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Compassion is a core trait of humans, a functional emotion that has primary cooperative, protective, and caregiving features. It is relational and involves acts of care that enable flourishing and alleviate suffering It also strengthens our purpose in life, our relationships, and our sense of equity. 

On April 18, 2023, the John Templeton Foundation convened a group of influential thinkers and journalists for an opinion leader gathering to discuss the role of compassion in global health. This event was organized by the Foundation’s Thomas Burnett and moderated by award-winning writer for The Atlantic, Olga Khazan, who spoke with Liz Grant, professor at the University of Edinburgh and Director of Global Compassion Initiative.

The University of Edinburgh’s Global Compassion Initiative explains that global health is at the heart of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which aim to reduce  suffering caused by the inequity, injustices, inequalities and the degradation of the earth’s resources. These goals are based on the understanding that human health and the whole of humanity depend on the wise stewardship and flourishing of natural and societal systems. The values of global health include compassion, respect, and health equity. Interdisciplinary approaches are needed to transform our social, political, and economic systems so that all can thrive. Compassion is essential for advancing these SDGs, but there is a lack of compassion in global health today, undermining these efforts. So the question is, how can we reinject compassion into individual and collective action?

Watch the full conversation from this opinion leader gathering.

Liz Grant has been studying compassion in global health for over 30 years, focusing on how it’s practiced and the policies associated with it. To start off this conversation, she speaks about her work on The Global Compassion Initiative and what is missing from current efforts. She explains that there are four parts to compassion: noticing, interpreting, empathizing, and taking action. 

“Compassion is about noticing suffering, interpreting suffering, feeling into and being empathetic with suffering, and then taking action.” - Liz Grant

Though many people and organizations see themselves as compassionate, that might not always be the case. The term compassion tends to be thrown around loosely and has been transformed into a modern buzzword. She mentions that universities in particular can be very uncompassionate places. For instance, Grant cites that 46% of university students struggle with mental health issues and that number continues to grow. This poses the question, what is happening at these universities? The Global Compassion Initiative was set up to look at the science of compassion and compare it to the actual practices of it in order to help investigate these types of questions.

According to many experts who study compassion, the problem is that it is often overlooked in global health. Professionals work far from the people whose health they are attempting to improve. They see ‘numbers’ at the population level rather than individual ‘faces.’ Focusing on metrics, benchmarks, and outcomes frequently leads to a neglect of relationships, process, and compassion. Without actively remembering and prioritizing human ‘faces,’ public health responsibilities can become impersonal and distant. Compassion cultivation is thus a priority for health organizations. Experts like Grant argue that global health needs to be turned on its head, not just top-down but bottom-up. We need to be more aware of the suffering going on all around us and recognize that in a shared world we all deserve to be healthy – it should be a basic human right. 

Grant asks, “How can we bring the human face of health, and the human face of care, and the human face of sustainable development goals back, and can compassion help us?”

Grant gives the example of how the shared feeling of fear at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic brought people together. The pandemic demonstrated the importance of global health because it heightened the anxieties of many. Within communities, there were remarkable acts of compassion, such as neighbors checking in on neighbors, or customers buying food for strangers. This kindness was not always present, but the pandemic provided a space for it to be seen and allowed people to be empathetic. By acting to alleviate suffering, we must navigate the acute, complicated problems enduring from the pandemic and grasp the lessons that will lead to healthier, more balanced, and happier communities around the world.

What is compassion and why is it so important in global health?

In order to be compassionate, one must be alert to the fact that today’s world is full of suffering and we as humans can become conflicted at what to do when we notice it. Compassion and global health are both about recognizing there are so many people all across the globe that are suffering. Much of global health has been dominated by people and systems that are trying to do good, but often out of pity, not compassion. 

“If cruelty is the opposite of compassion, the far enemy of compassion, pity is the near enemy of compassion.”

Another question Grant asks is, “Are people in service to the economy or is the economy in service to people?” A compassionate approach is putting people at the center, and a compassionate economy would be in service to people. Health should be global and recognized in a shared world; we all deserve to be healthy, but we live in a society where adequate health care is lacking in so many places. Compassion, on the other hand, can help us see the suffering all around us and contribute to improving health around the world.