COMPASSION is a word we hear a lot at Christmas. This year will doubtless be no different, though we may look around the world and see the divisive election of Donald Trump, conflict in Syria and the rise of the far right in Europe, and wonder what happened to the principle of love and care. Last year Barack Obama called for it in his Christmas message, as did Pope Francis, who told his followers they should be “filled with empathy, compassion and mercy”.

Yet, all too often the word slips by, barely noticed because of its gentle familiarity, disregarded as the cry of the bleeding-heart liberal or religious devotee.

It’s there in our great Christmas stories. Compassion is the “ghost of an idea” to which Scrooge is converted in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. It’s A Wonderful Life, the perennial Christmas film, is essentially a tale of how small acts of compassion make a difference in the lives of those around us. As the angel, Clarence, says to disillusioned George Bailey: “Strange, isn't it? Each man's life touches so many other lives. When he isn't around he leaves an awful hole, doesn't he?”

Despite its long history as a central principle of the world’s biggest religions, often it seems that, even at Christmas, compassion is undervalued. One would almost think that it had fallen out of fashion – driven out by consumerism and the ideology of self-interest which so dominated recent decades. But actually, we are in a zeitgeist moment in which compassion is almost making a comeback as a value, and starting to receive the degree of academic attention that happiness and wellbeing did in the 1990s. Some of the strongest voices advocating for it are not religious figures, but neuroscientists, doctors and a whole raft of other academics who are harnessing empirical data to back up the notion that the practice of compassion is vital to the survival of our species, as well as our health and wellbeing as individuals. It’s even good for business.

At the heart of this are two universities: Stanford, the home of the Centre for Compassion and Altruism Research (CCARE), a department founded by neurosurgeon, Dr James Doty; and the University of Edinburgh, where the Global Health Academy has launched the Stanford-linked Global Health Initiative project. The research currently being done in Stanford and Edinburgh represents a profound shift, challenging the dominant view that humans are primarily selfishly motivated. According to these scientists, humans have two quite different biological drives, both essential to our survival historically, which co-exist and compete with each other – and one of these could be summed up as compassion.

Kirsty MacGregor, co-director of the Global Compassion Initiative in Edinburgh, explains: “At the centre of this is the idea that somewhere in our evolutionary biology there are two competing impulses, one being the selfish impulse ... and the other being this altruistic driver which revolves around the fact that we are more likely to survive by acting as a community.” Both exist within all of us. However, in recent decades the way we have operated as a society, and the ideologies that have dominated, have pushed the former impulse.

Compassion here is not a soft, fluffy kind of empathy. Instead, it’s courageous and dynamic. Dr John Gillies, co-director of the Global Compassion Initiative and former chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners, describes it as about “change and action”. For him it’s defined as “an acknowledgement that a person or individual is suffering or unhappy and having the intention to take action to address that”.

It may seem strange that we have to study this subject – that, as with happiness and wellbeing, it takes a whole field of scientific research to prove to us that something fairly obvious is both personally beneficial and important at a higher societal level. Does compassion really need the economics of productivity or health data to legitimise it? After all, it’s long been a central tenet, not just of Christianity and Judaism, but of almost all the world’s major religions, often delivered in the form of the golden rule, a principle which was summed up by Jesus of Nazareth as “do to others what you want them to do to you”.

But the ideology of self-interest has so dominated the way that we operate and see ourselves, that it is perhaps inevitable that some empirical data would be needed to counter it. “From the Thatcher and Reagan era on,” says MacGregor, “we had a whole input on the selfish gene and selfishness and look where it’s got us. There was a sort of ideological drive that was about 'me first', greed-based, and the whole edifice of the bad banking practice and bad business developed as a result of that value driver. Actually what we need is a world that’s more co-operative and more interested in survival as a species.”

Dr James Doty, the ground-breaking neurosurgeon who founded CCARE, has quoted the Dalai Llama, a firm advocate of compassion, who once said to him: “If we say the practice of compassion is something holy, nobody will listen. If we say, warm-heartedness really reduces your blood pressure, your anxiety, your stress and improves your health, then people pay attention.”

Doty has long been interested in uncovering, through scientific research, why compassion might have been so critical to human survival. To do this he looked back at the attributes that allowed us “to survive and separate us as a species from others”. He lists a series of traits, including the fact unlike other species, whose offspring "can run off into the forest" after a short time, ours need looked after for a decade, during which they learn by mirroring our behaviour. Doty describes the caring that is done for these offspring as compassion, and notes that the reward we receive for comes in the form of oxytocin, the love hormone. “When you care for another, when you demonstrate the motivation to relieve another’s suffering, then your neurons release oxytocin and that results in increased metabolism in our rewards centres.” But, he observes, it is not only our offspring who were recipients of this compassion. As we evolved into hunter-gatherer tribes, it became important that we applied it to the whole of our group.

However, this is not the only drive that our early evolution has left us with. There is also the “fight, flight or freeze response”, in which we engage when afraid or anxious. In recent times, he notes, particularly during the fearmongering climate of the US election campaign, this response has frequently been provoked. When people are in this state, he says, “they are not thoughtful. They just want to get out of the situation. These survival mechanisms kick in and these are typically associated with closing yourself off to other opinions that require thought or inclusivity. You become exclusive. You feel comfortable hanging around people that are more like you, because you feel safe”.

Doty describes this “evolutionary baggage” as “not particularly helpful” in many contemporary situations. “When you create fear and anxiety people are no longer able to look at 'the other' as themselves. The other is foreign, the other becomes scary. That’s basically [the climate] we’re living in. So we do need compassion. We do need education. We know that when we learn more about the other it makes us feel much safer."

When we practise compassion, Doty observes, it has almost the very opposite effect of this fight or flight response, stimulating a different system, known as the parasympathetic nervous system. “It makes you feel good, makes you healthier, it decreases the release of stress hormones and it makes the world a better place.” Research has also revealed that compassion can prompt a cascade of virtuous behaviour. Simply put, one kind act triggers another.

Studies have even shown that, for organisations and companies, introducing a principle of compassion can be good for the bottom line. “A growing body of research,” says Kirsty MacGregor, “is showing how if you are a compassionate [employer] there are tremendous benefits. Your workforce is happier, more resilient and healthier. You retain people more. You get increased productivity, increased creativity.”

Being compassionate, however, can often be a struggle. We live in a world that is relentlessly connected and digitally frenetic, in which focusing on the person right in front of us, without distraction, takes effort, and in which 24/7 news is constantly triggering our “fight or flight” response. There are also, as Dr John Gillies notes, barriers created by prevalent ideologies. “For the last 30 years we’ve lived in a society which has revolved around the economics of individualism. We are homo economicus, judged by our outputs. I think these factors mitigate against compassion.”

The structure of organisations, companies and society can also work against us. Gillies, a doctor since 1976, observes that such obstacles exist even for people whose job it is to care, such as doctors and nurses. “Very often health systems are set up in such a way as to maximise the efficiency of the managers, doctors and nurses, rather than the patients.” He notes that, while the NHS is theoretically committed to shifting to a more personalised approach, a 10-minute appointment timeslot doesn't allow that to be delivered, as there’s little time for a GP to get to know the patient.

Compassion is not just for healthcare professionals, of course. It’s for all of us. Though many of the big issues in the world can seem too overwhelming for any individual, a key question is how we can be more compassionate in our daily lives: in our workplaces and communities. Most proponents believe that this is something we can learn, that it is a practice akin to mindfulness. Kirsty MacGregor describes the process as “mindfulness plus”. “Mindfulness,” she says, “is a deep awareness, but has no value system. By contrast compassion is actually about active cultivation of the heart and kindness."

MacGregor advises starting compassion cultivation with small acts: “Very simple acts of giving which don’t mean you have to change your life. Getting involved with some simple charitable activity. Or just stopping and giving help to someone who needs it. There’s a very simple close level which is just nudging your system into daily acts.”

Meanwhile, it’s not all doom and gloom. On many levels humanity has improved. As the cognitive scientist Steven Pinker has documented, there is less violence today than in previous centuries. Our society has, philosopher Peter Singer observed, “expanded its field of moral concern” – more and more of us care about what happens to people of very different backgrounds and experiences.

Dr John Gillies observes: “We are more tolerant than we were 50 years ago. We do think we should prosecute people who abuse children. We do think it’s wrong to be racist, homophobic or anti-Semitic.”

We could call this political correctness, or we could call it compassion.

However, in a year like the one we have just experienced these gains can seem fragile and even illusionary. It can seem as if we look out on a landscape of fear, hatred and division. It can seem as if what we need more than anything else is a little more of that golden rule: that you should “do to others what you want them to do to you”.

That is not to say that we are suffering a compassion crisis, but that, in these times, in this densely-populated world which seems increasingly on the brink of environmental or political crisis, it could be an answer. Compassion may be what helps us survive.

Certainly John Gillies believes this. He also observes that compassion is required towards future generations. “A lot of our activities, in terms of generating climate change, or the way geopolitics is run, are likely to cause very serious problems for our children and grandchildren. So I think we have to think of compassion as being an important aspect of thinking in an intergenerational way.”

The Christmas message of compassion, in other words, is more relevant than ever, and not just for December 25, but for each and every day. Compassion, after all, is where we can find hope – something hugely needed in a difficult year – as well as a much-craved antidote to the steamroller of Christmas consumerism.