The Highest Form of Knowledge is Empathy

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How Empathy is The Greatest Gift

Empathy. It’s the bedrock of intimacy and close connection; in its absence, relationships remain emotionally shallow, defined largely by mutual interests or shared activities. It is an key ingredient of successful relationships because it helps us understand the perspectives, needs, and intentions of others At the lowest points in our lives, the presence and care of just one supportive person can be transformative. Our pain or loss may be just as real, but we suffer less knowing that we’re not alone. Without empathy, we could live and work side-by-side with other people, and remain as clueless about their inner selves and feelings as we are about those of strangers on a crowded subway car. Empathy isn’t just the engine for closeness and prosocial behavior; it also puts on the brakes when we are behaving badly and become aware of the pain we’re causing. As with so many other human attributes, people vary in their genetic predispositions for experiencing and showing empathy—some people are more easily and naturally empathetic than others—but everyone can learn to be empathetic. Like pretty much everything else, with motivation, time, effort, and learning opportunities, empathy can develop.  It should also be distinguished from compassion and sympathy, even though the terms are often used interchangeably. People often use sympathy and empathy  interchangeably when they are in fact separate processes. Sympathy, involves the experience of being moved by, or responding in tune with, another person.  When you feel sympathy for someone, you identify with the situation that the person finds him or herself in. This can be a perfectly genuine feeling; you can feel sympathy for people you’ve never met and for a plight you’ve personally never experienced, as well as for people you know and scenarios that are familiar to you. But feeling sympathy doesn’t necessarily connect you to the person or what he or she is feeling. You can be sympathetic to someone’s situation while being completely clueless about his feelings and thoughts. Sympathy rarely compels you into action as sympathy doesn’t build connection. Think of sympathy this way, when we think of empathy we are likely to think “I hear you” or imagine “walking a mile in another’s shoes.” Or we might view empathy as feeling what another person is feeling, or understanding what he or she is thinking. It’s true that if we step into the place of another or imagine what that person is feeling or thinking we might feel empathy, but not necessarily.  Being sad with another person might elicit sympathy or pity, but not necessarily feelings of empathy. What is the difference? When we see someone suffering—say, crying because a beloved parent died—we may feel for the person; that is, compassion and sympathy for such a painful loss. But we may not feel with the person; that is, understand what the other person’s sadness feels like. Or, we might share their sad feelings, but then interpret them from our own perspective. We might think about how we would feel after such a personal loss, not how the other person is actually feeling. Empathy on the other hand is putting yourself in another’s shoes and feeling the suffering of others you feel with them. Compassion goes futher with an empathic understanding of a person’s feelings plus a desire to act on that person’s behalf, compassion is defined as the emotional response when perceiving suffering and involves an authentic desire to help.

So what does it mean to be fully empathic?

Being fully empathic includes interpersonal and social empathy; empathy as an umbrella term that can be broken down into two levels—interpersonal empathy and social empathy. Interpersonal empathy is concerned with improving relationships between individuals, this type of empathy involves consciously adopting another’s perspective and trying to understand how they are feeling or thinking. For the full array of empathy to occur, we need to have dialogue and other indicators to help us understand each other. We may need to check in and ask if we are correct in our interpretation of the other person’s feelings. We may need to analyze the broader situation, taking in the context—what is going on outside the person. Research shows that most people think of empathy as intuitive, more of a gut reaction than a function of reasoning, somehow connected to feeling or associated with the popular term “mindfulness.” Empathy consists not just of emotion sharing (a largely unconscious process), but executive control to regulate and modulate the experience. Both are supported by specific and interacting neural systems. Research shows that mimicry is part of human interaction, and it happens on an unconscious level; we mimic the facial expressions of those we interact with, along with their vocalizations, postures, and movements. Talk to a frowning person and you’ll probably end up with a frown on your face too. This unconscious mimicry probably helped early humans communicate and feel kinship; it’s the component that precedes empathy. Neuroscience also confirms that seeing someone in pain activates the parts of your brain that register pain. Being able to take on the perspective of someone else—a cognitive function—is also part of empathy; it’s thought that children begin to see how others see them around the age of four and, in turn, they are able to see others by shifting perspective. Finally, the ability to regulate and modulate emotion is part of empathy. Since science knows that moods can be “contagious,” the ability to self-regulate stops us from going down for the count when we empathize with someone who’s suffering. Clearly being thrust into the depths of emotional turmoil yourself would be a deterrent to empathizing with anyone.

Are we born with empathy?

A growing body of evidence suggests that, at our core, both animals and human beings have compassionate instinct.  In other words, compassion is a natural and automatic response that has ensured our survival. Reasearch have show that even rats are driven to empathize with another suffering rat and to go out of their way to help it out of its quandary. In other studies infants and chimpanzees have shown to spontaneously engage in helpful behavior and will even overcome obstacles to do so. They apparently do so from intrinsic motivation without expectation of reward. In the study that reserachers ran indicated that infants’ pupil diameters (a measure of attention) decrease both when they help and when they see someone else helping, suggesting that they are not simply helping because helping feels rewarding. It appears to be the alleviation of suffering that brings reward — whether or not they engage in the helping behavior themselves. It is not surprising that compassion is a natural tendency since it is essential for human survival. As has been brought to light by Keltner, the term “survival of the fittest,” often attributed to Charles Darwin, was actually coined by Herbert Spencer and Social Darwinists who wished to justify class and race superiority. A lesser known fact is that Darwin’s work is best described with the phrase “survival of the kindest.” Indeed in The Descent of Man and Selection In Relation to Sex, Darwin argued for “the greater strength of the social or maternal instincts than that of any other instinct or motive.” In another passage, he comments that “communities, which included the greatest number of the most sympathetic members, would flourish best, and rear the greatest number of offspring.” Compassion may indeed be a naturally evolved and adaptive trait. Without it, the survival and flourishing of our species would have been unlikely. Even so empathy is learned behavior even though the capacity for it is inborn. The best way to think about empathy is an innate capacity that needs to be developed, and to see it as a detail in a larger picture. Infants learn to identify and regulate their emotions through successful dyadic interactions with their caretakers, primarily their mothers. An attuned mother who’s receptive to her child’s needs and cues is one who permits her baby to thrive and develop emotionally. By having thier emotional states recognized and responded to, the groundwork is laid not just for the child’s sense of self but sense of other. In time, that seed grows into empathy and the capacity for intimate connection. (This is called secure attachment.)

So why should we turn empathy into compassion?

While the benefits of empathy are clear, humans are much more likely to empathize with people they view as a part of their in-group. We are prone to create groups of us versus them. For example, neuroscience researchers have found that people experience greater vicarious empathic responses for people of their own ethnicity compared to other-ethnicity members. In one series of experiments, soccer fans were reminded of their love for their team, then passed by a person in distress who wore either a shirt supporting the same soccer team, a shirt supporting a rival team, or a plain shirt. Participants helped those wearing a shirt in support of the same team the most, then someone in a plain shirt, and helped those wearing a shirt supporting the rival team the least.

Empathy not only can intensify in-group bias, but also has the potential to become empathic distress, a strong aversive and self-oriented response to the suffering of others, accompanied by the desire to withdraw from a situation in order to protect oneself from excessive negative feelings.  Those experiencing empathic distress have increased risk for depression, anxiety, lack of understanding and compassion for those they are responsible for, and many other physical and mental symptoms. While empathy involves catching a wide range of emotions from others, compassion is specifically a feeling of concern for someone who is suffering, coupled with a desire to alleviate that suffering. The idea that there can actually be too much empathy can be traced back to early Buddhist teachings. Instead of focusing on empathy to the point of draining ourselves emotionally, Buddhism teaches the practice of compassion, called karuna. This is the idea of sharing in suffering, having concern for another, but essentially “feeling for and not feeling with the other.” Compassion may act as part of that emotion regulative network. Feelings of compassion are at odds with empathic distress. When someone feels compassionate, the feeling is other-focused, positive, and protects against burnout. While affective empathy involves taking on the negative emotions of others, compassion invites feelings of love and warmth toward others, preventing the desire to abandon those who are suffering.  Interestingly, by expressing compassion, not only does the recipient of the compassion benefit but so too does the one giving compassion. Some of the many benefits to the person expressing compassion include reduced levels of cellular inflammation, increased perceptions of happiness and an experience of pleasure, a buffering effect against stress, an increase in longevity, a broadening ability to see a wider perspective outside of oneself, and increasing feelings of social connection (which in and of itself have major implications for health and well-being).

How is compassion good for us?

A life of meaning and purpose is one focused less on satisfying oneself and more on others. It is a life rich in compassion, altruism, and greater meaning. Another way in which a compassionate lifestyle may improve longevity is that it may serve as a buffer against stress. Another reason compassion may boost our well-being is that it can help broaden our perspective beyond ourselves. Research shows that depression and anxiety are linked to a state of self-focus, a preoccupation with “me, myself, and I.” When you do something for someone else, however, that state of self-focus shifts to a state of other-focus. If you recall a time you were feeling blue and suddenly a close friend or relative calls you for urgent help with a problem, you may remember that as your attention shifts to helping them, your mood lifts. Rather than feeling blue, you may have felt energized to help; before you knew it, you may even have felt better and gained some perspective on your own situation as well. Another way in which compassion boost our well-being is by increasing a sense of connection to others, compassion starts with a willingness to see someone else’s pain. Rather than looking away, denying the pain, or choosing to ignore it, we acknowledge the person’s experience. This acknowledgment makes us feel less alone in our suffering which helps us understand the universality of human suffering. Part of compassion is knowing that at some point, everyone hurts. In this way the pain is relatable. While pain is a personal experience, it is also a common and unavoidable part of what it means to be human. Thus we feel a further joining with others in the shared recognition that pain is part of existence. One telling study showed that lack of social connection is a greater detriment to health than obesity, smoking, and high blood pressure. On the flip side, strong social connection leads to a 50 percent increased chance of longevity. Social connection strengthens our immune system, helps us recover from disease faster, and may even lengthen our life. People who feel more connected to others have lower rates of anxiety and depression. Moreover, studies show that they also have higher self-esteem, are more empathic to others, more trusting and cooperative and, as a consequence, others are more open to trusting and cooperating with them. Social connectedness, therefore, generates a positive feedback loop of social, emotional, and physical well-being. Unfortunately, the opposite is also true for those who lack social connectedness. Low social connection has been generally associated with declines in physical and psychological health, as well as a higher propensity for antisocial behavior that leads to further isolation. But the greatest way compassion makes us close to each other is compassion requires tolerating uncomfortable feelings. While there are benefits to being compassionate, it’s not easy. Connecting emotionally with another’s pain activates our stress response (fight, flight, or freeze). It takes emotional work to stay with a person’s pain, rather than fleeing or trying to deny it in some way (e.g., by blaming the person for their distress). When we see that a person isn’t running from our pain, we’re better able to withstand our own discomfort. Adopting a compassionate lifestyle or cultivating compassion may help boost social connection and improve physical and psychological health.

So how can you increase your compassion?

To increase your compassion first ask yourself this question: Is showing compassion to others allowing them to harm me, themselves, or others? Helping someone in need should never be at the cost of your own mental health or put others in jeopardy. Showing compassion to a sex offender doesn’t mean leaving him or her alone with your child. Showing compassion to a drug addict doesn’t mean allowing them to self-harm. Forgiving a family member who once took advantage of you financially does not mean giving additional funds. Compassion is doing what is best for the person long-term. It may simply mean waiting patiently to help someone who is not yet ready to receive help. Being compassionate is not the same as being a doormat. When we combine the courage to make clear what works for us and what doesn’t with the compassion to assume people are doing their best, our lives change. Yes, there will be people who violate our boundaries, and this will require that we continue to hold those people accountable. When setting boundaries to avoid harm to others, describe your concerns, and why you are setting the boundary you are. Continue to show empathy and love while holding firm to the boundary. Striving for compassion may lead to compassion fatigue. Often described as empathy fatigue, you may feel so much sorrow for those in need that you actively choose to ignore the suffering of others. Tuning out other’s misery may be a necessary first step to preserve your well-being. However, it may also reduce compassionate actions. You never need to feel guilty for living a happy life while others suffer. Many who have experienced tragic loss ask only that those who have not known loss practice gratitude. Reflecting on your blessings can increase both your joy and your kindness toward others. To protect against compassion fatigue, focus on shifting your empathy from emotional to cognitive. That is, try to understand the perspective of those who are suffering without feeling the emotions they feel. There will always be someone suffering, and consistently trying to feel what they feel will lead to burnout. Take time each day to engage in compassion meditation, also known as loving-kindness meditation. Rather than focusing on the emotions of others, try to contemplate feelings of compassion. This meditation is comprised of six components:

  • Feeling compassion for someone you love
  • Contemplating a time that person was suffering and wishing them joy
  • Concentrating on compassion toward yourself
  • Feeling compassion for someone you neither like, nor dislike
  • Focusing your compassion toward an enemy
  • Expanding your compassion to all beings

People who use this mediation show greater altruism, a strong marker of compassion. They also show greater activation in brain regions known to be involved in understanding suffering.

Another question you may want to ask yourself is, is  a lack of self-compassion affecting how I see others? A barrier to showing compassion toward others is lacking self-compassion. Do you forgive yourself for past mistakes? Do you allow yourself time to grow and improve? Do you view asking for help as a sign of weakness? Do you struggle with perfectionism and impossible standards? Whatever judgment you hold against yourself will seep into your relationships with others. Take time to recognize your negative self-talk, and practice reframing it. Talk to yourself as you would a loving friend. Exercise self-acceptance and self-forgiveness, while recognizing that your flaws do not diminish your worthiness for well-being. This will give perspective as you strive to help others without thought of whether they deserve happiness.

Why Compassion Really Does Have the Ability to Change the World

Have you ever wonder why the lives of people like Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Desmond Tutu so inspiring? Seeing someone helping another person creates a state of “elevation.” Have you ever been moved to tears by seeing someone’s loving and compassionate behavior? Elevation then inspires us to help others — and it may just be the force behind a chain reaction of giving. Haidt has shown that corporate leaders who engage in self-sacrificing behavior and elicit “elevation” in their employees, also yield greater influence among their employees — who become more committed and in turn may act with more compassion in the workplace. Indeed, compassion is contagious. Acts of generosity and kindness beget more generosity in a chain reaction of goodness. You may have seen one of the news reports about chain reactions that occur when someone pays for the coffee of the drivers behind them at a drive-through restaurant or at a highway tollbooth. People keep the generous behavior going for hours. Our acts of compassion uplift others and make them happy. We may not know it, but by uplifting others, we are also helping ourselves; happiness spreads and that if the people around us are happy, we, in turn, become happier.


1. How empathic are you?

2. What is the difference between sympathy and empathy? how are they not synoyms?

3. what is the biggest reason we should have empathy? what is the biggest reason why we should have compassion?

4. what would life be like if there were sympathy but no empathy?

5. how is empathy the most imporant survivial skill? how is empathy superior to surivial of the fittest?

6. how does compassion bring meaning into our lives?

7. how do we learn empathy?