Practicing Compassion Increases Happiness and Self-Esteem

Abstract

The current study examined the effect of practicing compassion towards others over a 1 week period. Participants (N = 719) were recruited online, and were assigned to a compassionate action condition or a control condition which involved writing about an early memory. Multilevel modeling revealed that those in the compassionate action condition showed sustained gains in happiness (SHI; Seligman et al. in Am Psychol 60:410–421, 2005) and self-esteem (RSES; Rosenberg in Society and the adolescent self-image. Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1965) over 6 months, relative to those in the control condition. Furthermore, a multiple regression indicated that anxiously attached individuals (ECR; Brennan et al. 1998) in the compassionate action condition reported greater decreases in depressive symptoms following the exercise period. These results suggest that practicing compassion can provide lasting improvements in happiness and selfesteem, and may be beneficial for anxious individuals in the short run.

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Fig. 1

Notes

  1. 1.

    Those under 18 years of age were not invited to participate in the study. However two participants who were 17 years old were included in the sample.

  2. 2.

    We investigated the possibility that participants’ mood at baseline (i.e. happiness, self-esteem, and depression) might predict completion or non-completion based on the exercise assigned. Several regression models were run predicting completion at 1 week, 1, 3 and 6 months with mood (SHI, RSES, CESD) and exercise condition as predictors. None of the interaction between participants’ mood and the condition assigned predicted completion of the project.

  3. 3.

    The relationship between baseline affect and degrees of freedom varied slightly across t tests because some participants failed to provide some demographic information.

  4. 4.

    The multilevel model in the prediction of self-esteem produced a main effect for income (Estimate = .07, SE = .02, t = 4.43, p < .001), and for payment status (Estimate = .23, SE = .08, t = 2.94, p = .003). Those with a higher income and those who were paid reported higher levels of self-esteem at baseline.

  5. 5.

    The multilevel model in the prediction of happiness produced a main effect for income (Estimate = .09, SE = .02, t = 4.79, p < .001), and for payment status (Estimate = .26, SE = .09, t = 2.74, p = .006). Those with a higher income, and those who were paid reported higher levels of happiness at baseline. However, a Time by payment status effect was also obtained (Estimate = −.03, SE = .01, t = −1.97, p = .05) and inspection of the estimates indicated those who were paid did not increase in happiness as much as those who joined the study without payment.

  6. 6.

    The dependent variables in this study (happiness, self-esteem and depression) were highly correlated, raising the question of independence between the constructs. It is possible, for example, that the increase in both happiness and self-esteem represent redundant effects. This issue was addressed in HLM by using “time-varying” predictors, which allows for the prediction of change in one outcome variable while controlling for co-occurring changes in the other “time-varying” predictor. In the first model, happiness was treated as the time-varying predictor of change in self-esteem. The results indicated that fluctuations in happiness significantly accounted for increases in self-esteem (Estimate = .07, SE = .03, t = 2.10, p = .04). The second model treated self-esteem as the time-varying predictor of change in happiness. The results indicated that fluctuations in self-esteem did not significantly account for increases in happiness (Estimate = .05, E = .04, t = 1.55, p = .12). These results suggests that happiness and self-esteem are inter-related but not equivalent.

  7. 7.

    The multilevel model in the prediction of depression produced a main effect for income (Estimate = −1.42, SE = .29, t = −4.91, p < .001), and for payment status (Estimate = −4.49, SE = 1.51, t = −2.98, p = .003). At the outset, those with a higher income, and those who were paid for participation reported lower levels of depression. Furthermore, a main effect for condition was obtained (Estimate = −7.21, SE = 2.29, t = −3.15, p = .002), indicating that those in the compassion group started the study feeling less depressed. The random effects for this model indicated that participants’ baseline depression scores were unrelated to their trajectory over time. Therefore, group differences at baseline should not have biased the rate of change rate obtained for the compassion and control group.

  8. 8.

    The longer multilevel model in the prediction of self-esteem also produced a main effect for income (Estimate = .06, SE = .01, t = 4.38, p < .001) such that wealthier participants had higher levels of self-esteem at baseline.

  9. 9.

    The longer multilevel model in the prediction of happiness produced a main effect for income (Estimate = .08, SE = .02, t = 4.47, p < .001), and for age (Estimate = −.009, SE = .004, t = −2.43, p = .02). Those who were younger and with a higher income, reported higher levels of happiness at baseline. A Time by payment status effect was also obtained (Estimate = −.03, SE = .01, t = −2.09, p = .04) and inspection of the estimates indicated those who were paid did not increase in happiness as much as those who joined the study without any payment.

  10. 10.

    The longer multilevel model in the prediction of depression produced a main effect for income (Estimate = −1.13, SE = .26, t = −4.28, p < .001), and a Time by age interaction effect (Estimate = .03, SE = .01, t = 2.10, p = .04). Younger participants reported greater reductions in depressive symptoms over time than older participants.

  11. 11.

    The main effects obtained in the regression analyses are not repeated here as they were previously reported in the multilevel modeling analyses.

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Acknowledgments

This project was funded by a grant to the first author from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. The article is based on portions of the second author’s honours’ thesis which was supervised by the first author.

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Correspondence to Myriam Mongrain.

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Mongrain, M., Chin, J.M. & Shapira, L.B. Practicing Compassion Increases Happiness and Self-Esteem. J Happiness Stud 12, 963–981 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10902-010-9239-1

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Keywords

  • Compassion
  • Compassionate action
  • Attachment
  • Happiness
  • Self-esteem