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Is More Empathy the Answer?

I can honestly say that each week, I think something like, “We’ve got to be close to the end of this. Things will start getting better now.” And each week, I’m wrong. It’s like 2020 is the year of weird and it’s time I just let this year go as a big, fat learning experience and hope 2021 holds our watershed moment.

This last week has been a struggle for me, again. Over the weekend, temperatures here soared and as I watched the thermometer tick up, I actually felt a little fear when it hit 118 degrees. That’s really abnormal and I had to make myself be mindful and stop looking at the temperature movement. Instead, I stepped outside to see how I felt instead of worrying about a number. A, it was miserably hot, big surprise, but B, the sky was a sickly greyish-orange hue and the sun was a brilliant blood orange colored ball in the sky. It was eerie and a sense of dread settled over me. I reminded myself that I’ve definitely watched too many sci-fi movies over the years and that there was nothing apocalyptic about my circumstances. Something was clearly going on, so I returned indoors and checked the news.

I discovered that California’s wildfire season started off early. Naturally, because it’s 2020. As of this writing, almost 8,000 fires have burned almost 3 million acres, making this the largest wildfire season recorded in the state’s history, and it’s only September. Our official fire season doesn’t begin until October! There are actually over a dozen other states on fire in the western U.S., all the way up to Alaska. Oregon has completely lost nine towns so far and we send our sincere wishes and prayers that everyone stays safe. We’re not alone. Australia lost 46 million acres to fires this year so far and Brazil has experienced 63,000 fires in the Amazon year to date. Even Siberia’s vast tundra is on fire right now. There are fires burning all around the world, some naturally occurring, most related to climate change, and others man-made, like the baby gender reveal party here that started a fire that has so far burned about 14,000 acres.

I’m miles from the closest fire here, so in

no danger at all, but the smoke across the state has changed the sky. Ashes sprinkle down onto the patio furniture and into the kiddy pool and fish pond. It is another gloomy reminder that we’re living in weird times which makes it challenging to feel positive or motivated and I have to actually work hard at not falling into fear or despair. Like you, I just want all of this to stop. I’m tired of the shutdown, I’m heartbroken that the virus keeps spreading, harming or killing people, I’m thoroughly disgusted with the political climate in this country that is wreaking havoc on people’s lives, I’m very concerned about what the economic fall-out from the pandemic will be, and now I have to deal with record heat and record-breaking, massive fires? I’m sure people in the southeast felt similarly as two hurricanes were heading toward them a couple of weeks ago. I’m not sure what the exact emotion is, but the two phrases that pop into mind are simply, “come on!” and “enough already!”

One of the best actions we can take when the weight of our emotions just becomes too much is to help someone else. Research has found many examples of how doing good not only feels good, but is also good for us. For example, studies show that volunteering benefits us by boosting well-being and lowering depression. Altruistic behavior has been shown to increase our sense of meaning and purpose. Even spending money on others predicts increases in happiness compared to spending it on ourselves. And neural evidence from MRI studies suggest a link between generosity and happiness in the brain.

Research also suggests that another benefit to our well-being comes from helping others regulate their emotions which helps us regulate our own emotions, decreasing symptoms of depression. Studies indicate that emotion regulation occurs for both the giver and the receiver and the two most common ways to help others regulate their emotions are through showing empathy by validating their feelings and helping others think about their situation from a different perspective. A study from Columbia University focused on this acceptance and reappraisal and revealed that when helping others navigate their stressful situations, we are enhancing our own emotion regulation skills, and thus, benefiting our own emotional well-being.

So, do we just need more empathy in order to help us feel better? If we can place ourselves in another’s situation, walk a mile in their shoes, do we feel better, too? Not exactly. Empathy is considered the reflexive and automatic part of our psychology that originates in the emotion centers of the brain. Empathetic feelings, thoughts, and decisions are generated mostly on an unconscious level, which means we’re less aware and less intentional about those decisions.

Empathy can lead toward the tendency to join in others’ suffering, particularly those who are close to us. But it’s limited. When it comes to helping “outsiders” who are suffering, our brains typically perceive it as hard work and reject the effort. While our instinct is to support and protect our ingroup, we can perceive outsiders as part of an outgroup and a threat to our social identity. A recent study found that empathy triggered from social connection makes it more likely that we will dehumanize individuals seen as belonging to an outgroup. In its extreme, empathy can fuel aversion to those who are different from us.

Empathy basically means getting into another person’s head and/or heart, understanding how they are thinking or feeling. It doesn’t necessarily mean only joining them in pain. For example, walking in another person’s shoes can give a person insight into how to beat that person at something, be it a game or a business deal. I had never thought about empathy in this light and I found this information to be somewhat unsettling. The U.S. has become such a divided nation and I had previously understood empathy to be something that might bring us together. I have to admit, however, that recognizing what we do on an unconscious level towards those in our outgroup makes sense, and I’m observing it all across my country. So, is empathy good or bad? From a mindfulness perspective, it’s neither good nor bad, but all in how we use it.

Empathy can lead to compassion. If as we empathize, we recognize that the other is suffering, it can move us into compassion which leads to taking action. Compassion is the joining in others’ suffering, regardless of their social or personal identity. It is a perspective of common humanity, that in any person’s suffering, we are like the other person in that moment.

Empathy can feel good at first, but it can also make us feel stuck because we’re joining in other’s suffering but not taking any action to resolve or remedy the issue. This can lead to ruminating on the problem. People prone to empathic responding are also more likely to experience depressive symptoms.

Compassion is more constructive. It starts with empathy and then turns outward, with an intention to help. With compassion, we make the conscious choice to turn emotion into action. Feeling for another person’s suffering through empathy alone is depleting over time. When empathy is triggered in the face of another person’s struggles, it can bring an unremitting assault of negative emotions and experiences that, over time, can drain our cognitive resources and take a serious toll on our mental well-being.

Compassion is intentional and solution-focused, which is actually restorative instead of draining. When we provide that help, we get the added bonus of a dopamine hit. Helping feels good, and we are motivated to do it again in the future. Even better, compassion is not an instinctive, purely emotional response, so it can be learned and developed, just like any other skill. So, while empathy can be a positive emotion in connecting and supporting other people, its most important function may be to lead us to compassion.

How do we strengthen our compassion? I’m sure you’ll be shocked to hear me share that one of the most important discoveries in the research is that having a regular routine of mindfulness is one of the best paths for increasing compassion. Practicing mindfulness increases our self-awareness. With greater self-awareness, we are more intentional about how we approach an issue and more thoughtful about how we respond to others. Mindfulness supports the deliberate and constructive decision-making that differentiates compassion from empathy.

Having genuine compassion for others starts with having compassion for ourselves. If we’re overloaded and out of balance, it’s impossible to help others find their balance. Self-compassion includes getting quality sleep and taking breaks during the day. For many, self-compassion means letting go of obsessive self-criticism. Instead of self-criticism, cultivate positive self-talk. Reframe setbacks as learning experiences. Consider what could be done differently next time. Make a habit of checking your intention before you meet others. With their situation in mind, ask yourself how you can be of support or benefit to this person in this moment.

Compassion is a trainable skill, so adopt a daily compassion practice. Our brains have an incredible level of neuroplasticity, which means that the mindset we develop can get stronger and more dominant. There are even apps available that can help us rewire our minds for more compassion in our lives.

We can be intentional, unifying, and proactive in creating a more compassionate world. During this time of uncertainty, unrest and divisiveness, learning and choosing to actively practice compassion is a way forward, an active declaration of what we stand for and a visible demonstration of who we want to be in the world. Empathy alone is not the answer, but the doorway through which we can achieve more compassion, and don’t you agree that’s what we really need right now?

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