What Is Empathy And How Do We Cultivate It?
Updated: Oct 22, 2019
Christopher Peterson, one of the founding fathers of positive psychology and one of the top 100 most cited psychologists in the last 30 years, is credited with saying "positive psychology is not a spectator sport". The practices that come out of the empirical research are meant to be practiced for a happy life! One of the critical skills that we must practice to be on, and stay on, a path for a happier life is empathy.
Dr. Emiliana Simon-Thomas is the co-founder of the Greater Good Science Center (GGSC). I recently attended an event she organized in collaboration with 1440 Multiversity. Among many star presentations and experiences, some of which you can read about on our blog including: Mindfulness and Compassion For Effective Collaboration and Positivity at Home and at Work, Emiliana led a powerful discussion on empathy.
What happens when we smile at a baby and she’s smiling back at us? What’s this mode of communication? What about being compassionate to a co-worker who’s having a hard time? This is empathy, and empathy is the grammar of our social lives. Empathy has several variations, and it’s important to understand the difference to help build stronger and healthier relationships - both at home and at work.
Generally, empathy is the ability to understand and share the thoughts and feelings of another person. Cognitive empathy is recognizing and making sense of other people’s emotions and thoughts – this is what allows us to be better communicators. Affective empathy, sometimes also referred to as emotional empathy, allows us to share the feelings of someone else - and sometimes this is in response to other people’s expressions or experiences (such as the smiling baby or crying friend). You might remember your own similar experiences or imagine how it would feel to be in this situation.
When we upgrade our behavior to not merely understanding but actually doing something about it, that is compassion. Research has actually shown that different parts of the brain are activated when we experience empathy versus compassion.
We are biologically programmed for empathy because it’s necessary to our very survival – as a social species we had to rely on each other to stay alive. However, the psychology of empathy is such that we conduct an internal “cost-benefit analysis” of the perceived costs, vicarious distress, anticipated effort, ineffectiveness and even aversion to the person in need. We are often simply not willing to invest these internal resources. Sometimes we feel empathetic distress and just want to leave, other times we feel blunted empathy and we shut down. The result? Relationships deteriorate.
What can we do to foster empathy? Here are some tips from Emiliana:
1. Adopt an empathy-positive mindset – recognize that trusting relationships where parties are motivated to help each other are critical.
2. Attune to others - perhaps by putting that iPhone in your pocket and truly engaging.
3. Listen without interrupting or thinking of a response, just truly listen.
4. Channel your inner hero – you’re a valuable resource to others! Take pride in that.
The bottom line is that we truly need each other. A study conducted in 2008 showed that participants accompanied by a friend perceived a hill to be less steep when compared to participants who were alone. Furthermore, participants who thought of a supportive friend saw the hill as less steep than participants who either thought of a neutral person or a disliked person. Our mindset has the ability to influence how we see the physical world!
Next time your boss hands you a mountain of paperwork, hopefully your supportive co-worker is there to lessen the load.