Global Compassion Initiative

About Compassion

Describing compassion and its relevance to the University, Scotland and the world.

Compassion is multifaceted. It can be defined and described in multiple ways: as a skill, a value, a worldview, a way of being, a force for change, an ethos, an ethic, an attitude, motive and way of working.

Compassion is fundamental to our flourishing as a planet and species. It is essential to our lives – individually and collectively.  Increasingly  neuro and evolutionary science is showing that compassion is a core trait of humans, a distinctive functional emotion which has primary cooperative, protective, and caregiving features

Compassion is relational. It shows itself in acts of care that enable flourishing in ourselves and others and alleviates suffering. It is more than an emotion and more than empathy. Compassion requires action.

Compassion is not just feeling with someone, but seeking to change the situation. Frequently people think compassion and love are merely sentimental. No! They are very demanding. If you are going to be compassionate, be prepared for action!

Desmond Tutu

Compassion encompasses self-compassion – our capacity to be attentive to our own wellbeing and take steps to enable joy and alleviate suffering in our own lives. 

Compassion is seen in our responses to life - both in its suffering and joy – our actions to alleviate suffering as well as actions designed to augment connection, joy and wellbeing. 

Compassion changes how we understand ourselves, others and our communities, in a way that strengthens our purpose, relationships and sense of equity. It is at the heart of all we do to enable wellbeing and thriving. In compassion we will notice and empathise with pain or distress we see. It changes the way we understand the local and global challenges. It positively influences our individual relationships, personal and professional, and the systems we co-create. 

Compassion is not necessarily finding the ‘solutions’ or acting quickly. Compassion is foremost about human encounter – acts of connection with ourselves, others and our shared planet. Actions rooted in a shared sense of humanity.

The Global Interest in Compassion

While the concept of compassion has always been important, there has been a stepchange in the way that compassion is understood as an essential component of systems, services and institutional culture.  

The Scottish Government have entered their National Framework of Government with compassion at the heart, the English NHS has identified compassion as one of its six core values  of practice. Banking and Industry have identified that compassion is essential for ethical financing.  Alongside this institutional and corporate development thinking of compassion there has been a rise in strategies, tools and  systems of care which are individual and relational focused. 

As all countries seek to come to terms with the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic compassionate actions, and responses have been identified as essential.


Compassion at the University

At the University of Edinburgh we are concerned with both the science and the practice of compassion: 

  • What effect does compassion have? How do we know when compassion has taken place? How should we best measure it? What are its effects on individuals, workplaces and populations?  

  • How are we – as a community and institution – organising for compassion? How is the science and evidence of compassion impacting how we design and assess actions, processes and systems at University, city, national and global levels? Given the wide-ranging benefits of compassion, how can this be strengthened individually and collectively?

By building this evidence base we want to understand how positive impacts of compassion can be identified and realised on scale. 

We want care of people and the planet to be central to how we design and assess actions, processes and systems at University, city, national and global levels. All our ways of organising must be shaped to enable thriving and alleviate suffering.


Compassion, the SDGs and Planetary Health

Compassion is core to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). As a University we are committed to actively contributing to these goals both internally – by modelling the practices that will achieve a better world – and externally – by delivering teaching, research and praxis that actively contributes to the targets and indicators of the goals. 

Compassion is the glue that holds the goals together. At their most fundamental, the SDGs are about reducing suffering caused by inequity, injustices, inequalities and the degradation of the earth’s resources – so that our world will be transformed for the better. 

“We live in a time when science is validating what humans have known throughout the ages: that compassion is not a luxury; it is a necessity for our well-being, resilience, and survival.” – Roshi Joan Halifax

Planetary health is at the heart of the SDGs – it is the visualisation of the goals. The concept of planetary health is based on the understanding that human health and the whole of humanity depends on the wise stewardship and flourishing of natural and societal systems. Human activity is changing and destabalising the world at an unprecedented rate. Everything is interconnected and interdisciplinary approaches are needed. Action – acts of compassion – are needed to transform our social, political and economic systems so that all can thrive. 


Compassion as a Process

We find it helpful to consider compassion as a three part* process: 

  • Part 1: Noticing and giving attention to people and places - noticing what brings thriving and what is causing pain and distress. 

  • Part 2: Being moved to make a response to augment thriving or alleviate the suffering 

  • Part 3: Taking some kind of action to augment thriving or alleviate suffering. These are actions of encounter that arise from a shared understanding that all living things can suffer or thrive. 

Each of these parts is applicable when thinking about compassion at an individual level (including self compassion); as well as in relation to institutions, systems and whole communities.

Further reading:

  • Read about Co-passion – the sharing of enthusiasm  with others; described as the twin of compassion. Our Associate, Professor Anna Birgitta Pessi, leads the CoPassion Research Team at Helsinki University.


*This adapts and builds on the four part process articulated by Monica Worline and Jane Dutton in Worline, M, Dutton, J. Awakening compassion in the workplace. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Oakland California. 2017.


Compassion in a time of COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the world – our health, our health systems, our economy, our relationships with other people and other countries.

These articles – with GCI co-directors as contributing authors – present reflections on compassion in a time of COVID-19, and the opportunities and questions we need to consider.

Our friends at the Chaplaincy Centre have been publishing blogs to help us through COVID19 lockdowns and meltdowns, and to raise our spirits.