Re-claiming Wellbeing: Courageous Compassion and Public Health

Over the course of the pandemic, I’ve come to recognise and regard courageous compassion as a, and perhaps the, core element of an effective public health system – and a happy and healthy society more broadly. Let me explain why.

Compassion- and what makes it courageous

Compassion is perhaps something we think we know when we feel it, but have not thought about what it actually is in much detail. Compassion involves ‘feeling for another’, and is a precursor to empathy, ‘feeling as another’. It is likely that these are often confused and conflated.

Compassion is also commonly understood as ‘concern for the suffering or misfortune of others’. Essentially, we as humans can feel concern for other beings, including animals, when we see them upset or in pain, and can also react emotionally and physically to the pain. Interestingly, research shows that the part of the brain which is activated when we experience pain, is the same part which is activated when we witness others experiencing it! Compassion, it seems, is hardwired into us.

Despite this, compassion in the 21st century would appear to be a scarce resource. In many places around the world, thinking of the self, rather than others, has become the norm. Sociologists have called this the individualisation of society; people are said to have been freed from traditional structural constraints so that they are now free agents to live their lives as they choose. In my own research, parents have told me how they invest so much in their children nowadays in order to help them stand out and ‘compete’ with others as they get older.

As well as cultural factors contributing to the scarcity of compassion, we ourselves often put up barriers and set ‘limits’. At times, it can appear like suffering and misfortune are everywhere; if we go around ‘feeling’ and concerning ourselves with it, then we might become overwhelmed or depressed. So then, it is natural that we may wish to protect ourselves by closing ourselves off. 

It seems then, that having compassion requires going against both the social norm and our instinct to protect ourselves. This is why I consider compassion to be courageous.

But why is compassion important? How does it relate to public health? And can we be compassionate without harming ourselves?

‘We are all in this together’

We have probably all heard the message ‘we are all in this together’ in relation to the Covid-19 pandemic at some point. Perhaps it came up in conversation or in the media, perhaps it was a marketing slogan adopted by your supermarket, or perhaps you heard it said by a politician. Although certain people and groups of people have been disproportionally affected by the pandemic, the sentiment ‘we are all in this together’ is incontrovertible.

Human beings are fundamentally interdependent. If you look around yourself right now at the material objects from your clothing to your phone, each of these probably came about due to the efforts of many other people. Furthermore, take a second to think about who exactly you are – you are likely the result of the guidance, support and kindness given to you by family, friends, teachers and strangers over your life, as well as the obstacles you have encountered and overcome.

There is a longstanding and lively debate regarding the extent to which ‘who we are’ is a consequence of our genetics or socialisation. I would argue for the primacy of the latter – we are all interconnected, not only through the resources we need for life (air, water, food), but also through the fact that a we cannot survive for very long at all without contact with other human beings.

Recognition of this fundamental interdependence is critical for those working in public health. At the heart of public health is people, and the endeavor to ensure that all have the resources for a healthy life as well as protection from the things that would threaten it. In this regard, the efforts of public health practitioners are somewhat invisible – if successful, ill-health does not occur! Most of us now enjoy access to clean water and sanitation that prevent us experiencing cholera and other diseases that once killed so many.

Interestingly, infectious diseases (notwithstanding Covid-19) are no longer the main issues public health practitioners are required to tackle; they are now ‘wicked problems’ such as persistent inequalities and ‘lifestyle’ diseases. These are so-called because they are ‘caused’ by extremely complex interdependence between large groups of people – global, in some cases – so to do something about them is near impossible. Climate change is an obvious example of this. It is a (and perhaps the) leading threat to life, and was caused by collective human action and can only be addressed through collective human action. So what about the collective; how is courageous compassion relevant to us all?

Courageous compassion and wellbeing

While many of us may prioritise ourselves over others and set limits or parameters to the compassion we are willing to give, it is well-established anecdotally and through research that kinder and more compassionate people tend to be happier. There is an important caveat to this though: it seems that having a correct understanding of the reality of suffering and compassion is really important. Life, as well as including great joy and beauty, also includes suffering and misfortune. We know this, but tend to have a hard time accepting it, questioning ‘why’ and thinking certain things should not happen.

Many of us also relate to compassion in a reactive, rather than proactive way. For example, I often fall into the trap of feeling overwhelmed and helpless when I witness others experiencing misfortune and suffering. However, I’ve come to realise that what I’m doing is reacting to others’ pain and filtering it through ‘myself’ and how it makes me feel. When I remind myself that others’ suffering isn’t about me and hold the proactive wish for them to be free of it, not only do I have more compassion to give, but I’m usually better able to help people. So if compassion is beneficial rather than harmful, how do we go about cultivating it?

Practicing compassion is at the core of a number of world religions and, more importantly, it appears to be a skill that can be cultivated. One Buddhist practice designed to develop compassion involves mentally exchanging the suffering of others for our own happiness: the practitioner mentally recognises the suffering and misfortune of others, and offers up their own health and wellbeing to them without the wish for anything in return! This, surely, is counterproductive to enhancing wellbeing and adding other people’s problems to our own must be burdensome?

Interestingly, practitioners testify that the result of this exchange is just the opposite. When we mentally take on, transform and dissolve the suffering of others through compassion, it actually dispels our suffering rather than adds to it and helps us to open our hearts to others. This counterintuitive exchange essentially breaks us out of self-centered dwelling on our own suffering and preoccupation with ‘me, myself and I’, which makes us unhappy. It seems practicing compassion is something through which everyone benefits! 

This blog is part of the WGU Health and Wellbeing Team’s drive to re-claim wellbeing. Could practicing compassion help us to do this? Stay up to date with the drive by following us on Facebook @glyndwrhealth and Twitter @glyndwrhealth. 


Written by Dr Sharon Wheeler, who leads both the BSc(Hons) Public Health and Wellbeing and MSc Health, Mental Health and Wellbeing programmes at WGU.