids are being sent out into the future with little or no sense of the importance of working together for the common good. 

The Harvard researchers have suggested that teachers and parents need to refocus - teaching kids how to be "empathetic." They suggest that "empathy" is far more than "taking the perspective of another person." Empathy involves "compassionately" understanding and appreciating another's thoughts and feelings.

So, instead of telling kids "we want you to be happy," parents and teachers are encouraged to tell their kids: "In order to be happy, you must be kind." 

While I fully agree with the conclusions of those Harvard researchers, I am somewhat dismayed to think that we may have devolved into a culture that has become so highly "individualistic" that we have to actually teach kids to value empathy and compassion for others.   We have come to the point that we now have to  design academic curricula to help students consider what other students in a classroom might be thinking and feeling, motivating them to be really "concerned" about the feelings of others, teaching them to treat different others with kindness and respect.   

So, I think that a "course in compassion" should be offered to everyone in this culture- not just to our kids. In my wildest fantasy I wonder if maybe there is some way to demand compulsory attendance at this class.

Compassionate empathy is hardly an invention of 21st century educators. Every single major religious  and spiritual tradition points to a pathway of compassion and kindness, care and concern for the needs of others as the road that leads to ultimate happiness and peace in this life.

The often quoted advice of the Dalai Lama pretty much summarizes the spiritual wisdom common to all the many different traditions:

If you want others to be happy, practice compassion 
If you want to be happy, practice compassion.

It sounds to me that this is exactly what those Harvard researchers have been telling teachers and parents to say to their kids. 

The study just released out of Harvard offered this conclusion regarding the effects of teaching empathy and compassion:

A classroom full of empathetic kids simply runs more smoothly than one filled with even the happiest group of "self-serving" children. Life is more harmonious when students are able to feel for each other and put the needs of others ahead of individual happiness. 

If a classroom full of caring children makes for a more peaceful and cooperative learning environment, just imagine what could be accomplished in a world populated by such children.

People everywhere need to go back to school again and learn a lesson about compassion. 

In order to be happy, you must be kind.  


  1. As always, thank you for today's post.

    I wanted to share two organizations/projects which are indeed focused on compassion and empathy. My organization is a partner with The Charter for Compassion:

    This is another partner, doing wonderful things in the realm of empathy education in early childhood years: