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  • Writer's pictureDr. Lisabeth Medlock

Self Compassion May be the Key to Happiness

Individuals who are more self-compassionate tend to have greater life satisfaction, emotional intelligence and happiness, and less anxiety, depression, shame, fear of failure, and burnout.

Compassion, in the teachings of Buddhism, is defined as the heart that trembles in the face of suffering. It is our response to suffering in all its forms; the pain related to ageing, illness, trauma, loss, abuse, hunger, and psychological/emotional distress. It is compassion when we see someone in distress, feel their pain as if it were our own, and want to somehow stop or lessen that pain. The best qualities of who we are as humans-sharing, caring, sympathy, giving comfort- are all manifestations of compassion.

But we all know to put our mask on first before helping others, or to fill our cups so that we can fill those of others when ours runs over. Loving and caring for ourselves, and understanding ourselves, is necessary for caring about and understanding others. This is why self-compassion is so important. But there’s more. Research on self-compassion has shown that it is one of the keys to happiness and life satisfaction.

Kristin Neff, Ph.D., psychologist and associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin, has spent much of her career studying the construct of self-compassion. She defines self-compassion as treating oneself as one would a good friend; being kinder, gentler and more understanding with ourselves. At the same time, self-compassion involves spending less time in self-judgement, focusing on our mistakes and flaws, and in comparison/competition with others.

Her research indicates that individuals who are more self-compassionate tend to have greater life satisfaction, social connectedness, emotional intelligence and happiness, and less anxiety, depression, shame, fear of failure, and burnout (Barnard & Curry, 2011; Mills, Gilbert, Bellew, McEwan, & Gale, 2007; Neff, Hsieh & Dejitterat, 2005; Neff, Rude & Kirkpatrick, 2007; Williams, Stark, & Foster, 2008).

Dr. Neff identifies three core components of self-compassion. The first is engaging in self-kindness rather than being harshly critical and judgmental. Self-kindness involves having patience, sensitivity and warmth toward yourself and all of your feelings, actions, thoughts and impulses. It is also forgiving and affirming, even after failure, that you deserve love, happiness, and affection. Yes, you in all your imperfectness, are good enough.

Second, it requires recognition of our common humanity- feeling connected with others in the experience of life rather than feeling isolated, detached and alienated by our suffering. Buddhism asserts that we are all connected, that it is an illusion to see oneself as separate from others, and that we all long for connection. Common humanity entails recognizing this connection to others, particularly in times of confusion, sorrow, imperfection, and weakness. Often when we suffer or fail or otherwise screw up, we withdraw from others and hide because of our shame or blame. We feel alone in our struggle with inadequacies or failures. Self-compassion means accepting help, seeking connection and reaching for others in our times of need. No. we are not alone.

Third, self-compassion requires mindfulness—that we hold our experience in present awareness, rather than ignoring our pain or exaggerating it. Mindfulness involves awareness of, attention to, and acceptance of the present moment. It involves observing our thoughts and emotions without reacting to them. Mindful attention is thought to help one deeply experience and learn from the present without the distractions of self-evaluations or worries about the past or future so that people explore and learn from experiences (Neff, 2003a).

Yes, you need all three; self-kindness, common humanity and mindfulness, to have self-compassion and yes, they are going to require you to do some work. But the payoff is worth it. Neff has found that the good feelings of self-compassion do not depend on being special and above average, or on meeting ideal goals. The good feelings of self-compassion don’t go away when we screw up or fail or things just go sideways. It allows us to embrace our flawed, inadequate selves in a messed up world. This suggests that self-compassionate people are better able to accept who they are regardless of the degree of praise they receive from others.

Neff’s research suggests that self-compassion provides what she calls an “island of calm”, a refuge from the endless cycle of self-judgment, so that we can stop asking questions like, “Am I as good as they are? Do I deserve this?, Am I good enough?” In the end when we stay in a place of self-compassion and forgiveness, and recognize ourselves and others as flawed yet wonderful and worthy of connection, then we can begin to feel secure and fully alive.

Listen to Dr. Neff talk about self-compassion watch her;

Take a quiz on how self-compassionate you are


Barnard LK, Curry JF. The relationship of clergy burnout to self-compassion and other personality dimensions. Pastoral Psychology. 2011; 61:149–163.

Mills A, Gilbert P, Bellew R, McEwan K, Gale C. Paranoid beliefs and self-criticism in students. Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy. 2007;14:358–364.

Neff KD. Self-compassion: An alternative conceptualization of a healthy attitude toward oneself. Self and Identity. 2003a;2:85–101.

Neff KD. The development and validation of a scale to measure self-compassion. Self and Identity. 2003b;2:223–250.

Neff KD, Hsieh Y, Dejitterat K. Self-compassion, achievement goals, and coping with academic failure. Self and Identity. 2005;4:263–287.

Neff KD, Kirkpatrick KL, Rude SS. Self-compassion and adaptive psychological functioning. Journal of Research in Personality. 2007;41:139–154.

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