Humans are social beings. We want to understand the people we interact with in our daily lives and we want to be understood. Whether we’re receiving it or dishing it out, empathy enhances our communities and helps us to function more effectively—and happily–alongside each other.
This broad benefit of empathy is just the beginning of all that we can reap from zeroing in on others’ emotions. The science of empathy is expansive. We know that empathetic people have more satisfying relationships and perform better in the workplace. We know that people who are actively listened to feel as though they are finally understood and we know that patients do better with empathetic physicians.
We also know that empathy levels appear to be decreasing among young adults for some reason. A 2010 study from the University of Michigan analyzed data from 1979 to 2009 and found that students over that span were experiencing a drop in empathy. The researchers found that empathy had decreased a whopping 40% since the study began, with the biggest dip occurring shortly after the year 2000. One explanation for the decline is that exposure to media that contains negative messages or violence might lead to detachment and apathy regarding the pain of others.
So why is this concerning? Because a lack of empathy in anyone can have an impact on everyone. We do better in all of our endeavors when we’re both giving and receiving empathy. Although we don’t all start with the same baseline capacity for empathy, we can actually work to increase our empathy levels. The following tips will help you to do just that.
Empathy Booster #1: Indulge in Fiction
A 2013 study out of The Netherlands revealed some fascinating data about people who let their minds wander around the fictional worlds of written stories: they tend to be more empathetic. It isn’t just that people who are already more empathetic are drawn to reading fiction, either. Researchers found that the act of engaging in fictional narratives actually increases empathy levels. This is because of something called narrative transportation theory. Basically, if a person becomes lost in a story, that person will experience a change in attitudes, ideas, and behaviors that reflect perspective gained from the story. Our imagination is like a muscle—the more we work it, the stronger it will become. If we can imagine ourselves in the position of another person, we can increase empathy.
So grab that new Murakami novel and get lost in it! Becoming absorbed in the fiction is essential: the researchers believe that empathy levels will only change when individuals find themselves emotionally transported into the world of the story.
Empathy Booster #2: Spend Time Helping Others
If you feel a spring in your step after helping someone out, there’s a reason for that. Researchers at the London School of Economics have found that people who volunteer are happier. Volunteering increases empathy and empathy increases life satisfaction. Creating social bonds with those outside of our immediate social circle and working to enhance the lives of others helps us to keep the well-being of all people at the forefront of our thinking.
So, mentor students through Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, organize a drive for the American Red Cross, or deliver dinners to the elderly through Meals on Wheels—or reach out to an individual you know who’s in need. No matter how you go about devoting some spare time for another, altruistic actions will help to increase your empathy.
Empathy Booster #3: Become an Active Listener
It’s too bad we aren’t all taught active listening from the get-go—turns out the form of listening we usually offer and receive is more passive than it should be. While passive listening allows a person to hear and react on cue, active listening involves a person listening to each word, imagining the driving emotions behind what is being said, and regularly feeding back what is being heard to the person speaking. Active listening encourages us to tune in—and in doing this, we can connect more deeply.
The more you practice active listening, the better you’ll be at reading a person’s emotions through their words, tone, and micro expressions. Micro expressions are the tiny but telling facial expressions that occur during a fraction of a second. Becoming an active listener increases empathy levels, but it also helps to create positive feelings in the person who’s communicating with us. A University of New Brunswick study found that people who previously reported feeling misunderstood or not heard found more fulfillment when speaking with a person practicing active listening.
Empathy Booster #4: Practice Compassion Meditation
We know that general meditation is beneficial, but meditating specifically on compassion helps us to become more empathetic people. A University of Wisconsin-Madison study showed that our brains can be rewired over time to be more empathetic through compassion meditation. Compassion meditation is a form of meditation that asks you to focus your thoughts on wishing well-being for others.
Empathy Booster #5: Cultivate Your Curiosity
Remember when you asked “Why?” to almost everything you heard as a kid? Children are famously curious, but as they grow older, many kids are taught to stop asking so many questions. While it’s true that too many pressing questions can feel like an interrogation, being kindly inquisitive can help you increase your empathy levels. It turns out that people who are highly empathetic are also curious about strangers. The more we encourage our own curiosities, the more likely it is that we will expand our network of acquaintances and, in doing so, acquire a wider understanding of varying perspectives.
Be curious with the people you meet. The more you learn about how other people live and think, the more tools you’ll have available to you for harnessing empathy.
Thank You to Elizabeth Seward for an amazing article