Compassion Defined through empirical research

Following is the collection of different definitions of Compassion that emerged through Empirical Studies (Source: The Center for compassion and altruism Research and Education, Stanford University)


Compassion a “concern for the wellbeing of others.” (Cosley, McCoy, & Saslow, 2010).

Cosley, B., McCoy, S., & Saslow, S. (2010). Is compassion for others stress buffering? Consequences of compassion and social support for physiological reactivity to stress. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 46 (5), 816-823.

Compassion “Is compassion a moral force? The answer, according to many spiritual leaders like the Dalai Lama, is a resounding yes. The experience of compassion, they assert, has a radiating effect, extending kindness and forgiveness toward others, even those who have intentionally transgressed.” (DeSteno, & Valdesolo, 2012)

DeSteno,D. & Valdesolo, P. (2012). The surprising truths about the liar, cheat, sinner (and saint) lurking in all of us. Psychology Today.

Compassion “In the classical teachings of the Buddhist tradition compassion is defined as the heart that trembles in the face of suffering. At times, compassion is translated as the heart that can tremble in the face of suffering. It is aspired to as the noblest quality of the human heart, the motivation underlying all meditative paths of healing and liberation.

Compassion is a response to suffering, the inevitable adversity all human beings will meet in their lives, whether it is the pain embedded in the fabric of ageing, sickness and death or the psychological and emotional afflictions that debilitate the mind. Compassion is the acknowledgment that not all pain can be ‘fixed’ or ‘solved’ but all suffering is made more approachable in a landscape of compassion.

Compassion is a multi-textured response to pain, sorrow and anguish. It includes kindness, empathy, generosity and acceptance. The strands of courage, tolerance, equanimity are equally woven into the cloth of compassion. Above all compassion is the capacity to open to the reality of suffering and to aspire to its healing. The Dalai Lama once said, ‘If you want to know what compassion is, look into the eyes of a mother or father as they cradle their sick and fevered child'” (Feldman &Kuyken, 2011)

Feldman, C., & Kuyken, W. (2011). Compassion in the landscape of suffering. Contemporary Buddhism, 12(1), 143-155. doi:10.1080/14639947.2011.564831.

Compassion “is the feeling that arises in witnessing another’s suffering and that motivates a subsequent desire to help (for similar definitions, see Lazarus, 1991; Nussbaum, 1996, 2001; see Table 1). This definition conceptualizes compassion as an affective state defined by a specific subjective feeling, and it differs from treatments of compassion as an attitude (Blum, 1980; Sprecher & Fehr, 2005) or as a general benevolent response to others, regardless of suffering or blame (Post, 2002; Wispe´, 1986). This definition also clearly differentiates compassion from empathy, which refers to the vicarious experience of another’s emotions (Lazarus, 1991).” (Goetz, Keltner, & Simon-Thomas, 2010).

Goetz, J., Keltner, D., & Simon-Thomas, E. (2010). Compassion: an Evolutionary Analysis and Empirical Review

Compassion “has been described as a path leading to greater awareness. For example, Feldman (2005) wrote:
One is to see compassion as the outcome of a path that can be cultivated and developed. You do not in reality cultivate compassion, but you can cultivate, through investigation, the qualities that incline your heart toward compassion. You can learn to attend to the moments when you close and contract in the face of suffering, anger, fear, or alienation. In those moments you are asked to question what difference empathy, forgiveness, patience, and tolerance would make. You cultivate your commitment to turn toward your responses of aversion, anger, or intolerance. With mindfulness and investigation, you find in your heart the generosity and understanding that allow you to open rather than close. (pp. 141-142)” (Hoffman, Grossman, & Hinton, 2011).

Hoffman, S., Grossman, P., & Hinton, D. (2011). Loving-kindness and compassion meditation: Potential for psychological interventions. Clinical Psychology Review, 31 (7), 1126-37.

Compassion is “…a multidimensional process comprised of four key components: (1) an awareness of suffering (cognitive/empathic awareness), 2) sympathetic concern related to being emotionally moved by suffering (affective component), (3) a wish to see the relief of that suffering (intention), and (4) a responsiveness or readiness to help relieve that suffering (motivational)”(Jazaieri, et al., 2012)

Jazaieri, H., Jinpa, G. T., McGonigal, K., Rosenberg, E. L., Finkelstein, J. Simon-Thomas, E., Cullen, M., Doty, J. R., Gross, J. J., Goldin, P. R. (2012). Enhancing compassion: A randomized controlled trial of a compassion cultivation training program. J Happiness Stud. doi: 10.1007/s10902-012-9373-z

“Compassion is a relational process that involves noticing another person’s pain, experiencing an emotional reaction to his or her pain, and acting in some way to help ease or alleviate the pain” (Kanov, Maitlis, Worline, Dutton, Frost & Lilius, 2004).

Kanov, J. M., Maitlis, S., Worline, M. C., Dutton, J. E., Frost, P. & Lilius, J. M. (2004). Compassion in organizational life. American Behavior Scientist, 47 (6), 808-827.

“Compassionin organizations makes people feel seen and known; it also helps them feel less alone (Frost et al. 2000; Kahn, 1993). Moreover, compassion alters the “felt connection” between people at work (Frost et al., 2000), and is associated with a range of positive attitudes, behaviors, and feelings in organizations (Dutton, Frost, Worline, Lilius, & Kanov, 2002; Lilius et al., 2003). Research and writing on compassion in organizations reveals it as a positive and very powerful force.

We regard compassion in organizations as processual and relational. It is common to think of it as an individual characteristic, and a given individual as being either “compassionate” or “uncompassionate”. Compassion is also seen as a state induced by another person’s suffering, a “painful emotion” that one person experiences for another (Nussbaum, 1996). In contrast, we conceptualize compassion as a dynamic process, or a set of sub-processes, that may be found both in individuals and collectivities. Building on Clark (1997), we identify these sub-processes as “noticing”, “feeling”, and “responding”, each contributing uniquely to the process of compassion.” (Kanov, Maitlis, Worline, Dutton, Frost & Lilius, 2004).

Kanov, J. M., Maitlis, S., Worline, M. C., Dutton, J. E., Frost, P. & Lilius, J. M. (2004). Compassion in organizational life. American Behavior Scientist, 47 (6), 808-827.

“Compassion comes into the English language by way of the Latin root “passio”, which means to suffer, paired with the Latin prefix “com”, meaning together – to suffer together. The concept of compassion and its link to suffering has deep philosophical and religious roots. For instance, Christian theologian Thomas Aquinas noted the interdependence of suffering and compassion when he wrote: “No one becomes compassionate unless he suffers” (cited in Barasch, 2005, p. 13). 

Ancient Chinese traditions acknowledge the interrelationship of suffering and human concern in the figure of Kwan Yin, often referred to as the goddess of compassion. Hindu imagery depicts compassion through a half-ape half-human deity, Hanuman, whose chest is cleaved open to reveal his heart to others undefended. Some Buddhist traditions induct individuals seeking to cultivate their compassion into the vow of the Boddhisattva, whose life is dedicated to being present with and relieving the suffering of all beings (Barasch, 2005; Chodron, 1997). A recurring theme is thus the relationship between one’s own suffering and self-oriented compassion, and compassion for others (Neff, 2003, 2009)” (Lilius, Kanov, Dutton, Worline, & Maitlis, 2011) .

Lilius, J., Kanov, J., Dutton, J., Worline, M., & Maitlis, S. (2011). Compassion revealed: What we know about compassion at work (and where we need to know more). Oxford University Press.

Compassion “is an empathetic emotional response to another person’s pain or suffering that moves people to act in a way that will either ease the person’s condition or make it more bearable (Kanov, Maitlis, Worline, Dutton, Frost, & Lilius, 2003). The action component of compassion distinguishes it from empathy (von Deitze & Orb, 2000), which is a passive, feeling state (Davis, 1994).” (Lilius, Worline, Dutton, Kanov, Frost, & Maitlis, 2003).

Lilius, J. M., Worline, M. C., Dutton, J. E., Kanov, J., Frost, P. J., & Maitlis, S. (2003). What good is compassion at work? National Academy of Management.

“Compassion is a multi-dimensional process in which three elements of compassion form a tri-partite concept: noticing another person’s suffering,empathically feeling that person’s pain, and acting in a manner intended to ease the suffering (Dutton et al., 2006; Kanov et al., 2004; Miller, 2007). All of these elements are necessary, in this view, to understand compassion. Importantly, compassion goes beyond felt empathy to entail action, which is regarded as a compassionate response regardless of whether or not it successfully alleviates suffering (Kanov et al., 2004; Reich, 1989; Soygal Rinpoche, 1992).” (Lilius, Worline, Maitlis, Kanov, Dutton, & Frost, 2008).

Lilius, J., Worline, M., Maitlis, Kanov, J., Dutton, J., & Frost, P. (2008). The contours and consequences of compassion at work. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 29, 193-218.

“Compassion is conceptualized as one form of emotional work and is theoretically developed through a model that highlights the subprocesses of noticing, feeling, and responding.” (Miller, 2007).

Miller, K. (2007). Compassionate communication in the workplace: Exploring processes of noticing, connecting, and responding. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 35 (3), 223-245.
Compassion “Although there is no single definition of compassion that will suffice in all situations, both scholars and laypeople would widely agree that compassion involves “connection” to others (either cognitively through perspective taking or affectively through empathy) and “caring” for those others (often in communicative or behavioral ways). Compassion involves a focus on the other (Solomon, 1998) and a desire for the other to have good things happen or to overcome adversity.” (Miller, 2007).

Miller, K. (2007). Compassionate communication in the workplace: Exploring processes of noticing, connecting, and responding. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 35 (3), 223-245.
“Compassion is often considered an important human strength, requiring a sense of caring, empathy, and sympathy, each of which enable one to connect with and care for another. Of notable relevance to mental health, compassion is not only a process that builds positive relationships with others; it is also a vital path to releasing the human mind from the effects of harmful negative emotions (Wang 2005)” (Mongrain, Chin, &Shapira, 2010).

Mongrain, M., Chin, J. M., & Shapira, L. M. (2010). Practicing compassion increases happiness and self-esteem. Journal of Happiness Studies, 12 (6), 963-981.

Compassion “In Western culture, compassion has mainly been understood in terms of concern for the suffering of others (Goetz, Keltner, & Simon-Thomas, 2010). As defined by Webster’s online dictionary, compassion is “the humane quality of understanding the suffering of others and wanting to do something about it.” In many Buddhist traditions, however, it is considered equally important to offer compassion to the self (Brach, 2003; Feldman, 2005; Salzberg, 2005). To give compassion to others but not the self, in fact, is seen drawing artificial distinctions between self and others that misrepresent our essential interconnectedness (Hahn, 1997). From this point of view self-compassion is simply compassion directed inward” (Neff &Pommier, 2012).

Neff, K. D., &Pommier, E. (2012, April). The relationship between self-compassion and other-focused concern among college undergraduates, community adults, and practicing meditators. Self and Identity, 1-17. doi: 10.1080/15298868.2011.649546.

“Compassion is one of the key values of humanities perspective, which addresses the nonphysical aspects of palliative care. The word “compassion” comes from Latin and means a willingness “to suffer with.” Compassion refers to a deep awareness of the suffering of another coupled with the wish to relieve it. Many of the world’s major religions hold compassion as one of the highest spiritual virtues. Compassion is also one of the chief virtues in the Buddhist tradition. In Asian countries, where Buddhism is much more prevalent, compassion is deeply embedded in the culture”

Shih, C., Hu, W., Lee, L., Yao, C., Chen, C. & Chiu, T. (2012). Effect of a compassion-focused training program in palliative care education for medical students. American Journal of Hospice and Palliative Medicine, 1-7.doi: 10.1177/1049909112445463

“Compassion has been understood in terms of concern for the suffering of others (Goetz, Keltner, & Simon-Thomas, 2010). With self-compassion, however, one is emotionally supportive toward both the self and others when hardship or human imperfection is confronted.” (Yarnell & Neff, 2012).

Yarnell, L. M., & Neff, K. D. (2012). Self-Compassion, Interpersonal Conflict Resolutions, and Well-being. Self and Identity.