Adam Smith“How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.” – Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments

In other words, however individually successful you are, there is some part of you that will not allow you true happiness if you see that other people are suffering, especially if they are suffering as a side-effect or ‘collateral damage’ of your success.

I believe this is part of being human. We are not just individuals; we are social animals, and to an extent are ‘hardwired’ to take an interest in the wellbeing of people around us. Cooperating in groups enabled us to  hunt better, to develop agriculture, and to build civilisations. Some of our self-image is bound up in being part of something larger than ourselves, and in our interactions with people around us.

This sense of identity evolved in small groups of related individuals, where if we saw others suffering we had the opportunity to try to do something about it. Nowadays, when TV gives us footage of human suffering beamed into our living rooms from around the globe, the sense of needing to help others that our compassion excites may far exceed our ability to help – if we allow it to.

Our expanded awareness of the plight of others can have unfortunate consequences. I have a friend who, deep down, believes that she does not deserve to be successful unless every other person on earth is successful first. As a formula for blocking your own success, this could hardly be bettered. And, of course, by keeping her in a low-powered, inactive loop of struggling, it ensures that she is much less able to help others than she would be if she had the money, energy and security that comes with success.

I once heard a Buddhist (I think) parable which went along the lines of:

“The road you have to travel is covered in broken glass. You have a small piece of leather. Do you try to cover the road, or do you make yourself a pair of shoes?”

Or, more often heard on modern training courses, that part of the safety briefing that you hear on every plane trip which tells you to fit your own oxygen mask before helping others.

There are two situations I can think of where Adam Smith’s ‘principles in human nature’ which make you concerned for the happiness of others don’t operate. One is in the case of the psychopath who simply doesn’t have any empathy for other people. Incidentally, I came across the Adam Smith quote in an interesting critique in Forbes magazine of Ayn Rand’s ‘Objectivist’ philosophy (which if it had to be summed up in one word would arguably be ‘psychopathy’) from a free-marketeer point of view.

The other is the case where people have the full range of emotional responses, including empathy and compassion, but they are not aware of the suffering or happiness of others because they don’t see them – “out of sight, out of mind”.

This is the example I have in mind: while researching their book Unjust Rewards (about inequality in the UK), Polly Toynbee and David Walker interviewed high-earning bankers and lawyers about their perceptions of how less wealthy people lived. The interviewees showed very little awareness of the realities of life for most people; for example, when asked to identify the poverty threshold, they put it at around £22,000, which was in fact just below the median income in the UK. Living in gated communities, concierged luxury flats or lavish houses in ‘good’ areas, they had very little contact with people outside their own income and social strata.

Out of sight, out of mind. If Toynbee and Walker’s interviewees thought of less wealthy people at all, they imagined them as much better off than was actually the case, and also attributed poverty mostly to the moral failings of the poor.

In order to be fully human, we need our moral sentiments to flourish. So in terms of practical recommendations, I would say:

  1. If you find thinking about human suffering is draining your energy, remember to ‘fit your own mask first’.
  2. Instead of focusing on human suffering, focus on how to increase human flourishing. What do are you already doing that is working? What can you do more of to increase human flourishing?
  3. Look at the consequences of your actions – the decisions you make in your business, the way you live, the things you buy – for others. If you are not sure what these are, investigate further.
  4. Remember that the ‘fortunes of others’ can also make you more motivated. For example, research suggests that people feel more motivated when they get to see the difference they make to customers and end-users. So what could you do to find out the difference you are making to other people?



Compassion, energy drain, and motivation

4 thoughts on “Compassion, energy drain, and motivation

  • Great article and I agree with the majority of it.

    The one thing I would put a different take on is:

    “Nowadays, when TV gives us footage of human suffering beamed into our living rooms from around the globe, the sense of needing to help others that our compassion excites may far exceed our ability to help – if we allow it to.”

    I think in some ways we are overexposed to the pain of others. How often do we walk past a homeless person and avert our gaze? How often do we tell the charity collector on the street that you can’t help? I think the overload of suffering, pain and media exposure to said suffering and pain can dull the urge to assist. It can become hazy, a grey thing in the distance that we only see clearly when one of 2 things happen. 1. When it becomes personal to us e.g. someone we know or love or 2. We experience extra-overload e.g. Comic Relief where the suffering is so explicit, so powerful that we are moved to take action.

    Completely agree about psychopaths and Objectivism. Objectivism actually has SOME good points but is corrupted and eulogised by people to explain overwhelming greed and exploitation. Ayn Rand’s philosophy (built upon the horrors she witnessed in her native country) is deeply troubling and we see the worst excesses of it in the States. Millions languishing without healthcare, a wealth divide of shocking proportions. All too often Libertarianism and Objectivism seems to be one step away from bullying – might equals right.

    Sadly, we see both Smith’s examples AND Rand’s in modern society. Maybe this is the battle that is central to the human condition? The continual fight between the primitive greed side and the part that understands about betterment of us as a species?

    1. Thanks Jamie. Actually I’m not sure that our takes are all that different. ‘Compassion fatigue’ could be a defence mechanism against the distress that overexposure to the pain of others can cause us.

  • Hi Andy
    Great article. Your comments about the Buddhist attitude are spot on. During my own studies and practice of dharma this point was hammered home on many occasions. Unfortunately the idea of protecting yourself before others can sometimes feel like selfishness which it is clearly not, it is just common sense. I should have paid more attention to this teaching as during my years working as therapist I managed to drain myself completely – to the point where I couldn’t face clients any further. Not good for me or them. So grab the oxygen mask with both hands!

  • Thanks for another great article and really interesting reflections from your readers too Andy. I recently completed a masters dissertation on the importance of compassion in leadership, and looked at compassion fatigue as part of that. My research found that two things were really important , one echoed Brian’s comments on self first, in that self compassion isn’t selfish but actually very necessary to avoid punitive leadership to others, and in nursing, may be seriously lacking due to system pressures. The second was that compassion for others is seriously enhanced by connectivity…..if we recall a relative or loved one in distress or need, and then think of leading from compassion, it’s easier to do. My study was too small to be meaningful but my experiences in the field of healthcare over 30 years mirror the results . compassion fatigue could be argued like you say to be part of a defence mechanism, where people in caring roles become inured to seeing pain of others on a daily basis and are unable to fulfill their need to relieve suffering… they remove themselves . This, I would argue could be helped by providing supportive networks to help carers offload and share the pain they feel, and ironically , meaningful supervision could then reduce punitive supervision. Hmmmmm ……

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