How can we build empathy?
The word “empathy” is thrown around a lot these days.
From using it to describe solutions to systemic racism, to the perils of a digital-only world, to the demerits of the current US President, it seems like in this current doomsday of xenophobia, empathy is the only silver bullet we have.
But, what is empathy, and is it even something that comes naturally to us?
Simply put, empathy is “the ability to relate to another person’s pain vicariously, as if one has experienced that pain themselves.”
It’s not just feeling sorry for another person’s distress (that’s sympathy) but having a deeper appreciation and understanding of how they are feeling.
Going by how competitive Darwin made evolution sound with “survival of the fittest,” I was convinced that being empathetic would not be a prioritized trait for natural selection.
But, you guessed it, I was wrong.
The positives of being empathetic outweigh any blunting of our individual competitive edge.
Importantly, being empathetic allows us to be able to cooperate with others which increases our chances of survival. Being empathetic also enables us to better nurture our children and continue our lineage. Thus, evolutionarily, we had much to gain by holding on to our empathetic nature.
Interestingly, women had more to gain than men did, and genetic evidence shows that women have higher levels of empathy than men.
I’ve always been a little skeptical when people say, oh but women are just more naturally caring and empathetic, because where do biological determinants end and gendered social expectations begin? But it seems like in this case, social expectations have laid the ground rules for genetic success: mothers, who are more likely to be primary caregivers over the years, have evolved to prioritize empathy.
As Professor Fans de Waal puts it, “having descended from a long line of mothers who nursed, fed, cleaned, carried, comforted, and defended their young, we should not be surprised by gender differences in human empathy.”*
This is great news!
Being empathetic comes naturally to all of us, even if some us find it easier than others.
But, this just highlights a new hurdle: possessing the potential to be empathetic is not enough, and with social structures not incentivizing us to be empathetic, how do you unlock and grow people’s empathy?
The short answer is, it’s not easy. But, here are three tactics that show promise.
First, increasing our empathy requires inner work that can be facilitated through meditation.
The practice of meditation is rooted in building self-awareness, a critical tool in recognizing our biases, and recognizing that we share a common spirit with everything around us, allowing us to deepen our connection with others and build empathy for them.
In recent years, books like The Inner Work of Racial Justice and meditation apps like Awaken, have
recognized the potential to harness the mindfulness and compassion that meditation brings to dismantle systemic racism and advance social justice.
Research shows that compassion-focused meditation does increase mindfulness and happiness, which is related to increased caring for others.
Second, fundamental to building empathy is “walking in someone else’s shoes,” and building a deeper appreciation and understanding for their circumstances.
Some of this can be self-motivated — I can choose to read books by authors that are different from me or talk to more people from outside my usual sphere of life — but some of this can also be prompted by what I see represented around me in the media and entertainment I passively consume.
A recent survey of Netflix viewers reported that young people are feeling more represented on screen than ever before — all due to the conscious effort by Netflix to improve diversity and inclusion in casting.
This increased diversity also enables increased empathy because it helps bridge understanding between different communities and reinforces the notion that our shared experiences run deeper than skin color.
Third, even if we fail at building empathy in ourselves today, it is imperative that we raise kind and compassionate children.
According to Harvard’s Making Caring Common project, while more than 90 percent of parents say they want their children to be caring, 81 percent of their children say that their parents care about success and happiness more than compassion.
Think back to when you were younger and you came home from school, how many questions were about what you learnt that day or what grade you got on your test? And how many were about whether you were nice to your friends or helped someone who needed it?
The empathy of our future generation resides in how we raise them, the examples we set for them, and the values we exhibit.
As much as we need a sea change in the world right now, building empathy is slow work.
So, why not start somewhere? Maybe it’s building more time for compassionate reflection in your daily meditation or gifting a book to someone who may benefit from a different perspective or finding ways to role model the importance of kindness to those around you.
Whatever you chose, remember that we are wired to be empathetic, we just need to find a way to tap into it!
*In fact, these differences in empathy are posited to explain the disproportionately low rate of girls affected by autism, a condition marked by a lack of social communication skills.