In a world filled with distractions, it’s easy to let our personal connections to each other slip. But those connections are more important now than ever.
Empathy is a topic of much conversation these days (perhaps more so than ever) from professional fields like neuroscience, economics and literature to personal places such as the workplace, schools and homes.
Susan Lanzoni wrote in “A Short History of Empathy” for The Atlantic:
The social psychologist C. Daniel Batson, who has researched empathy for decades, argues that the term can now refer to eight different concepts: knowing another’s thoughts and feelings; imagining another’s thoughts and feelings; adopting the posture of another; actually feeling as another does; imagining how one would feel or think in another’s place; feeling distress at another’s suffering; feeling for another’s suffering, sometimes called pity or compassion; and projecting oneself into another’s situation.
There has been an evolution of the definition of empathy since the word came into the English language over a century ago from a German psychological term literally meaning “feeling-in,” according to Lanzoni. But perhaps the evolution and the expansion of the meaning gives us all more opportunities to put it into practice.
These days, preoccupied as we are with tragic news, social media and electronic devices, we need to work even harder to make and care for our person-to-person connections. Perhaps empathy—the teaching of and use of it—has more of a leading role in a variety of settings because we have seen a slip in its use.
It makes perfect sense that having humility leads to greater empathy and greater empathy leads to “altruistic motivation” to help, as Dr. Batson discovered in his research. If we can see ourselves as humble, as a part of something bigger than ourselves, we are more open to an awareness of the thoughts and feelings of others, putting ourselves in another’s place of suffering and wanting to do something to help.
As my grandfather Norman Vincent Peale put it, “Empathy is a quality that enables a person to see into the mind or heart of someone else, to understand the pain or unhappiness there is and to do something to minimize it.” By paying attention, each day, to our human instinct to connect with others, humility and empathy have a chance to flourish.
There are certain professions in which empathy plays a highly prominent role (nursing, social work, mental health) and such professionals need to be mindful of the psychological toll this may take in their lives or risk suffering compassion fatigue or burnout.
There are many other professions in which empathy is taking on a greater role, through the empathy education of managers, administrators, coaches and teachers, according to Adam Waytz in his Harvard Business Review article, “The Limits of Empathy.”
Imagine a world with more humility, empathy and deeper human connections. There is plenty of neuroscience and anecdotal proof that our lives, on both the giving and receiving ends of empathy, are made richer and more whole.