The Case for Compassion

Compassion includes both inward love and kindness toward oneself and outward facing compassion for others; both of which influence our ability to connect with one other. When difficult times arise, compassion allows us not only to witness our own suffering and the suffering of others, but to want to be present with that suffering and to help alleviate the pain.

That nuance in particular — the desire to alleviate suffering — sets compassion apart from related concepts of empathy and sympathy. While the ability to recognize suffering without a clear avenue to change it can be exhausting and may lead people to pull back from engagement, the beauty of compassion is that it brings us together through simple and profound acts toward reducing suffering and pain in our community and world. 

Though compassion is not often discussed in terms of academic success, studies have shown that one’s ability to exhibit self-compassion has remarkably powerful outcomes for learning and growth, such as:

  • A correlation with an increase in accuracy of assessment and mastery-orientation, and with a decrease in performance-orientation;
  • Increasing individuals’ ability to enlist emotion-focused rather than avoidance-oriented coping strategies;
  • Decreasing fear of failure and increases persistence;
  • Increasing perception of competence;
  • Moderating reactions to real and potential failure by reducing perceived adversity of events.
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Failure as Opportunity for Growth

At the core of our work on resilience is the need to foster a growth mindset which allows the experience of falling short, e.g., receiving less-than-stellar results on an important test, to be seen as useful feedback rather than as a reflection on one’s inherent ability or self-worth (Dweck, 1999). 

While educators have struggled to find effective ways of fostering a growth mindset in their students, we believe that fostering self-compassion may be a novel and effective way to address mindset shifts by focusing on the three main components of self-compassion: self-kindness, common humanity, and mindful acceptance. In researching the effects of self-compassion on academic outcomes, Kristin Neff and her colleagues found that when receiving an unsatisfactory grade, students with high self-compassion had a higher likelihood of positive reinterpretations of their score and growth as a result (Neff, Hsieh, Dejitterat, 2005).

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Our Research

In the fall of 2017, the UWRL launched a research program to gather baseline data on students before they begin at UW — during their first quarter and at the end of their first year. Our research looks at students’ psychological capital (PsyCap) measuring hope, optimism, resilience, and efficacy as well as their self-compassion, their perception of supports, and connectedness to the University of Washington.

To date, we have collected data on 7,131 first year students (85% response rate). A mix of quantitative and qualitative measures reveal high levels of stress and anxiety regarding academics, failing, transitions, social connections, independence, and their futures.

Through our continued analysis, we hope to gain a better understanding of students’ states of mind before they arrive on campus, how the measures change over time, and whether certain measures predict academic success and overall wellness. We will utilize these data to develop actionable recommendations and interventions that can be implemented by UWRL and our cross-campus partners to normalize student experiences, improve student efficacy, and increase awareness and capacity for resilience.

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The Road Ahead

The UW Resilience Lab will continue to explore the nexus of mindfulness, compassion, and resilience through research, programming, and partnerships. Our upcoming initiatives include the following:

  • We have begun applying Neff’s (2003) self-compassion scale in our research that began in summer of 2017. We plan to administer the scale, along with several other measures, to all incoming first year students. This provides the ability to track participating students throughout their undergraduate experience until graduation in order to look at how their  initial self-compassion scores may predict resilience and likelihood to thrive at the UW.
  • Resilience, mindfulness, and compassion themes have already been developed into robust curricula across the University. We look forward to collaborating on curriculum design for undergraduates and graduate students that is more explicitly rooted in these concepts and that will help foster overall health and wellbeing.
  • As we build out a multi-year strategic plan, we continue to connect and collaborate with organizations and scholars across the country implementing this work in higher education, corporate, and NGO settings to help develop and implement resilience and compassion curriculum on college campuses nationwide.
  • Locally, we are partnering with community leaders to bring high-profile speakers on topics of compassion, resilience, dialogue across differences, and community healing to our campus. Through this partnership we hope to offer conferences on themes of resilience and compassion.
  • As we develop the University of Washington as a sustainable regional hub and national leader for compassion and resilience work, a goal is to leverage the excellent work of internal collaborators, external partners, and advisers.
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