Can compassion be learned online? URI faculty find it can

Online compassion education leads to healthier minds for undergraduate students

Media Contact: Dave Lavallee, 401-874-5862 |

KINGSTON, RI — April 30, 2019 — The University of Rhode Island offered an innovative learning opportunity this semester for students to develop greater compassion for others, and improve their sense of well-being.

The program might be just what a hardened, less tolerant world needs.

Known as the “Compassion Study,” the program was created by Thupten Tendhar, a doctoral candidate and coordinator of the Inner Peace, Healthy Minds program at URI’s Center for Nonviolence and Peace Studies, along with his research advisor Professor Paul Bueno de Mesquita, center director. Tendhar said they were prompted to conduct this research because of the rise of stress and anxiety among college students around the world, and the need to address those issues, as they often lead to mental health challenges associated with harmful behaviors and violence.

“We can use holistic preventive measures to address these violence issues,” said Bueno de Mesquita. “It comes back to our own mind; there is more of a chance that people act less violently when they are in a more peaceful and compassionate state of mind.”

“The results were, quite frankly, extraordinary,” Tendhar said. An impressive 100 percent of the 92 participants who completed the online compassion training program, responded affirmatively to the statement, “Overall, these compassion lessons led to positive changes in myself and the way I live.” Compared to 94 students who did not view the lessons, students viewing all eight compassion lessons showed significantly greater outcomes on measures of compassion for self, compassion for others, and overall well-being.

The positive results of the study also were fairly evenly distributed across school year, ethnicity, and surprisingly, whether students practiced a religion or not. Tendhar and Bueno de Mesquita believe this suggests that anyone can benefit from learning more about compassion, regardless of their background.

Compassion, they decided, is a timely topic, and is one of the biggest factors in developing inner peace and a healthy mind. They then developed their “Eight Steps to Great Compassion” program, based on concepts from ancient Buddhist wisdom traditions, combined with psychological methods drawn from social learning theory, and delivered using brief online video lessons that could be watched independently at anytime, anywhere.

The study was composed of eight brief online lessons, each consisting of a necessary value on the journey to a life of compassion. The eight lessons taught were mindfulness, common humanity, gratitude, loving-kindness, empathetic concern, forgiveness, self-compassion, and finally, compassion for others.

In planning the research, Tendhar, a former Tibetan Buddhist monk and a Geshe level expert on inner peace, examined a number of existing compassion training programs being used and researched in the U.S., and all share similar themes and lessons derived from Buddhist teachings. However, he observed that most of these programs were time consuming, often taking 8 to 12 weeks to complete, and were very costly. These programs are obviously not feasible for most busy college students, who are already enrolled in full class schedules, holding down jobs, and who have little cash to spare for expensive personal self-development courses.

Tendhar and Bueno de Mesquita began brainstorming ways to incorporate these same Buddhist teachings into a program for undergraduates that would be free, individual, accessible, and able to be done at their own pace. Their goal was for the study to be an intervention to boost compassion among students on URI’s Kingston campus that employed a brief convenient format.

When determining how to maximize the results of their 8-day program, Tendhar also drew on methodology and previous psychological research discovered by social learning theorist, Albert Bandura. In the 1960s, Bandura conducted a series of experiments to better understand how people, and especially children, learn aggressive behaviors. Bandura found that people learn aggression and violence, predominantly from each other, through observation, imitation, and modeling, a theory now known as social learning. Based on this research, Tendhar and Bueno de Mesquita realized that they could implement Bandura’s social learning film-mediated modeling techniques into their study to maximize the results of their compassion-enhancing program.

As to the future potential of actually teaching large numbers of people to be more compassionate, the researchers are very hopeful. “Our research tells us it is very possible to use online brief interventions and education programs to reach a broader population, and it doesn’t require 12 weeks of intensive and often expensive training,” noted Bueno de Mesquita.

In each of the eight lessons, a brief description of a compassion concept was provided, followed by several video examples illustrating how one could embody these principles. Most importantly, these examples were performed by typical undergraduate student models.

Following Bandura’s findings, most of the participating URI students reported that they actually practiced and engaged in similar compassion actions following the lessons.

“Lack of compassion leading to violence is one of the greatest threats to public health in our country and the world, and accounts for one of the highest numbers of deaths and injuries worldwide,” said Bueno de Mesquita. “We are a small center working to accomplish a big mission, to address the problems of violence and create a healthier and more peaceful world.”

While this study was limited to undergraduate students, in the future, Tendhar is considering opening it to everyone on campus and to different populations of off-campus communities.

Lauren Poirier, an intern in the Marketing and Communications Department at URI and public relations and English major, wrote this press release.