What is Compassion?

Our principle goal here at Students Affecting Change is to cultivate compassion in future professionals. But what is compassion really? Here is a great explanation from a journal article entitled Compassion and The Art of Family Medicine, available on the Medscape website (1):

"Compassion involves both sympathy and empathy. Sympathy could be described as involving compassion but not passion. Sympathy is the sharing or understanding of the feelings of another person. Empathy, derived from the German EinfüAduhlung, which means "feeling into," involves a closer and more involved understanding and identification with another person."

Emma Sepala, a researcher at Stanford goes further to define compassion as "the emotional response when perceiving suffering and involves an authentic desire to help." (2) 

What is all of this getting at? The authors are describing the important distinctions between many of the adjectives used to describe what compels us to help the less fortunate. A synthesis of the two definitions would imply that compassion involves both having an emotional connection to a particular circumstance, as well as the determination to do something about it. In even more simplistic terms, it is caring action.

For those of us entering into medical professions, fields notorious for provider burnout and fatigue, it is imperative that we first explore our ability to be compassionate. However, this extends beyond just those interested in the medical field. I believe that having a sense of purpose in life is a critical step towards achieving happiness and fulfillment, for anyone. It is through caring and empathetic action, compassion, that we begin to build that meaning into our lives.

Let's all ask ourselves:

How can we demonstrate compassion today?

How can we affect positive change in our community?


- Justin Thompson


(1)Rakel, Robert E. "Compassion and the Art of Family Medicine: From Osler to Oprah". J Am Board Fam Med. 2000;13(6)    http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/405817_2

(2) Seppala, Emma. "The Compassionate Mind". Association for Psychological Science: Observer. June 2013.