The Most Crucial Thing for Our Modern World

Compassion sign on tree

Author: Steven C. Hayes, PhD

Compassion Focused-Therapy (CFT) is part of a family of contextual forms of cognitive and behavioral therapy that are concerned with issues such as self-kindness, compassion for others, mindfulness, and values-based actions. The specific theories and techniques that are part of these new methods vary, but they are clearly interconnected.

Evidence-based therapies, and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) in particular, will soon be thought of more as comprising evidence-based processes and procedures for solving problems and for promoting human prosperity, than as named packages of therapeutic techniques linked to syndromes and the elimination of symptoms. As this transition occurs, I expect that process-oriented forms of contextual treatment will increasingly link a portion of their evidence-based change principles to compassion—from the points of view of evolution, learning, emotion, cognition, and culture. Thus the core vision of CFT, in my opinion, is likely to have a very long life indeed.

The human mind did not evolve for the present day. Modern technology, gushing a constant stream of images and sound, has created a fire hose of human language. Everything imaginable is there in the stream, but the biases of commerce and media mean that messages conveying courage, love, and connection are simply being overwhelmed by those spreading pain, horror, criticism, and judgment. If it bleeds, it leads. Pain sells.

But the reality is that human beings are the cooperative primates, and both the desire to be included and the effects of mentally including others are built into our bones, into our language systems, and into our cultures. Our ability to cooperate and to care about others is why we have a civilized society.

In order to have compassion for others we need to take their perspective and not run away when it’s emotionally hard. At the same time, multilevel selection theory teaches us that we evolved to be cooperative in part because of between-group competition. In the modern interconnected world, we can no longer rely on that mechanism—being “for” our in-group and “against” outsiders—to foster compassion and concern. We need now to care about that much larger group called “humanity.” That can be a challenge to us all.

If the core vision of CFT is here to stay, then it is up to evidence-based therapists across the board to take that vision seriously. This means digging in to the more specific predictions about processes of change, and their linkage to specific methods relevant to compassion, made by the contextual forms of CBT. We need to know how and why compassion is important in specific areas, and how best to target those areas. It will take a lot of cooperation and effort from a very large group to acquire that knowledge in detail and in a reasonable time frame. Those interested in compassion as a clinical issue and those practicing CFT will need to take part.

In the modern world, compassion is too crucial for us to do anything else.