Cataloguing all the ills of modern society would be a big task. It might take daily blog posts just to keep up. And I think, ultimately, in 50 years all the people who now think overpopulation is the root of modern evils will be thinking (and saying), “I knew it.” And many will be saying, “I told you so,” though I hate it when people think they have to say that; we remember you telling us.
But overpopulation is what we psychologists, who think big words make us look smart, call a distal cause. There are more proximal (see previous sentence) causes too. Proximal causes are typically ones that we can do something about. Though true that choosing to have fewer children is doing something about the problem of overpopulation.
So here is my list of what’s wrong with modern life. And yes, eventually, this is going to relate to lasting relationships. The problem is that we have too much of some things and not enough of others. Things we have too much of: greed, greed, greed. Things we don’t have enough of: empathy, compassion, responsibility.
Now, you may have other things on your lists of too much and not enough (and I’d be happy to learn what they are) but I don’t think you can argue with mine. Some other time I will write about greed, empathy, and responsibility. Here I want to write about compassion.
Dictionary.com defines compassion like this:
com·pas·sion [kuh m-pash–uh n]
1. a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering.
Compassion is the opposite of schadenfreude (see first sentence of second paragraph), which is pleasure at another’s misfortune. In a recent article on compassion, Emma Seppala discusses many benefits of compassion. Of course, the benefits she describes are not just her opinion; rather, “Scientific studies show that being compassionate can have surprising benefits for physical and psychological health (p. 21).”
Not surprisingly, and finally, compassion can help relationships last. There are several ways that compassion can play a role in lasting relationships. First, research has found that kindness, a trait closely linked with compassion, is one of the most desirable traits in a mate. Deciding to be kind to others, not just to our partner, can lead our partner to continue to be attracted to us.
Second, there is evidence that it is, in fact, better to give than to receive. Or at least research has found that giving is as pleasurable as receiving. In research studies, the reward centers in the brain (those that are active when we are experiencing pleasure) are just as active for acts of giving and acts of receiving. So, giving itself is pleasurable and then consider the rewards we receive from our spouse when we have communicated that we have received pleasure from making them happy.
Finally, compassion can help relationships last because being compassionate causes us to think beyond ourselves. Rather than being focused on ourselves, this broader perspective allows us to focus on others, including our partners. So we may be more likely to consider our partner’s needs, see things from their perspective, and act with their well being in mind.
If all of this sounds vaguely familiar it might be because it supports all that we have said in the past about the value of communal relationships–those where individuals are more concerned with their partner’s well-being than with their own. Much research suggests that relationships that are communal, rather than exchange-oriented, are more likely to be rewarding and lasting. See our blog post on the value of communal relationships for more information on this idea.
As we continue to learn more and more about the benefits of compassion, we will learn more and more about its potent and positive effects on relationships. Compassion is powerful because it has a double impact. The first impact comes from the rewards we experience when we act with compassion. The second impact comes from the benefits we experience when others, including our partner, express their gratitude for our behavior. It is almost by definition a win-win situation.
In case you are interested, you can read more from Emma Seppala and contact her at emmaseppala.com.
Alan has spent 24 years as a professor of psychology at the University of Missouri. He is the founder of HelpingRelationshipsLast.com and contributes content regularly through blog posts and e-books that communicates the findings of psychological research on relationships. If you would like more information about Alan, please visit alanstrathman.com.