Is Compassion an Emotion?

In a Day 1 session of the Science and Wisdom of Emotions Summit, Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard (MR) asks UCSF pioneer in the study of emotions Paul Ekman (PE) the following:

Among the basic emotions that you have studied and defined through your career, altruistic love and compassion is not traditionally mapped as one of the basic emotions, yet it is one of the most powerful states of mind…. So what would be your view on compassion from the perspective of fundamental emotions?

Here’s how the conversation proceeds:


Compassion, I don’t believe, is an emotion. Emotions are momentary. They can come and go in a matter of seconds.

Compassion, as I understand it and observe it … is closer to an attitude. It’s an orientation towards others that prizes caring, consideration, helping, cooperating. Those are involved in compassion.

Emotions… you’re afraid one moment and not afraid the next moment. Emotions often are momentary.

You have to distinguish emotions from moods, because moods can last a whole day. I’m in a bad mood today; I feel discouraged no matter what occurs. That’s not an emotion. Emotions are momentary — important, sometimes destructive, sometimes not.

But compassion is an orientation towards life, and a precious one that provides the underpinnings of how we regard other people.


At the same time, when we feel a very strong expression of love for a child or someone — of lovingkindness — and a very strong burst of compassion for someone with an extreme suffering — … clearly things are happening in the face, in the physiology….


The face is very important as a signal system that lets us know how other people are feeling, that we can respond to, that we can anticipate and build upon, but … the face reflects primarily momentary states. Compassion is not a momentary state.

[Minutes 6:45 to 10:14]

Does this mean that compassion is indeed not an emotion? One gets the sense that Matthieu Ricard experiences what he calls “altruistic love and compassion” (note how he combines these two) as an emotion. And the Center For Nonviolent Communication (CNVC) lists “compassionate” near of the top of its List of Feelings.

On the other hand, Marshall Rosenberg, the father of NVC (Nonviolent Communication), while using the word “compassion” 53 times in his seminal book Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life, doesn’t include it in his list of feelings.

That Matthieu Ricard and Paul Ekman seem to differ on whether compassion is an emotion likely comes down to semantics. Dr. Ekman is is a scientist who studies emotion and so he must use a rigorous definition. Marshall Rosenberg had a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, and as such, also defined feelings with some rigor, although in his case the emphasis was on distinguishing non-feelings.

Dr. Rosenberg said that English-speakers frequently use the verb “feel” to express things that are not emotions, e.g. “I feel like a failure” or “I feel it’s useless.” His stated guideline is: “In the English language, it is not necessary to use the word feel at all when we are actually expressing a feeling: we can say, ‘I’m feeling irritated,’ or simply, ‘I’m irritated.'” Thus, while it might be uncomfortable and seems an unlikely way to talk of compassion, it’s not incorrect to say “I’m compassionate.” So one could argued that from an NVC perspective, compassion is an emotion.

Matthieu Ricard, while also a scientist, left that career in 1972 to practice Tibetan Buddhism. Buddhism doesn’t seem to have or need a precise definition of emotions, so it seems likely his understanding of compassion is based on his experience as a Buddhist practitioner. And that’s a perspective to take seriously.

Put all this together and it seems the answer to the question of whether or not compassion is an emotion is personal. My own take was relief when I heard Dr. Ekman say unequivocally that compassion is not an emotion. I love his clarity, even though I do have what’s at least a feeling-tone when I call up compassion. It’s a sense of connectedness and caring.

In the end, though, what really matters is what Dr. Ekman says a few sentences later: “Compassion is an orientation towards life — and a precious one.”