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5 Habits of Highly Compassionate Men

Having compassion leads to increased happiness, freedom from gender stereotypes and better relationships with others.
 
 
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This article originally appeared on Greater Good, the online magazine of UC Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center.

I remember being a very compassionate child. While watching "The Little House on the Prairie," I cried my eyes out when Laura couldn’t give Pa a Christmas gift. But 12 years of physical abuse and being forced to the confines of the “act-like-a-man box” wrung most of that compassion out of me by the time I reached adulthood.

Although I was what therapists call “high functioning,” my lack of compassion was like a cancer that poisoned my friendships, relationships, business affairs, and life. At the age of 46, I hit rock bottom. Unemployed and on the verge of divorce, I found myself slapping my four-year-old son’s head when he wouldn’t listen to me. As the survivor of abuse, I had promised myself that I would never lay a hand on my children, but here I was abusing my beloved son.

I knew I had to change. I started with empathy, which led me to compassion. I committed to a daily meditation practice, took the CCARE Cultivating Compassion class at Stanford University, and completed a ten-day silent meditation retreat. I read and researched everything I could find on compassion. I found that the more compassion I felt, the happier I became.

Convinced that I had found an essential ingredient to a happy and peaceful life, I started to interview scientific and spiritual experts on compassion, trying to find out what made a compassionate man. Interviewees included Dr. Dacher Keltner, co-founder of the UC Berkeley Greater Good Science Center; Dr. James Doty, founder and director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University; Dr. Rick Hanson, author of Hardwiring Happiness; Marc Brackett, director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence; and Thich Nhat Hanh, the Zen Buddhist Monk nominated by Martin Luther King Jr. for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1967.

From these interviews and research, I compiled a list of what makes a compassionate man.

1. A fundamental understanding of compassion

Most events I attend that discuss compassion are predominantly attended by women. When I asked Thich Nhat Hanh how we could make compassion more attractive to men, he answered, “There must be a fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of compassion because compassion is very powerful ... Compassion protects us more than guns, bombs, and money.” Although many men in society see compassion and sympathy as feminine — which translates to a weakness in our patriarchal society — all of the compassionate men I interviewed view compassion as a strength.

Dr. Hanson noted how compassion makes one more courageous since compassion strengthens the heart — courage comes from the French word “Coeur,” which means heart. Dacher Keltner argues that Darwin believed in “survival of the kindest,” not the fittest. Dr. Ted Zeff, author of Raise an Emotionally Healthy Boy, believes that only compassionate men can save the planet. Zeff argues that “the time has come to break the outdated, rigid male code that insists that all men should be aggressive, thick-skinned, and unemotional” — an excellent description of the act-like-a-man box that I tried to live in.

The compassionate men I interviewed agree with the Dalai Lama when he said, “Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.”

2. Compassionate role models

All of the compassionate men seemed to have role models that supported their compassion instinct. Marc Brackett gives credit to his uncle, Marvin Maurer, who was a social studies teacher trying to instill emotional intelligence in his student before the term emotional intelligence was coined. Over 30 years after teaching in middle school, Maurer’s “Feeling Words Curriculum” acts as a key component of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence RULER program. Similarly, Marshall Rosenberg, author of "Nonviolent Communication," constantly mentions his compassionate uncle who cared for his dying grandmother.