How to Be More Compassionate: 3 Strategies to Practice

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Bittersweet" by Susan Cain. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Want to learn how to be more compassionate? What strategies should you practice?

According to Susan Cain’s book Bittersweet, learning about the power of sadness is a great way to strengthen your sense of compassion. If you want to learn how to be more compassionate, she suggests practical strategies like cultivating humility or increasing self-compassion.

Read on to learn how to be more compassionate, according to Cain’s three strategies.

The Compassionate Power of Sadness

According to Susan Cain’s book Bittersweet, though we often shy away from the pain of sadness, it’s actually one of our most important emotions, and if you want to learn how to be more compassionate, then it’s important to also learn about sadness. This is because sadness is a prosocial emotion, meaning it engenders compassion and empathy for other people. When we see someone who’s sad, we feel sad too, and we want to make it better. Since sadness inspires us to care for others and drives us to help others in response, it deepens our bonds.

(Shortform note: Many studies support Cain’s assertion that sadness has numerous prosocial benefits. Since sadness inspires empathy and compassion, it prompts others to respond to our needs. For example, participants in negotiations are more likely to yield to someone who’s sad than someone displaying another emotion like anger, because sadness triggers empathic concern.)

How to Be More Compassionate

To learn how to be more compassionate, Cain says that listening to sad music can be a great way to access empathy and communion. If you want more ways to deepen your connection with others and develop your sense of compassion, Cain offers several strategies for learning how to be more compassionate: 

1. Be as humble as you can. If you think you’re better than others, you’ll struggle to empathize with their pain. Studies show that people of a high social status and an accompanying sense of superiority are less able to recognize and empathize with sadness or cultivate connections with others through bonds of caring. This inability to empathize makes them less likely to help others when they’re in need. 

(Shortform note: Cultivating humility can do more than teach you how to be more compassionate—it can bring you greater professional success as well. Research shows that humility and empathy are both important leadership qualities that spur success in business. Humble leaders inspire stronger commitment and performance among employees along with higher levels of innovation and creativity. Further, compassionate and empathetic leaders must practice humility to let go of their ego-driven behaviors and understand and uplift the people around them. This fosters positive, effective communication and collaboration. Evidence shows that companies thrive when their leadership promotes caring and cooperation over individual success.)

2. Increase your compassion toward yourself. Aside from learning how to be more compassionate towards others, learning how to be self-compassionate can help you empathize better, too. Engaging in self-compassion means quieting your negative inner voice as much as possible. This will increase your capacity for kindness toward others—to take care of others, you must first take care of yourself. To practice self-compassion, instead of berating yourself when you struggle or make a mistake, take a deep breath and engage with yourself like you would with a child. Imagine the kind of sweet reassurance a child would need, and offer yourself the same. 

(Shortform note: Self-compassion has numerous additional benefits that indirectly increase your ability to help others. For example, people who exhibit greater self-compassion are also happier, physically healthier, and less susceptible to anxiety and depression. This means they have more time, mental space, and energy to spend on helping other people. One exercise for practicing self-compassion is writing a letter to yourself whenever you’re struggling. This can help you process the feelings you’re experiencing, comfort you, and motivate you to make a change. Try writing from the perspective of a wise, kind imaginary friend, or say to yourself what you’d say to a friend going through the same thing as you are.)

3. Write about moments of compassion you experience. Regularly write down moments when you empathize with the suffering of others. This can reveal times when you feel strongly for others and, by omission, times when you avoid acknowledging the suffering of others. 

(Shortform note: Noticing these patterns of empathy (or lack of empathy) can help you determine which issues you really care about and how to be even more compassionate. For example, maybe you notice that you always tear up a little when you see a TV commercial about animals in need. This might indicate that you care deeply about animals, and it could prompt you to take action to help them by volunteering at a shelter or donating to a conservation organization. At the same time, you might notice that you avoid interactions with people who are sad at work. To increase your compassion in those situations, you might try checking in with your upset coworkers instead. You could ask them how they’re doing and practice active listening to show that you care.)

How to Be More Compassionate: 3 Strategies to Practice

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Susan Cain's "Bittersweet" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Bittersweet summary:

  • Why you should embrace a bittersweet disposition in life
  • How sadness has the power to foster creativity and empathy
  • How to accept your own mortality and the impermanence of life

Emily Kitazawa

Emily found her love of reading and writing at a young age, learning to enjoy these activities thanks to being taught them by her mom—Goodnight Moon will forever be a favorite. As a young adult, Emily graduated with her English degree, specializing in Creative Writing and TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), from the University of Central Florida. She later earned her master’s degree in Higher Education from Pennsylvania State University. Emily loves reading fiction, especially modern Japanese, historical, crime, and philosophical fiction. Her personal writing is inspired by observations of people and nature.

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