Empathy is the most vital component of the human soul.
All of the best things about our species stem from it: love, charity, and peace. And all our worst acts are brought about by its absence: war, genocide, oppression, and prejudice.
The ability to read, understand, and even feel the emotions of others is the single most important component of a high EQ and is linked to greater success in both interpersonal and professional relationships.
However, scientists are only recently beginning to uncover how empathy works, why it evolved, and, perhaps most importantly, what an individual can do to improve their own empathic abilities. This is a goal we should all share, especially in the ever-shrinking world. It can be difficult enough to show empathy to the people we interact within our daily lives—our spouses, children, friends, coworkers—but the task can become almost insurmountable when it comes to showing true empathy to strangers.
Every day, our feeds are flooded with reports of injustice. We learn about wars on the other side of the world that are leaving generations without a country to call their own; about famines that decimate entire populations; and even here in the United States, we are subjected to stories of the cruelty our own government can show to innocent children and refugees.
Some hearts don’t feel big enough to take on all these troubles. Others feel overwhelmed and start to shut down to protect themselves. Either way, we retreat into our personal bubbles. To the problems that affect us personally. To the people in close enough proximity to us that they are worthy to care about.
Apathy can be a powerful defense mechanism. It hurts too much to care, especially when we feel like we are impotent to effect any meaningful changes. We shut down and build our walls to keep out unpleasant things that have the potential to break our hearts.
But empathy is never a weakness. It is our greatest strength. Every good deed has empathy at its core.
We have to allow ourselves to feel the emotions of others, to use our imaginations to try to understand the experiences of people who are so different from us. We cannot simply rely on our innate empathic abilities, because they were not designed to be projected across oceans into communities with which we will never come into personal contact. Our human empathy evolved when we lived in small tribal societies and the only people it was important to care about were your own social group. But that is simply not enough anymore.
In order to effect meaningful change, we have to care about others in a meaningful, deep, and provocative way. And there is so much about this world that needs changing. So, rather than shielding our hearts, we need to train them. We have to teach ourselves how to maintain high levels of empathy in the face of so much suffering.
So how do we go about training our hearts for empathy?
Scientists have uncovered a few tested solutions to increase this most beautiful of human abilities:
1. Read fiction.
A 2018 meta-analysis, led by University of Rochester psychologist David Dodell-Feder, reviewed 14 previous studies on the relationship between fiction-reading and an improved capacity for empathy. He concluded that, compared to non-readers and readers of exclusively non-fiction, fiction readers had a “statistically significant improvement in social-cognitive performance.”
This is one of those cases where scientific studies merely confirm what should be simple common sense. When we read fiction—from upmarket and literary to romance novels and mysteries—we are practicing feeling the emotions of others. We are using our imaginations to put ourselves into another person’s shoes and live out their experiences. When we care about fictional characters, it is like a simulator for real-world empathetic experiences.
Reading also opens our minds to new cultures and ways of thinking and teaches us about them in a sympathetic, intimate, and non-judgmental capacity. Through fictional characters, we come to care about people who are different from ourselves, the benefits of which cannot be overstated.
Similar to reading, getting out of your geographic comfort zone and interacting with people who are different from yourself in a new environment helps grow your heart’s capacity for empathy.
3. Learn a second language.
The benefits of learning a second language are well-studied. It improves metacognition, memory, concentration, problem-solving, and critical-thinking skills. People who speak a second language also adjust to new environments and stimulus more easily than monolinguals and even display greater creativity. Most also display greater empathy.
A language is like a lens that the brain uses to view and understand its environment. Learning a second language gives you another lens, and through it, you can see the world in a different light.
4. Get out of your comfort zone.
When we do the same things every day with the same people, surrounded by the same worldviews and opinions, it can be easy to forget that there are as many different ways of looking at the world as there are stars in the sky. This stunts our capacity for empathy.
On the other hand, when we try new things, we are forced to confront uncomfortable realities. Learning a new skill, taking up a new hobby, or just trying something you never thought you would can give your heart the spark it needs to recognize that your own way of living is not the only way and that it certainly isn’t better.
5. Examine your own prejudices.
We all have prejudices, whether we are consciously aware of them or not. The ones that are hidden deep in our own psyche can actually be the most dangerous because they interfere with our ability to empathize with and be kind to others without us even realizing that it’s happening.
Whenever you have a knee-jerk reaction to a person or thing, take a moment to recognize it and try to understand where it came from. When you constantly examine your own opinions, you’ll find they become more refined as you can root out all the nonsense that was put into your heart by outside forces.
Improving our own capacity for empathy is incumbent upon every one of us living in a global society. Euripides said it best over 2,000 years ago: “When a good person is hurt all who are good must suffer with them.”
And in suffering, we force ourselves to search for ways we can help.
If we all develop our own heart’s capacity for empathy, then perhaps no human suffering will be in vain.