Dr. Andrea Hollingsworth
Hollingsworth Consulting

Can empathizing with others’ suffering and taking action to ease their distress help you get better sleep? A new longitudinal study by Finnish researchers seems to indicate just that.

In the latest issue of Brain and Behavior [1], Iina Tolonen and colleagues released their findings that high compassion individuals have lessened sleep deficiency and fewer sleep difficulties.

The study participants came from a relatively large (1,064) population-based sample of Finnish men and women.

After an 11-year follow-up, people more likely to agree with statements like, “I hate to see anyone suffer”or “It gives me pleasure to help others,” were less likely to report having trouble falling asleep and staying asleep. They were also less likely to report waking up feeling tired even after a regular night’s sleep.

This connection remained even after controlling for age, gender, socio-economic predictors, BMI, and working conditions.

Moreover, on the authors’ analysis, the link isn’t just associational. Greater compassion appears to predict better sleep, rather than vice versa.

Compassion Aids Sleep? Why? How?

What accounts for this fascinating finding?

Interestingly, when the researchers controlled for depressive symptoms (e.g., a negative self-focus, rumination, hopelessness, etc.), the predictive link disappeared. So compassion might help you sleep because it dampens those “down on yourself” thoughts that hinder your ability to nod off, stay asleep, and wake refreshed.

Otherwise put: If you’re focused on helping others, then your own regrets, failures, fears, and inadequacies are less likely to prevent and interrupt your good z’s.

Since other research has shown that compassion interventions lower depressive symptoms, lower stress, increase adaptability, deepen purpose, and boost overall wellbeing, I think this interpretation makes a lot of sense.

Focusing compassionately on others diminishes the felt intensity of our own problems, offering instead feelings of connection and care. Such positive feelings help our minds and bodies to rest deeply and thoroughly.

I’m reminded of the words of former Washington Post publisher Don Graham: “At the end of the day, people with integrity have one thing in common: they sleep well.” Or Warren Buffett, on his recommendation of ethical investment strategies: “You’ll do fine, you’ll sleep well at night, and you’ll feel good about the example you are setting.”[2]

Implications for Leaders

This research has important implications for everyone, especially leaders. Up to 43% of business leaders do not get adequate sleep [3]—a finding that’s concerning, because lack of sleep lowers your ability to lead well.

A 2017 study of 40 managers and their direct reports showed that sleep-deprived managers were more impatient, irritable, and antagonistic toward their direct reports, leading to lower quality relationships with them [4]. Another study showed that perceived charisma dropped 13% when leaders lost just two hours of sleep—making them less able to inspire their team [5].

Do you see the potential for a vicious cycle, here? Low compassion may mean worse sleep, which could then contribute to uninspired, irritable, antagonistic management. All that could heighten stress and rumination, leading back to bad sleep. And the pattern goes on.

But the hypothetical reverse sequence is hopeful indeed. By intentionally cultivating our ability to empathize with others’ distress and choosing to act on their behalf (viz., compassion), we can potentially provide our minds with deeper and better sleep. The resultant refreshed mind could, in turn, supercharge our ability to make better decisions and support and care for others. All that may lessen any depressive symptoms, leading back to better sleep. And the cycle continues.

It’s amazing, isn’t it, how deeply entwined are the various dimensions of our lives as leaders. Ethics and morality. Mental and physical wellbeing. Communication effectiveness. Relational health. Leadership abilities. All are profoundly interconnected.

If you’re a leader of any sort (and really, we all are!), I hope you’ll take this new research as inspiration. Let it motivate you to do or say something unexpectedly kind today for someone who’s having a hard time. You could have a better night’s sleep tonight. In turn, those good z’s might just reap some surprisingly positive and powerful dividends—both for you and for others.

About Andrea

Dr. Andrea Hollingsworth is Founder and CEO of Hollingsworth Consulting, author of the bestselling book The Compassion Advantage (2024), and one of today’s leading global experts on compassionate leadership. Since 2008, she has been studying, speaking, and writing about the science and spirituality of human emotions and relationships. Her articles have been published more than a dozen times in peer-reviewed journals, and she has taught at prestigious institutions like Princeton, Boston University, and Loyola University Chicago. In addition, Dr. Andrea has delivered talks to audiences at some of the top-ranked universities in the world—including Cambridge University in England and Heidelberg University in Germany.

Dr. Andrea spends most of her time inspiring leaders and teams to use The Compassion Advantage to build supercharged organizations through cultures of care— especially in times of challenge and change. Andrea lives with her family in Minnesota where she cheers hard at her son’s soccer games and relishes every opportunity to visit the north shore of Lake Superior.