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Compassion for others can lead to more friends, success and sustainable happiness

Training to be more compassionate changes your brain for good

CNN  — 

Looking for a way to be happier? Are you seeking deeper connections with friends or looking for more friends? Want to relate better to your co-workers?

Try a little compassion.

Compassion, as one scholar describes it, is “experiencing feelings of loving kindness toward another person’s affliction.” It’s related to, but a little different from empathy, which the same scholar defines as “feeling with someone, that is, sharing the other person’s emotion.”

But compassion is not for the touchy-feely Oprah set alone. The U.S. military and professional sports teams found real success with mindfulness and compassion training. In fact, the baseball team that incorporated mindfulness practice into their routine last year, the Chicago Cubs, won the World Series. The “lovable losers” hadn’t won a World Series in 108 years.

“‘This training is not for wimps,’ as my grad student, who was a former football player, used to say,” said Amishi Jha, an associate professor of psychology. “This is for the toughest of the tough who want to make the world better and benefit personally, too.”

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    Jha has U.S. Department of Defense contracts to teach mindfulness and compassion to the military. At the University of Miami, she works with football players and regular students to teach them resilience in the face of high stress, and regular everyday stress, too.

    What she, and many other scholars have found, is that compassion is key to coping. The compassionate tend to have deeper connections with others and more friends. They are more forgiving and have a stronger sense of life purpose. Many studies have shown these results.

    Compassion also has direct personal benefit. The compassionate tend to be happier, healthier, more self-confident, less self-critical (pdf), and more resilient.

    But if you’ve ever struggled to find loving kindness for the guy who cut you off on your morning commute, know you are not alone.

    Recent politics have exposed real anger, coldness and polarization among Americans, polls say. We may even be getting less compassionate, as a 2009 study showed.

    Compassion takes practice. But if you do practice, the experts promise the next time you get cut off, while you may not be happy about it, it won’t ruin your morning.

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    How do you get to compassion?

    A whole industry exists to teach you compassion, but it doesn’t have to cost you money. You can start simply with a common exercise called the Loving Kindness Meditation. All you need is a quiet space and about 20 minutes, or 15 minutes if the thought of having to find 20 stresses you out.

    In that quiet space, sit in a comfortable position. Focus on your breath and try to clear your mind. The key is to be present in that space in that time. Then mentally focus on your heart area and think about someone you feel tenderness toward. This could be your spouse or your mom or your child.

    Dwell on those positive thoughts for a little bit. Then extend that same feeling toward yourself. Ruminate on that for a little while. Then expand that feeling out to others. Maybe think of someone you aren’t as close to and think tenderly about them.

    As time allows add more people to that circle. After a little practice, you can add people who don’t automatically inspire tender thoughts. Serious practitioners eventually add in all of humanity.