Consider this scenario: It is a dark, cold, rainy evening and you cannot wait to get into the warm, well-lit grocery store. As you walk across the parking lot, you notice someone walking towards you hunched over with two heavy-looking bags of groceries. Suddenly, one of the bags breaks and groceries go everywhere–cans roll under cars and a bag of pasta plops into a puddle. You really want to get into the store but you imagine how you would feel, out here alone in the cold and dark, searching under cars for your cans of beans. So you stop and help.
In the moment that you imagined how that other person was feeling, you were experiencing empathy. This is the ability to put aside your own feelings and wishes in order to put yourself in another person’s place and imagine their emotions and wishes. And when you can feel empathy, you are more likely to act to help another person. Empathy is what leads us to do nice things for both close friends and strangers, to forgive our partners and spouses for all sorts of mistakes, and to bond with our friends over successes and heartbreaks.
But, if you are in a perfectly good mood, why would you want to imagine the disappointment that you friend is feeling because she did not get a promotion? Partially, it is because we are hardwired to feel empathy. Humans are social beings and having empathy allows us to live together in groups. If we never were able to consider the feelings of others, we might not be so willing to make dinner for our children and spouses, especially when we are feeling tired and overworked. Or we might just walk up to our fellow employee and take her favorite coffee mug that her grandmother gave her just because we want it, sparking all sorts of office drama. If you can understand how another person feels, you are less likely to be aggressive or act selfishly towards them. So, overall, having empathy allows us to have friends, co-workers, and partners.
Besides the big benefit of allowing us all to live in society, empathy can be good for your mental and physical health. But here is where it is important to distinguish between feeling exactly what someone else is feeling—which psychologists call emotional empathy—and understanding what someone else is feeling but remaining detached enough to also be able to help them if necessary—which is called compassionate empathy. Emotional empathy allows you to actually experience another person’s feelings. But if you are crying along with your friend, you might not be able to offer her any advice about how to change a situation. Compassionate empathy allows people to understand another’s feelings and also to see how they might alleviate that person’s distress (or contribute to her happiness). This kind of empathy can allow you to feel more empowered and positive because you are helping someone else.
Compassionate empathy can also help you in your professional life. Leaders who are more empathetic are more likely to have happy employees who are more loyal. And customers are more likely to buy from businesses who they believe to be empathetic.
So how do you become empathetic? As we noted above, some capacity for empathy seems to be hard-wired into the human brain. But there is lots of variation and a small subset of the population, psychopaths, does not seem to feel empathy. Fortunately, it is also clear that empathy can be learned and nurtured. Next week, we are going to talk specifically about how to teach your children empathy. In the meantime (because you know that we are going to tell you to be an empathy role-model), check out these tips on how adults can increase their empathy and the Empathy Library (a resource for books and videos). Being able to understand the feelings and needs others is one way that we can all help to make the world a better place for our children.
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