Can a TV show turn you into a better person? Seems so, if it’s the right show—specifically, the 1960s classic The Andy Griffith Show. Intrigued? I certainly was when I first heard this tip from the expert I contacted to talk about the importance of compassion. I’ll tell you about Andy in just a moment…
But first let me mention that nurturing a sense of compassion for others can be richly rewarding. Research shows that people who practice compassion through a network of friendships and community involvement tend to be happier and healthier. Besides, don’t we all dream of making the world a better place for our children’s children?
A person who grew up in a loving, nurturing home is likely to have a well-developed sense of compassion, but not everyone is lucky enough to have been raised in such an idyllic environment. When I spoke with Darcia F. Narvaez, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Notre Dame and author of Personality, Identity and Character: Explorations in Moral Psychology, she told me, “I grew up in an emotionally repressed household, and it was a lonely place. When I became an adult I recognized that my capacity for empathy was low, so I set a goal of cultivating more compassion for others.” You can, too. Here’s how…
Raise your awareness of the challenges others face. The first step is to practice putting yourself in other people’s shoes, striving to understand their perspectives and struggles. For inspiration, Dr. Narvaez recommended reading the book or watching the movie Hands on the Freedom Plow, about civil rights workers who endured great personal sacrifice to improve the lives of others. Or—yes, indeed!—it helps to watch The Andy Griffith Show (watch on your computer at www.TVLand.com/shows/andy-griffith-show). “The sheriff spends most of each episode trying to figure out how to help someone or how not to hurt a person’s feelings or sense of dignity. That show is saturated with examples of what we call ‘harmony morality,’” Dr. Narvaez explained. Stay away from talk shows rife with ridicule, resentment and contempt, she added—they harden your heart, making you feel superior to others and corroding your compassionate morality.
Take positive action to improve the lives of others. Next, enlarge your empathetic response by moving from compassionate thought to compassionate action. Remember, even a minor act may have a significant effect—for instance, a simple word of encouragement can give a coworker the confidence to tackle a difficult task. Not sure how to help someone? Ask…then truly listen to the answer. “To help my neighbor, I need to get to know her and her situation,” Dr. Narvaez pointed out. To keep this important life goal from slipping through the cracks, establish a structure for giving of yourself. For instance: Set up automatic deductions from your weekly paycheck to contribute to a favorite charity…schedule monthly volunteer sessions at a local soup kitchen.
“Each day, practice keeping others in mind for their sake, not for yours. Forgive the inevitable slights that come from others not being mindful of you and your feelings. Maintain a sense of partnership with others, avoiding patronizing attitudes and behaviors,” Dr. Narvaez urged. The more habitual such attitudes and behaviors become, the greater your capacity for compassion will grow.
Source: Darcia F. Narvaez, PhD is a professor of psychology and executive director of the Collaborative for Ethical Education at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. She is the author of several books, including of Personality, Identity and Character: Explorations in Moral Psychology (Cambridge), and blogs regularly for Psychology Today at www.PsychologyToday.com/blog/moral-landscapes.