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The Science Of Compassion


Summary of Concern:

In the last several decades an area of scientific research specific to the topic of compassion has been growing. With a broad mission and an urgent agenda to creatively address human suffering, many disciplines are intersecting and collaborating: neuroscience, artificial intelligence, behavioral economics, health sciences, cognitive science, risk management, and organizational change management, to name a few.


Hopefully, it is a signpost of greater things to come regarding human flourishing in the modern era. As communities of faith and the healthcare sector struggle to comprehensively address the deep wounds of a violence and trauma saturated world, ​there is an opportunity and a duty for the business community, charitable and arts organizations, and government agencies to step up, partner creatively, and innovate solutions which will address the systemic and root causes of human suffering that impact modern life​. 


Scientific, business and governmental organizations can learn from how communities of faith use principles-based reasoning and voluntary engagement to build and support individuals in creating healthier, safer, more profitable, and flourishing communities. The science of compassion is a piece of this puzzle. When compassion interventions are deployed, measurable differences can be achieved.


Workplace as Case Study:

In a recently published book by Monica Worline and Jane Dutton, ​Awakening Compassion at Work​ (2017), a survey of workplace conundrums and design practices are reviewed.  Worline and Dutton state that “Even the most extraordinary seed cannot thrive in toxic soil.” In this book, they call upon organizational leaders to re-humanize the workplace with intention, design and action.


Specifically, they document instances of noticing, interpreting, feeling, and acting when in the presence of individual or organizational suffering or malfunction. They both document measurable differences after interventions and discuss the perils of how we measure productivity, sacrificing quality for quantity when “taking care” might mean “taking more time.”  While some of their architectural suggestions can be integrated and executed by savvy, robust and well-trained human resources departments, they suggest more comprehensive compassion by design.


While the catharsis of joyful distractions are significant for ameliorating suffering on some days (e.g, a company picnic, office celebrations, a retreat, or a raise in pay) on other days new technology training, wellness initiatives, personalized interventions, compassionate integrity training, or nonviolent communication skills may be part of the toolset for helping workplaces evolve.


While laudable ideals like resilience and authenticity are being championed by those who are thriving, there is a vulnerability gap for those with less power and autonomy. Reminding ourselves and our workplaces that to treat others as we ourselves would like to be treated is the age-old wisdom warrior known as the Golden Rule. The science of compassion is a modern day data-rich fulcrum for exercising this ancient principle. In their formulation, scientific research questions carry the values that we wish to see explored and expanded. 


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Science of Compassion Basic Bibliography


Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life
By Karen Armstrong (2011)


Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion
By Paul Bloom (2016)


Moving Beyond Self-interest: Perspectives from Evolutionary Biology, Neuroscience and the Social Sciences

By Stephanie Brown, R. Michael Brown, and Louis A. Penner (2012)


A Fearless Heart: How the Courage to Be Compassionate
Can Change our Lives

By Thupten Jinpa (2015)



By Kristin Neff (2015)


The Polyvagal Theory

By Stephen Porges (2011)


Altruism: The Power of Compassion to Change

Yourself and the World

By Matthieu Ricard (2013)


The Oxford Handbook of Compassion Science

By Emma Seppålå, Emiliana Simon-Thomas, et al.(2017)


The Body Keeps the Score:

Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma

By Bessel Van Der Kolk (1994)


The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society

By Frans de Waal (2009)


Managing Compassionately

By Jeff Weiner (Linkedln Pulse, 2012)


Awakening Compassion at Work:
The Quiet Power that Elevates People and Organizations

By Monica Worline, Jane Dutton, et. al. (2017)


Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life.  

Donald P. McNeill, Douglas A. Morrison, and Henri J. M. Nouwen (Doubleday, Garden City, NY, 1982)


Compassionate Listening and Other Writings by Gene Knudsen Hoffman


Quaker Peacemaker and Mystic. Ed.

By Anthony Manouses (Portland, OR 2013 [2003])

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