The Compassionate Achiever: Understanding Empathy and Compassion So We Don’t Burn Out

Dr. Chris Kukk, author of The Compassionate Achiever, combines neuroscience with social sciences to discuss why compassion helps us achieve more. He also shares the difference between empathy and compassion and why one of these is a recipe for burnout.

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The Compassionate Achiever: Understanding Empathy and Compassion So We Don't Burn Out

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Date: February 19, 2018

Vicki: Today we’re talking with Chris Kukk @DrChrisKukk, author of the The Compassionate Achiever.

Now, Chris, you’ve really spent your life’s work combining neuroscience and social sciences. You even work with the Center for Compassion, Creativity, and Innovation.

How do these two combine? How do you combine neuroscience and social sciences?

Chris: That’s a great question.

It happens every day, Vicki.

I was really interested in how people — and why people — make the decisions that they make.

People who are Optimistic Literally See the World Differently than Pessimists

So for me, it’s not just the context that you’re in, but also what happens inside your brain that matters — what you're thinking, what matters, what perspectives you’re coming with, what kind of neurotransmitter are floating around in some people’s brain?

For example, if you’re highly stressed, cortisol is going to frame whatever you see in the world. Therefore, that will decide or help you decide what actions you’re going to take.

But if you have dopamine flowing around — that high rewards neurotransmitter — you’re going to see the world a lot differently.

Some people used to call me the guy with the rose-colored glasses. My glass is always half-full. They’re like, “You’re so naive. You don’t see the world the way it really is.

Studies have shown now that people who are optimistic, who have that dopamine flowing through, actually have a wider peripheral vision than the people who are negative.

Vicki: Hmmmm.

Chris: So guess what? The people who have rose-colored glasses? You see more of the real world than the people who are negative and are down.

Science has show over and over again that what happens in our brain — you know, we see with our brain, we don’t see with our eyes — and so we really should know what’s going on inside the brain if we want to understand actions and decisions that are being made.

We don’t see with our eyes. We see with our brains.

Vicki: But you know, Chris, these are difficult things.

You’re talking about The Compassionate Achiever, so you obviously care about achievement. I have people in my life — I tend to be positive. My mom says I was a positive, happy baby.

And you know there are some people who — they’re kind of born, and they’re a little more negative. What’s the research by helping us change that? Can we?

Can we change people who are born with a negative outlook rather than a positive one?

Chris: Yes. There are many ways, Vicki, yes. The short answer is yes.

And compassion can be taught, over and over again.

And we talk about that in The Compassionate Achiever.

So even Charles Darwin said that we’re born with compassion. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who is famous for the Social Contract, says that we were all born with natural compassion. But this is the trick, Vicki. Both of them say that we unlearn it through the way we structure society.

Just as an example — kids on playgrounds? When I was teaching overseas on a Fulbright in Estonia, I had 119 European students from all over the place, and I was explaining this theory called realism in international politics. Basically, if you push somebody down, you get to go on top. The world is a zero-sum game according to realism.

So I used the example of playing King of the Hill, that we play in the United States. I said, “You guys, when you play King of the Hill…”

The Games We Play Don’t Have to Be a “Zero Sum Game”

One young scholar… I’ll never forget her. She raised her ahd. She’s from Poland. She said, “Dr. Kukk, what’s KIng of the Hill?”

So I had to explain to a 119 European students that in the United States on the United states playgrounds, we actually have our kids play games called King of the Hill or Kill the Carrier.

That was shocking, and seeing their faces. They were like, “What?”

She raised her hand and said, “Thank you, Dr. Kukk.”

And I felt like, “Alright! I explained that really well!”

And then this is the kicker. My mouth then dropped.

She said, “That explains so much about the United States.”

Vicki: Oh!

Chris: Yeah, because they don’t play that there. Right?

And so this idea that Darwin and Rousseau say — that we were born with natural compassion and we unlearn it.

Unless, Vicki, you’re a psychopath. Psychopaths actually don’t have — and it’s actually been shown that — their brains are wired differently.

So we can teach that. And one of the ways we do it in the American school system is through social-emotional learning programs.

This is the other kicker! When you have social-emotional learning programs, and compassion is flowing through your school day and through your curriculum, you increase dopamine. Dopamine has been shown by neuroscience to be the “Post-It Note” for memory for all of us.

When you have more dopamine flowing through your classroom, you have better memory skills.

Dopamine improves learning and memory

Vicki: So, Chris… some people mis-define compassion.

You know, a student doesn’t have their work, or they don’t understand. “Oh, have compassion. Give them 100.” That’s not what you’re saying, right?

Chris: No.

What is Compassion?

Vicki: Can you define compassion for us?

Chris: Sure! Compassion has two parts.

One is this 360-degree holistic understanding of the problem or suffering of another. So the first part is basically understanding, but a holistic understanding.

The second part is then you have a commitment to take action to address that problem, to solve that suffering.

So, it’s this understanding and then action to take some kind of committed action to help solve that problem.

So, yeah, even my boys… I have 10, 12, and 14 year old boys.

And I discipline them, right?

And they’ll say to me, Vicki, “Aww, you’re supposed to be the compassion dude, right?”

Vicki: (laughs)

Chris: When I’m telling them they can’t (do something)

Vicki: (laughs)

Chris: So I tell them, “You guys are mixing and misunderstanding the difference between discipline and compassion. You can have compassionate discipline, yes.”

You can have compassionate discipline

Vicki: And that is so important to understand.

So, Chris, I know that you have a lot of research and information in your book. But give us an example of how schools can teach kids to have compassion.

Chris: Awww, there are so many fun ways. Let me give you an example.

This just came out in one of the schools there was this teacher that said a 7-year-old boy, “has not empathy, so he can’t have compassion.”

First off, empathy and compassion are not the same thing. You can have compassion without having empathy.

Empathy and compassion are not the same thing

I want to make sure that’s clear. We could have another whole show on the differences between empathy and compassion. But it’s clearly been shown in neuroscience that it’s different.

So I said, “If you don’t think he can have compassion — you know those pigeon books, the pigeon that rides the bus? Mo WIlliams drew the pigeon so that everyone could copy that pigeon. H said, “Ruin my copyright! Just take it.” He was on NPR, literally saying that.

I used that in classes. I said, “Draw a problem with the pigeon and the bus for that young man to try and solve. But leave the next slate blank.”

So we draw that one frame of a problem happening, and then ask him, “How would you draw the next frame?”

And he came up with two or three different solutions, compassionate solutions — not by talking, but by simply drawing it.

Then you can talk to those students about what they were drawing, about compassionate action.

So sometimes, our young students don’t have the words yet, to frame or to say what they want to say in terms of helping somebody. But trust me, they have it. They’re born with it. We just have to unleash it. One way we can do that is through comic drawing.

Vicki: So, Chris, why is it important for modern achievers to be compassionate? I mean, there’s research behind why compassion is needed, right? It’s not just a “nice to have”…

Chris: Right.

Vicki: … through character education. Aren’t there some real tangible benefits to being a compassionate person?

Tangible benefits to being a compassionate person

Chris: YES! Health!

There are so many.

If you look at one, just for your internal self, health. When you are having compassion, you are actually releasing a lot of endorphins. You’re releasing neurotransmitters, like dopamine (that reward level)and serotonin (that calming level).

You’re releasing and triggering a peptide hormone called oxytocin, which then releases all those great chemicals in your brain, lowers your blood pressure, reduces stress and chances for s heart attack. Those are just some of the health benefits.

But for team building, and for working with your colleagues and other teachers? It creates trust. It builds trust. When you have trust running through your team, you’re apt to do more. People are more apt to give more to each other.

The benefits are internal as well as external, and they go on and on.

There have been recent studies, and the Wall Street Journal just had this, in places in medical facilities where rudeness and incivility and the lack of compassion were high, there were more misdiagnoses. Wrong medications were given.

And when you increase compassion, the increase in health — less hospital time stays, people recuperating faster.

I mean, the benefits are all over the place, not just intellectually speaking. We have research, not just from the United States, but also places like Sweden, that show you that what happens when you have a compassionate classroom set up, what happens to those students in terms of their learning capabilities and abilities.

There are just so many wild benefits. You’re absolutely right, Vicki.

Vicki: So as we finish up… I have heard teachers or others say this before.

“Well, I have compassion all day long. I have compassion for everybody else. But nobody gives it to me.”

What’s your answer?

Prevent Burnout by Having Compassion, Not Empathy

Chris: They’re doing something other than compassion.

The reason I say that is that Dr. Tania Singer from Leipzig, Germany has shown us over and over. She was the first one in a September 2013 article. When we think in a compassionate way, we use the same neural circuits as love.

But when we think in an empathetic way, we use different neural circuits — the neural circuits of pain.

You get burned out. When you give compassion, compassion is given back to you over and over again. People come to you, even when you don’t even ask for help.

When you think in an empathetic way, you’re stepping into the shoes of another. A lot of people confuse empathy and compassion. They even confuse sympathy with compassion.

Sympathy’s not the same thing. That’ll burn you out. That’ll take you down.

But Vicki, when you’re in love? Like I’m going to be married to my wife this May for 30 years. When I give more love, I’m not burned out. I’m not feeling like I’m not getting love back. It comes back threefold, fourfold.

And compassion is that.

Vicki: So, I’m going to add on one more question even though we’re the 10-Minute Teacher. This is as much for me as for others.

When I do tests, I am off the chart empathetic. That’s me.

Chris: (laughs)

Vicki: And it can burn me out. I have to be careful, because I tend to feel the emotions of others.

Chris: Yes.

Vicki: Help me understand, in a healthy way, the difference between empathy and compassion.

Chris: And I’m glad you brought this up, because most teachers are attracted to that profession because they do have high levels of empathy. Same with nurses. Same with doctors.

Alright. So the basic difference. Think of empathy as having the same feeling as somebody else.

When someone else is down and depressed, you get down and depressed. Your brain doesn’t know the difference. That burns you out.

Having compassion. You’re feeling kindness toward somebody else. There’s a difference.

You can actually act to solve a problem without having to feel that problem. You can understand that suffering without having to feel that suffering.

So, it’s a lot like… for me, like a lifeguard. Before I was trained as a lifeguard, I thought, you go out there, right Vicki? You swim to them, and you save them, and you bring them back in.

But you’ve finally trained as a lifeguard, you don’t necessarily do that, because when someone’s drowning, they grab for you.

Empathy versus compassion: The lifeguard analogy

You know what you’re taught as a lifeguard in order to save them? You’re taught to take them down. Because they release you, they go back to the surface, and then you can go around and grab them — to then bring them in.

Vicki: Hmmmm.

Chris: Compassion takes that extra deliberate step of understanding, where empathy you’re just falling into the feeling. And you get lost. You can get stuck in that emotional quicksand.

Vicki: As we finish up, there’s a great old movie called Warm Springs. Kathy Bates is actually in it, and it’s about FDR. He’s feeling sorry for himself because he has polio. He doesn’t want to run for President because he said he was going to run for President when he could walk again. Obviously he couldn’t walk again. Kathy Bates in this scene says, “You are down in that hole. But I refuse to get down in that hole with you, but then I can’t pull you out.”

Chris: She’s avoiding empathy, and taking compassion.

Vicki: That’s right.

Chris: That’s right. You don’t get in the hole.

Oh, I love that! That’s a great line! (laughs)

Vicki: Oh, and I read it because I needed it!

You’ve helped me understand it, Chris.

So the book is The Compassionate Achiever by Chris Kukk.

Do check out the Shownotes. I’ve learned a lot! This is yet another example of how — when you share, when you blog, when you podcast — how it not only hopefully changes the listener, but it also changes the host, the person who’s involved.

So thank you, so much Chris, for helping me understand the difference between compassion and empathy. I think sometimes I get so empathetic, I become pathetic. (laughs)

Chris: (laughs)

Well, thank you for having me on. It’s an honor.

I’ve been following your work for quite a while, so this is an honor for me, Vicki.

Contact us about the show:

Transcribed by Kymberli Mulford

Bio as submitted

Dr. Kukk is the HarperCollins author of The Compassionate Achiever, co-host of The Compassionate Achiever Podcast, founding Director of the Center for Compassion, Creativity and Innovation, Professor of Political Science/Social Science at Western Connecticut State University, a Fulbright Scholar, Director of the Kathwari Honors Program, founder of the University’s Debate Team, and member of Phi Beta Kappa.

He received his Ph.D. in political science from Boston College and his B.A. in political science from Boston University. He was also an international security fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. His research and publications combine neuroscience with the social sciences and focus on education issues, the political economy of natural resources, and the creation and sustainability of civil society.

Dr. Kukk was also a counter-intelligence agent for the United States Army, a research associate for Cambridge Energy Research Associates, and has provided the Associated Press, National Public Radio, The Economist magazine, NBC-TV, CableVision, and other media with analysis on a wide range of topics and issues. His forthcoming books are based on the idea of weaving values such as compassion into our learning, civic, and business communities.


Twitter: @DrChrisKukk

Disclosure of Material Connection: This is a “sponsored podcast episode.” The company who sponsored it compensated me via cash payment, gift, or something else of value to include a reference to their product. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I believe will be good for my readers and are from companies I can recommend. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.” This company has no impact on the editorial content of the show.

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Vicki Davis

Vicki Davis is a full-time classroom teacher and IT Director in Georgia, USA. She is Mom of three, wife of one, and loves talking about the wise, transformational use of technology for teaching and doing good in the world. She hosts the 10 Minute Teacher Podcast which interviews teachers around the world about remarkable classroom practices to inspire and help teachers. Vicki focuses on what unites us -- a quest for truly remarkable life-changing teaching and learning. The goal of her work is to provide actionable, encouraging, relevant ideas for teachers that are grounded in the truth and shared with love. Vicki has been teaching since 2002 and blogging since 2005. Vicki has spoken around the world to inspire and help teachers reach their students. She is passionate about helping every child find purpose, passion, and meaning in life with a lifelong commitment to the joy and responsibility of learning. If you talk to Vicki for very long, she will encourage you to "Relate to Educate" or "innovate like a turtle" or to be "a remarkable teacher." She loves to talk to teachers who love their students and are trying to do their best. Twitter is her favorite place to share and she loves to make homemade sourdough bread and cinnamon rolls and enjoys running half marathons with her sisters. You can usually find her laughing with her students or digging into a book.

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