Power of Empathy: 3 Ways Empathy Can Improve Your Life
Does it ever feel like people are all self-absorbed jerks? Like they’re not listening? Only in it for themselves?
You’re not crazy. Empathy is declining.
A recent study at the University of Michigan revealed a dramatic decline in empathy levels among young Americans between 1980 and today, with the steepest drop being in the last ten years. The shift, say researchers, is in part due to more people living alone and spending less time engaged in social and community activities that nurture empathic sensitivity. Psychologists have also noticed an “epidemic of narcissism”: one in ten Americans exhibit narcissistic personality traits that limit their interest in the lives of others. Many analysts believe that European countries are experiencing similar reductions in empathy and increases in narcissism as urbanization continues to fragment communities, civic engagement decreases, and free market ideologies deepen individualism.
It’s easy to believe that people are just selfish. That it’s human nature. There’s no denying we do think a lot about our own needs, and classical economics might lead you to believe that’s all there is.
But new research says there’s more to us than that.
Neuroscientists have identified a ten-section “empathy circuit” in our brains which, if damaged, can curtail our ability to understand what others are feeling. Evolutionary biologists have shown we are social animals who have naturally evolved to to be empathic and cooperative, just like our primate cousins. And child psychologists have revealed that even three-year-olds are able to step outside themselves and see other people’s perspectives. It is now evident that we have an empathic side to our natures that is just as strong as our selfish inner drives.
Yes, there are zero-empathy psychopaths out there but they are a very, very small part of the population. The vast majority of us are wired to care.
(To learn which professions have the most psychopaths, click here.)
We all need empathy. Even selfish people do. Here’s how the power of empathy can improve your life, and how you can develop more of it.
How Empathy Brings Happiness (And Oscars)
Want to be happier? Be more empathetic.
…the economist Richard Layard, who advocates “deliberate cultivation of the primitive instinct of empathy” because “if you care more about other people relative to yourself, you are more likely to be happy.”
So many relationships fall apart because at least one person feels their needs and feelings are not being listened to and understood. A healthy dose of empathy, say couples counselors, is one of the best cures available. Empathy can also deepen our friendships and help create new ones — especially useful in a world where one in four people suffer from loneliness.
And the power of empathy is wired pretty deeply into us. How deep?
Want to know who your real friends are? Yawn. Really. Go ahead and yawn. We all know yawns are contagious but the more someone cares about you, the more contagious your yawns are:
As with other measures of empathy, the rate of contagion was greatest in response to kin, then friends, then acquaintances, and lastly strangers. Related individuals (r≥0.25) showed the greatest contagion, in terms of both occurrence of yawning and frequency of yawns. Strangers and acquaintances showed a longer delay in the yawn response (latency) compared to friends and kin.
But what about that Oscar? (C’mon, I know you’ve rehearsed your speech in the bathroom mirror.)
As a method actor, Academy Award Winner Daniel Day-Lewis goes beyond the pale to understand and relate to the characters he portrays.
During the filming of My Left Foot, Daniel Day-Lewis, playing the Irish artist and writer Christy Brown who had cerebral palsy, spent almost the entire shoot in a wheelchair, refusing to come out of character, even on tea breaks. He not only had to be pushed around the set, but insisted that everyone call him Christy and spoon-feed him at mealtime.
But what happens when you make sure doctors are empathetic when they work? Their performance goes up — a lot. Here’s Wharton professor Adam Grant:
There is a great study of radiologists by Turner and colleagues showing that when radiologists just saw a photo of the patient whose x-ray they were about to scan, they empathized more with the person, seeing that person as more of a human being as opposed to just an x-ray. As a result, they wrote longer reports, and they had greater diagnostic accuracy, significantly.
And other research shows that doctors with empathy heal you faster.
So what are doctors doing to resolve their empathy deficit? They’re trying to win that Oscar: yes, some doctors are now using method acting techniques to show more empathy.
Doctors, for instance, are using method acting to improve their unconscious signaling of attention and empathy, and hence, to improve patient care as well as reduce lawsuits.
You can be happier, improve your relationships, and maybe even be better at your job with empathy. (Plus win an Oscar.)
And when success does not end up bringing happiness, why might that be? Because those people are too busy and aren’t making empathy a priority.
“One of the reasons for anxiety and depression in the high attainers is that they’re not having good relationships. They’re busy making money and attending to themselves and that means that there’s less room in their lives for love and attention and caring and empathy and the things that truly count,” Ryan added.
(To learn the 8 things the happiest people do every day, click here.)
So empathy is a big deal. But what is it… really?
What Empathy Is
It’s using your imagination to step into someone else’s shoes.
…empathy is the art of stepping imaginatively into the shoes of another person, understanding their feelings and perspectives, and using that understanding to guide your actions. So empathy is distinct from expressions of sympathy — such as pity or feeling sorry for somebody — because these do not involve trying to understand the other person’s emotions or point of view.
That’s pretty good. Want a great definiton of empathy? Check out this moving video explanation by Brene Brown:
Now empathy isn’t a cure-all. Researcher Paul Bloom has pointed out that we can overdo it. And he has a point. Our vision of empathy does need a software update. Let’s call it “Empathy 1.1.”
We all learned “The Golden Rule” growing up:
Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
But again, this is still coming from you; what you want. That may not be what they want.
For true empathy, the focus needs to be on them. So golden ain’t good enough. Forget it. We’re going platinum.
Roman Krznaric suggests this for “The Platinum Rule.”
Do unto others as they would have you do unto them.
(For tips from Wharton professor Adam Grant on how to do good without exhausting yourself, click here.)
So what are the best ways to grow your empathy muscles? Here are 3:
Let’s look at an extreme example: hostage situations. You might think when someone kidnaps people the best thing to do is let the SWAT guys storm the place. Wrong.
Schlossberg (1979a) established that in 78 percent of assaults, people were injured or killed. Police officers often sustained the casualties.
What really worked? Talking.
Assaults result in a 78 percent injury or death rate (Strentz, 1979), sniper-fire in a 100 percent injury or death rate, while containment and negotiation have resulted in a 95 percent success rate (FBI, 1991).
I doubt you’re dealing with anything as high stakes as hostage negotiation but listening is always good.
We can use FBI hostage negotiation techniques to learn how to be better listeners. But we need to add something to make sure they’re ready for regular old conversations. What’s that?
Vulnerability. How do you do that? I’m glad you asked.
Doing something risky — like asking for help, sharing an unpopular opinion, falling in love, admitting to being unconfident or afraid — may make us feel vulnerable, but it can also result in deeper relationships, creative breakthroughs, heightened joy, release of anxiety, and greater empathic connection.
How do you know when you’re really opening up? The brilliant Brene Brown has a great idea: “vulnerability hangovers.”
On the one hand, she told me, we should not think that vulnerability is about “letting it all hang out” — we ought to avoid “over-sharing” and simply dumping all our emotions on others. On the other hand, our ambition should be to experience a “vulnerability hangover.” If you really take that big step and make yourself vulnerable in conversation with someone, then it is pretty likely that the next morning you will wake up thinking, “Why did I share that? What was I thinking?” But if you don’t feel any vulnerability hangover, then maybe you did not go far enough. When was the last time you felt one?
Facebook makes you happier when you use it to plan face-to-face get togethers. When you use it to replace face-to-face meetings, it makes you miserable.
(To learn how to make difficult conversations easy, click here.)
Listening is powerful but dealing with people can be hard. What’s something you can do on your own?
A specific type is really good at increasing empathy: Loving-Kindness Meditation.
Yes, it sounds corny. And doing it is corny. But research from Stanford shows it works.
How do you feel when you think about loved ones? Warm and fuzzy. Why keep pictures of your kids or your partner on your desk or in your wallet? Even more fuzzies.
That’s the goal here, really. We want to broaden the fuzzy. Fuzzy momentum, if you will. Extend the fuzzy feelings from those you already are compassionate toward to neutral and even to difficult people.
1. This practice involves picturing a series of people and sending them good vibes. Start with yourself. Generate as clear a mental image as possible.
2. Repeat the following phrases: May you be happy, May you be healthy, May you be safe, May you live with ease. Do this slowly. Let the sentiment land. You are not forcing your well-wishes on anyone; you’re just offering them up, just as you would a cool drink. Also, success is not measured by whether you generate any specific emotion. As Sharon says, you don’t need to feel “a surge of sentimental love accompanied by chirping birds.” The point is to try. Every time you do, you are exercising your compassion muscle. (By the way, if you don’t like the phrases above, you can make up your own.)
3. After you’ve sent the phrases to yourself, move on to: a benefactor (a teacher , mentor, relative), a close friend (can be a pet, too), a neutral person (someone you see often but don’t really ever notice), a difficult person, and, finally, “all beings.”
Don’t get too worried about details. It’s not a magic spell and this ain’t Hogwart’s. You can customize it. The important thing is wishing others well and expanding that feeling from those you feel strongly about to a wider and wider circle of people.
(For my interview with Good Morning America anchor and meditation-skeptic-turned-believer Dan Harris, click here.)
So you’re giving meditation a shot. What’s a fun way to develop empathy?
3) Expose Yourself To Different Ways Of Living
When we see people different from us we’re more likely to connect with them emotionally. Think of it as “mental diversity training.”
Hang out with those who are different from you. And then listen.
Another important factor is ongoing exposure to different types of people. Diverse, multicultural schools and communities can help children become familiar with people of other races, socioeconomic classes, religions and cultures. Familiarity is a great way to increase empathy…
Spending time with people from other cultures doesn’t just increase empathy, it also makes you more creative.
Maybe you’re an introvert. (Me too!) Want to bolster empathy without leaving the house or talking to anyone? Yes, you can.
Reading fiction increases empathy and makes us more likely to do kind things for others:
In study 1, participants who were more transported into the story exhibited higher affective empathy and were more likely to engage in prosocial behavior. In study 2, reading-induced affective empathy was related to greater bias toward subtle, fearful facial expressions, decreased perceptual accuracy of fearful expressions, and a higher likelihood of engaging in prosocial behavior. These effects persisted after controlling for an individual’s dispositional empathy and general tendency to become absorbed in a story. This study provides an important initial step in empirically demonstrating the influence of reading fiction on empathy, emotional perception, and prosocial behavior.
Does this really work? Some researchers think reading helped end slavery. Seriously.
One of its foundations was what is known as the “reading revolution.” The spread of literacy and the reading of novels and newspapers offered the growing middle classes a way of understanding what it might be like to be an orphaned child or a poor farm laborer or a suffering slave, which helped forge human solidarity across social divides.
Don’t like reading? Netflix binges can help too:
As the psychologist Raymond Mar writes, “Researchers have repeatedly found that reader attitudes shift to become more congruent with the ideas expressed in a [fictional] narrative.” For example, studies reliably show that when we watch a TV show that treats gay families nonjudgmentally (say, “Modern Family”), our own views on homosexuality are likely to move in the same nonjudgmental direction.
People who grew up with a dog were 24 percent more likely as adults to display empathy toward other humans as adults. (Vizek-Vidovic et al. 2001)
(To learn the secret to getting people to like you, click here.)
Okay, we’ve learned a lot. Time to round it up and get a few more insights with another awesome video…
Here’s how to be more empathetic:
- Listen. And then open up until you have a “vulnerability hangover.”
- Try meditation. Broaden the loving fuzzy feelings past family and friends.
- Expose yourself to different ways of living. Hang out with different people. If it can end slavery, it can help you.
Empathy doesn’t just have the power to change our lives, it can also change the world:
As Roman Krznaic recounts in his book, Empathy: Why It Matters, and How to Get It, Muhammad Ali addressed the graduating class at Harvard in 1975. The champ was known for coming up with clever poems, so an audience member asked him to recite one.
At a length of exactly two words, what followed may very well be the shortest poem in recorded history. Ali said:
It’s a pithy reminder of the importance of empathy. Introspection only gets you so far. We need some “outrospection” to really live good lives.
If you learned something from this, share it with others and start a conversation. Let’s spread some empathy. The world needs it. :)
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