Let’s start with two definitions:
- Sympathy: Feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune / basic understanding between people.
- Empathy: The ability to deeply understand and share the feelings of another.
Sympathy is what most people feel when they pass a homeless man on the streets. It’s a sad affair, and they certainly wish the man could have a home of his own, but that’s as far as it goes.
Empathy is deeper. You feel empathy when you create a simulation of the situation of others in your head. It doesn’t mean you necessarily imagine it, but you can feel the kind of pain or emotions that homeless man must be feeling by spending every day alone and cold. Empathy is what makes people cry in the event of other’s tragedy.
So why is this post about empathy? It is because it:
- Is a core human mechanic. It’s the antithesis of selfishness and psychopathy.
- Lets you share other’s pain, thus learning from their experiences without having to go through them yourself.
- Helps you understand people by seeing what makes them tick. Call it a sixth sense if you will.
- Creates pleasurable feelings of well being, as it creates connection, bonds.
- Helps you overcome psychological problems like loneliness, alienation, anxiety, and depression. You are not alone in your struggles.
- Is critical to conflict resolution. If you understand others, you can see their motives and reasoning and thus reach consensus.
- Expands your perspective. You have one life and one stream of experiences, but empathy allows for parallel learning through others.
So how can you foster more empathy? Funnily enough, it’s something that is innate in you as human, so it only takes exercising this ability more. It is of note that doctors at times prescribe science fiction books to depressed patients, in order for them to ‘live another life’ through empathy – try it out (ever cried or felt genuine joy due to events in a book that affect the main character?)
As for your daily life: Try to understand the deeper aspects of someone crying; why, and how deep? If you yell or insult someone, try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes and get what they must be feeling. Look at a homeless man’s face when you pass one; what does it seem he’s feeling?
But not all is pain and suffering. Hug a loved one and mean it, feel the affection. Write a genuine thank you when someone praises you online, maybe praise them back. Give a smile to a random person on the streets. Empathy goes both ways.