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How to Create a Compassion Placebo




“Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries,” the Dalai Lama once said. “Without them, humanity cannot survive.”

This article concerns itself with compassion and the placebo effect. We will investigate what compassion is, why compassion is integral to humanity, and how our knowledge of the placebo effect can deepen our understanding of why compassion seems to be missing in much of our lives, and how we can support its (re)entry into our lives.

The Definition of Compassion

At the Placebo Research Center, we define compassion in this way: an abiding, motivating concern for the wellbeing of other living beings.

Compassion can be experienced for oneself, for another, or for any and all living beings. Compassion isn’t a stagnant emotion – it’s an emotion that motivates people to action, whether through prayer or meditation or through works in the world.

The Case for Compassion

While compassion can heal a world, a lack of compassion can leave it in tatters. We don’t have to be psychics to imagine a world in which people don’t choose compassion for themselves and others. We can simply look around: over one billion people don’t have enough food each day, dozens of countries at at war or on the brink of war, and man-made global warming is showing its disastrous consequences.

Our world is a reflection of a humanity’s values. Collectively, for generations, we’ve valued other experiences over compassion – superior Gods, arms races, monetary gain, and more. The consequences of such choices are evident today – various groups have proven their might, but oftentimes at the expense of compassionate lives. Yet compassion is required if we wish to address the suffering that exists in this world.

Compassion & the Placebo Effect

If it is self-evident that compassion is required for humanity to survive, then why haven’t we collectively chosen compassion? Why does a compassionate world seem to be so far beyond our grasp?

The answer, we believe, lies in the philosopher’s stone that has been around for millennia, yet that science is just beginning to understand – the placebo effect.

The placebo effect can be defined, in the simplest terms, as the power of our inner world – our observations, beliefs, and actions – to create meaningful, positive change in our lives. The incredible power of the placebo effect is beyond a doubt. Here are just a few of many, many recent placebo effect studies:

  • Placebo knee surgery (i.e. fake surgery) works just as well as the real thing. (pubmed study)
  • Heart failure patients who take placebo pills experience a 40% reduced rate in heart failure. (pubmed study)
  • Runners injected with placebo morphine (salt water) run just as fast as if they are injected with real morphine.
  • Golfers hitting a “lucky” placebo golf ball have more than a 30% improvement in their stroke.
  • Antidepressants are no better than a placebo in the vast majority of cases. (pubmed study)
  • To learn more check out our 101 Amazing Facts About the Placebo Effect eBook

What does the placebo effect have to do with compassion? The placebo effect is the process of our creating inner, positive change, whether consciously or unconsciously. Creating a compassionate world starts with ourselves – with changing our own capacity for compassion. The lessons of the placebo effect help us to understand: 1. why despite our best intentions we often times aren’t the compassionate people we desire to be, and 2. how we can create lives in which we are as compassionate as we desire.

Placebo Effect Lesson: If you want more compassion in the world, choose a compassionate life. 

In the last half century, thousands of studies have found that people can experience healing from the placebo effect, even when they know it’s a placebo. But much of their recovery has been random – people experience recovery not because they seek to bring the powerful placebo into their lives, but rather because they seek something else – any form of recovery – and fortuitously the elements were there to allow for a placebo effect to happen.

The opportunity with the placebo effect is to understand that it works because new observations and actions in our outer world positively influence the beliefs and experiences of our inner world. When we bring to consciousness our own experiences of the world we can choose the placebo effect we wish to have, and issue it into our lives. At the Placebo Research Center, we call this process the Placebo Method)

This reality – that we can actually create placebo effects in our world – is an important lesson for those of us asking how we can live more compassionate lives. Desiring compassion is a good first step, but it isn’t enough for change. We need to actively create compassion in our actions, and in the thoughts, beliefs, and observations that underly our actions. When we do that, we will find that our world begins to positively shift. Below are some simple steps you can use – that harness the power of placebo – to bring compassion into your life.

Simple Steps for Creating a “Compassion Placebo” In Your Life:

  • Observe a compassionate world – fill your life with examples of compassion all around you.
  • Think compassionate thoughts – watch your thoughts, and choose compassionate thoughts over those that don’t have the wellbeing of you or others in mind.
  • Feel compassionate feelings: Allow for compassionate emotions to well inside you – even cultivate those emotions. Compassionate emotions support your thoughts, observations, and actions.
  • Engage in compassionate action: Whether ritualizing compassionate thoughts, feelings, and observations, or participating in compassionate activities, make compassion a part of your active life.
  • Find compassionate community to inspire and reinforce the compassion you wish to bring into your life and into the world.


Each of us has all the tools we need to bring compassion into our lives and the world. All it requires is that we hone the lessons of the placebo effect, and actively seek to surround ourselves with compassionate observations, beliefs, and actions (i.e. create a “compassion placebo”).

In doing so, we won’t just be changing the quality of our own lives, we will be doing our part in stewarding the world toward a global compassion it must find if so that we may hand a sustainable, loving world to our grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

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