Positive Psychology & the Buddhist Path of Compassion
Lorne Ladner, Ph.D.

Lorne Ladner is clinical psychologist in private practice in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. Dr. Ladner serves as director of the Guhyasamaja Buddhist Center and is also the author of a number of books including The Lost Art of Compassion: Discovering the Practice of Happiness in the Meeting of Buddhism and Psychology.

Western psychology has tended to focus almost exclusively on pathology. In over a hundred years of our Western psychological tradition, our greatest thinkers and researchers have focused on understanding hysteria, obsessions, psychoses, compulsions, depression, anxiety, impulsive anger, personality disorders, and the like. On the other hand, very little scientific research or theoretical thought has gone into understanding positive emotions or the psychology of human strengths and well-being. Dr. Martin Seligman, a former president of the American Psychological Association, has written about our neglect of positive psychology, reflecting that “the exclusive focus on pathology that has dominated so much of our discipline results in a model of the human being lacking the positive features that make life worth living.”

There seem to be a variety of reasons for this historical neglect of positive psychology in the West. Our tradition of psychology has developed within the overall context of the Western disease model of looking at human beings. From Freud’s time on, doctors have received their pay for helping to relieve patients’ symptoms. And, research money has also tended to be spent on developing medications and therapies for the treatment of pathological symptoms. Also, psychologists have tended to be insecure in the scientific community where the “hard sciences” receive more respect than psychology does; for example, it’s not lost on psychologists that Nobel prizes are given to physicists and chemists but not to those who study the psyche. And, studying well-being or positive emotions has often relied on introspection and self-reports, which can seem less scientifically significant than things that can be more easily weighed and measured.

Among positive emotions, compassion has been particularly neglected in our Western tradition of psychology. Freud once advised psychoanalysts to “model themselves during the psychoanalytic treatment on the surgeon, who puts aside all his feelings, even his human sympathy.” Heinz Kohut, who is very well-known for his work on the psychological importance of empathy, warns psychologists that empathy (which he defines as a tool for understanding the contents of other people’s minds) should not be confused with “such fuzzily related meanings as kindness, compassion, and sympathy.” From early on, it appears that psychotherapists did not want to be accused of being compassionate.


Researchers have also tended to avoid studying compassion. I recently attended a conference at which a number of important researchers spoke about the dialogue between Buddhism and psychology. They noted that the Western psychological tradition does not yet have any agreed upon definition of compassion. Until psychology defines an emotion, it is extremely difficult to measure or study it. And, so although there are numerous psychological tests and measures for depression, anxiety, and anger, we do not yet have any reliable, accepted measures for compassion.


From a scientific perspective, when something is not clearly defined and cannot readily be weighed or measured, it is almost as though that thing does not exist. And yet, we can certainly all recognize that love and compassion do indeed exist and are certainly as real and as important as anger or anxiety!
Over the past few years a number of researchers have begun studying the positive psychology of compassion. As Buddhism places such a great emphasis on compassion as a cause of happiness and well-being, much of this growing interest has been initiated through the dialogue between Buddhism and Western psychology. In particular, a number of leading researchers have begun studying compassion as a result of ongoing dialogues with His Holiness the Dalai Lama.


Dr. Richard Davidson has studied the brains of meditators, discovering that meditation seems to strengthen connections and functioning in those parts of the brain that calm such feelings as fear or anger. When Dr. Davidson did a study of the brain waves of an experienced meditator he found the highest level of activity ever seen in brain areas associated with happiness and positive emotions.
In general, research suggests that meditation supports the development of positive emotions. And, preliminary research findings seem to suggest that meditation of loving-kindness and compassion are associated with feelings of happiness.


From a Buddhist perspective, this is certainly no surprise. For many centuries now, Buddhist practitioners in the great monastic universities first of India and then of Tibet, Mongolia, Bhutan, and other Buddhist nations have been systematically studying positive psychology. And, perhaps the most significant and practical psychological finding from all of those centuries of inner science is this: the most powerful way of becoming happy is developing compassion.


In the West, even our tradition of psychology often forgets that happiness is a state of the mind and so its main cause must also be psychological. Too often, we imagine that we can find happiness outside of ourselves-in wealth, success, fame, work, or relationships. The truth is that the extent to which we are happy depends mainly on our emotions. Even if we together with someone close to us in a very beautiful setting, if we ourselves are feeling extremely anxious or angry then we certainly won’t be happy. On the other hand, if we’re feeling very strong love or compassion, then we can be happy even in difficult external circumstances.


In my own clinical work, I find that people are familiar with how negative emotions can appear at different levels of intensity and power. Most of us know the differences between feeling annoyance, anger, rage, and hatred. We know the differences between feeling concerned, worried, afraid, and terrified. We can also recognize that the more powerful our negative emotions become, the more suffering they are likely to cause for ourselves and for others around us.


Yet, we do not generally realize that positive emotions also have such gradations. We do not even have a language to describe such levels of compassion-from mild feelings of concern for others up to overwhelmingly powerful and expansive feelings of connection, warmth and caring energy.
We all recognize how powerful feelings of hatred, terror or greed can be very powerful, leading to terrible results in the external world. However, we rarely seem to recall how positive emotions can be equally powerful. In the West, we often associate feelings of love or compassion with weakness; we too often imagine that one must be angry or arrogant to be strong. Borrowing from Buddhism’s tradition of positive psychology can help us to remember that compassion can also be powerful.


Various Buddhist traditions offer many different methods for cultivating positive emotions. There are relatively simple methods such as meditation of the four immeasurables (also referred to as the four BrahmaViharas) – meditating on limitless love, compassion, equanimity and joy. And, then also there are the more complex methods unique to Mahayana Buddhism such as the sequence of meditations called the seven point cause and effect method for generating Bodhichitta, which involves recognizing all beings as having been one’s kind mothers in previous lives and generating gratitude for their oceans of kindness until one develops an infinite commitment to repaying their kindness and sets out for Buddhahood in order to be able to do so. There is also the remarkable method called equalizing and exchanging self for others, which includes the well-known meditation on taking other’s suffering and its causes into your own self-cherishing while giving them your happiness and virtue.


I set out to write The Lost Art of Compassion in order to provide methods that ordinary Westerners can use outside of the Buddhist context. From a psychological perspective, what’s important is to become aware of the great value of compassion for our own and others happiness and then to apply practical methods in our daily lives for actually increasing our feelings of love and compassion.


If we spend time actively cultivating such feelings, then we will quickly begin seeing how they lead to happiness for ourselves. I just recently read one research study that found that people who pray for others tend to live longer than those who do not. The point is that when we develop feelings of love or compassion, we may not always be able to actually benefit others in a direct way, but we ourselves do always benefit from such feelings. They serve as causes for our own happiness.


And, as we give more and more time to developing such feelings, then we will naturally begin benefiting others as well. My experience as a psychotherapist has shown me that, contrary to Freud’s assertion, the expression of simple human compassion is healing in and of itself. By developing deep, powerful feelings of compassionate connection with others that we can learn to live meaningful and joyful lives. Only such feelings can help us to learn experientially how to work for meaningful causes and give of ourselves without becoming exhausted or burnt out-such feelings of joyful compassion teach us how taking care of others is actually a supreme method for taking care of ourselves.