We are wired for compassion and empathy. In spite of all the news stories that display the seemingly uncaring aspects of humanity, compassion for others is part of our biological and psychological wiring. Indeed, most of us are deeply concerned when others are suffering – and when possible, want to lessen their suffering.
This includes caring for animals – it breaks our hearts to see animals being harmed or abused.
We adore our companion animals, who are beloved members of the family. We do whatever we can to ensure their well-being, often spending a great deal of time, energy, and money toward this end.
And at the same time, we’ve been conditioned to turn away from the suffering of farmed animals who are part of our food system.
We become numb, desensitized, or blind to the inherent cruelty and suffering of this system.
For most of my life, I was blind to what happened to the animals that became my food. I didn’t allow myself to think about it – perhaps because I didn’t believe I had a choice. I thought animal-based foods were necessary for my health – after all, that is what I was taught in school, by authority figures, and in articles I read.
It wasn’t until I had the experience of eating delicious plant-based food at a conference center that I realized that eating vegan was not only possible but also could be highly enjoyable.
A few months later, I learned about the horrors of factory farming. At that point, I was no longer closed off to learning about what happened to “food” animals – I was deeply compelled to read everything I could about this topic.
I’ll never forget reading Diet for a New America early on my veg journey. As the author, John Robbins, described the conditions in which farm animals lived, the slaughter process, and the health and environmental consequences of animal agriculture, I was greatly distressed. I wondered, how could I have not seen this or known this before?
I made the decision to go vegetarian, and then years later, vegan, and haven’t looked back.
My heightened awareness of the plight of animals in our food system (and other systems such as research) has caused me emotional distress – especially when I acknowledge the scope of suffering caused by animal agriculture (i.e., about 80 billion land animals slaughtered per year worldwide). And yet, awakening my compassion has brought so much that is positive.
I feel more alive, authentic, free, and true to myself since opening my awareness and compassion – and choosing to become vegan.
Many other vegans also report this experience. I have been surveying and interviewing vegans as part of my book research on the emotional, social, and spiritual impacts of a vegan lifestyle. This awakening of empathy and compassion was noted by my research participants as a major factor that has contributed to greater overall psychological well-being.
As expressed by one participant: “My daily life is filled with peace, compassion, and equanimity, knowing that I am not harming other sentient beings.”
Another noted, “I’ve become my best self through empathy.”
Benefits of compassion
Compassion is not only good for those we want to help – but is beneficial for us as well. It is linked to numerous positive psychological outcomes:
- Increased happiness
- Decreased depression
- Greater resilience
- Improved social connection
- Better relationships
- Decreased burn-out and PTSD symptoms
- Better mental health
In addition, compassion toward animals can be an important indicator of how we treat other humans. There is recognition in the mental health field that animal cruelty is a predictor of violence against humans, while compassion and tenderness toward animals is associated with healthy prosocial behaviors.
What blocks our compassion for farmed animals?
Given that compassion is beneficial, and that we are wired to empathize, what blocks our compassion for farmed animals? Below are some of the contributing factors. (To delve into this question more deeply, I encourage you to read Dr. Melanie Joy’s book, Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows).
- We often don’t see the plight of farmed animals. Most slaughterhouses and factory farms are well-hidden from public view. Further, there are ag-gag laws that prevent journalists from taking photos or videos inside these facilities (except for those who courageously film undercover videos).
- We are raised and conditioned to develop relationships with certain types of animals, but not others. For example, we are taught to care about the birds who visit our bird feeders but not to think about chickens or turkeys raised for food.
- We learn to dissociate animal “products” (e.g., a package of meat in the supermarket) from the living, sentient beings they once were.
- Many of our educators, doctors, parents, leaders, and other authority figures have instructed us that we need meat and dairy to thrive.
- It can be painful to connect with our compassion and to witness the suffering of others. It moves us out of our comfort zone.
How do we awaken compassion for the animals in our food system?
Below are a few suggestions:
- Visit a farm sanctuary. This gives the opportunity to meet farmed animals close-up. You discover firsthand that these sentient beings have personalities, intelligence, feelings, social relationships, and preferences (just as our companion animals do). For me personally, Farm Sanctuary in Watkins Glen, NY has played a huge role in awakening and nurturing my compassion for these rescued animals (and for their brothers and sisters in the food system).
- Connect with healthy, positive vegan role models – who show that veganism is not only possible and sustainable, but also transformational. If you don’t know any vegans in your immediate network, join vegan or plant-based groups locally or on-line. Once we have vegan supports, and we learn how to thrive with a plant-based lifestyle, it is easier to open our compassion for the sentient beings in the animal agriculture system. This also empowers us to inspire others to open their hearts as well.
- Be compassionate to yourself. It can be challenging to connect with the pain and suffering in the world – and sometimes it can feel like too much. Especially for empaths, who may be greatly impacted by animal suffering and feel responsible for stopping the suffering. Include yourself in your circle of compassion, and prioritize healthy self-care, a good support system, and sustainable ways to act on your compassion. There are many helpful groups and resources to help you with self-care and self-kindness on your journey to living and expressing your compassion. Check out my resource list for books, podcasts, and educational resources.
Reconnecting with my natural compassion was one of the greatest gifts that being vegan has given me. Experiencing compassion for all sentient beings brings more meaning and fullness to our human experience – and moves us toward creating a healthier, kinder, and more sustainable world where all can flourish.
NOTE: An adapted version of this article was published on the Main Street Vegan blog 4/18/2023.
Angela Crawford, Ph.D. is a psychologist and transformational coach. She is passionate about empowering people to create healthy, purposeful lives that nurture mind, body, spirit, and the planet. Dr. Crawford is certified as a Master Vegan Lifestyle Coach and Educator, and has a Plant-Based Nutrition certificate from the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies at e-Cornell. She is currently doing research for a book on the psychological and emotional benefits of a vegan lifestyle. She serves as a psychology advisor for WeDIDit.Health, an on-line community that shares the benefits of a plant-powered lifestyle. She is also a supporting psychology expert for Compassion Rising, a compassion-based educational program.
3 thoughts on “Awakening Compassion”
Thank you for another excellent article, Angie! I find your writings and research very supportive as I inch along toward becoming the only vegan in a meat-eating family. I’m eager to read your forthcoming book!
Thank you, Rachael! I’m so glad the article was helpful. I really appreciate your feedback. Sending encouragement as you continue on your path! 🙂
Thorough,thoughtful piece on compassion and the disconnect with where our food comes from. Thanks for sending your post to me. Love, D