I wondered today whether compassion is an antidote to a kind of lack of motivation, given that it remedies fear in the suttas, and often approach and avoidance are seen as opposite (e.g. fight or flight), and that in psychology compassion is linked with the reward system:

They [the researchers of the study] point out that a heightened sensitivity to suffering causes people to avoid that suffering because it doesn’t feel good; however, because the compassion training also seemed to strengthen the brain’s ability to regulate emotions, people may have been able to sense suffering without feeling overwhelmed by it. Instead, the care for others emphasized by the compassion training may have caused them to see suffering not as a threat to their own well-being but as an opportunity to reap the psychic rewards from achieving an important goal—namely, connecting with someone else and making him feel better.

“When your goal is to help another person, then your reward system will be activated when you’re meeting that goal,” says Weng.

By contrast, the reappraisal group’s goal was to decrease their own negative emotions, making them less inclined to be altruistic when confronted with someone else’s pain. “When you’re focused on decreasing your own negative emotions,” she says, “I think that makes you less focused on other people.”

How to Train the Compassionate Brain

I thus wonder whether compassion is said in the Buddhist tradition to increase motivation in general. I feel the Mahayana,which emphasizes compassion as primary quality with emptiness, appeals to householders historically in part because of this worldly quality of compassion.

Is there any evidence for compassion -- in the suttas or Buddhist tradition -- increasing motivation and energy aside from towards compassionate aims? In other words, does compassion increase drive in general?

  • Could you perhaps clarify what is referred to as "reward system" and what type of evidence you are asking for? I realize my questions may be tricky, but they could help to give a proper answer. – Erik Apr 17 at 14:26
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    In context, "reward system" is probably as used in modern psychology/neurology e.g. Wikipedia. – ChrisW Apr 17 at 16:59
  • Training your brain like training a dog? – brother eric Apr 19 at 3:40
  • @brother eric Yes, the biological reward systems are shared by - i'm guessing - all animals. In that sense dogs are no less sophisticated than humans. – Erik May 11 at 10:28

There's a risk that i've misinterpreted Weng, but she seems to operationalize compassion with the mechanisms in our reward system. As far as i know, compassion in a psychobiological sense doesn't necessarily have a lot to do with our reward system per se. The neural/physiological correlates in compassion and drive/reward emotions/behaviors are very different. If i understand her research, it's based on the idea of integrating the two systems of drive/reward behavior on one hand, with compassion goals on the other hand.

Going back to your question compassion is probably not motivating in a general sense, apart from altruistic behavior.


I haven't studied clinical psychology.

When I read this comment I discovered it has a doctrine or theory about something it calls "behavioral activation" --

In the case of depression there is ample clinical evidence for behavioral activation as a mean to counter a clinical depressions cognitions, emotions and behavior.

Using Google I found a quick description of "behavioural activation" here: Behavioural Activation: Behavioural Therapy For Depression Treatment

That theory sounds plausible (e.g. worth testing).

Anyway I think that adds insight or background information to the quote in the OP ...

When your goal is to help another person [out of compassion], then your reward system will be activated when you’re meeting that goal

... i.e. at least enough to help understand what Dr. Weng was saying.

And if that ties in (as it seems to here) to being a therapy for depression, that might answer your question about motivation -- because I think that depression is antagonistic to motivation in general.

Secondly, this article ...

Why You Procrastinate (It Has Nothing to Do With Self-Control)
If procrastination isn’t about laziness, then what is it about?

... claims that procrastination is a problem of emotional regulation -- i.e. it's caused by wanting to avoid emotional problems which you associate with the task that you're procrastinating about (and preferring tasks which give a short-term reward).

So perhaps this (quoting from the article cited in the OP), "the compassion training also seemed to strengthen the brain’s ability to regulate emotions", suggests another way in which it might improve "drive" -- i.e. by reducing a "need for procrastination".

I guess a question (perhaps your question, which I'm not sure this answers) is whether it improves all emotional regulation, or only the regulation of emotions associated with the suffering of others (compassion).

Thirdly, this article from a while ago, The Pursuit of Happiness suggests that with meditation (it didn't say what kind -- the sort practised by "the Dalai Lama's lamas, the monks") lets you "train" the mind to be "happier" and remain happy under adverse conditions (including specifically unpleasant external stimuli).

That too fits with the theory of what causes procrastination.

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