a kinder and gentler world: The positive psychology of empathy
President, International Network on Personal Meaning
Coquitlam, B.C., Canada
Just imagine that we live in a kinder and gentler
world, where people seek to understand rather than to be understood,
show sensitivity to other people's feelings, routinely engage in
acts of kindness , and strive to make this world a better place
Just image that we inhabit a world where conflicts
are resolved through non-violence means, where all individuals are
respected and valued regardless of their race and creed, and where
the bounty of earth is enjoyed by all.
But where is it? Where can we find it? The Marxist
experiment failed to create this new humanity and a utopian classless
society. Liberal democracy of the Western world has not become the
elixir of social ills. Neither Christianity nor Buddhism has had
significant positive impact on our society and culture. Positive
psychology has been largely used as a tool for self-seeking rather
than social transformation. The world remains a violent and dangerous
So where do we start to bring about a positive
cultural revolution? What can we do to create a climate, where love
and compassion reign supreme? All of the grand narratives are capable
of lifting humanity up above the jungles of social Darwinism and
oppressive imperialism. Unfortunately, they all become unhinged
when it comes to implementation.
Perhaps, a good starting point for social change
is the simple practice of empathy - the caring of the soul of the
other. Simple as it may sound, it can usher in a new era, when it
is embraced by enough people. What is needed is an army of people
performing simple acts of empathy and compassion. Mother Theresa
said, "We can do no great things - only small things with great
love." Here are a few illustrative stories:
Stories of empathy and
Suffering strengthens empathy
Johnny, a 17-year old boy, has stayed in his
room for three days, refusing to talk to anyone. His parents are
devastated because their only son has just been diagnosed with a
rare form of leukemia, and the prognosis is not good without an
immediate bone marrow transplant. On top of that, they are worried
sick about Johnny's mental state. They hope that their pastor may
be able to offer some comfort to Johnny.
When Pastor Dean shows up and reaches out to
him, Johnny bursts into a rage: "Go away! Just leave me alone! God
doesn't care. Nobody cares. I don't need your pity. What do you
know about cancer? You know nothing about me. How dare you say that
you understand what I am going through?"
Pastor Dean quietly says, "I understand, because
I am also suffering from cancer." At that instant, Johnny's resistance
melts away and a bond is formed.
On his way to meet his father, Jim is overcome
with all sorts of conflicting emotions. He finally has the opportunity
to confront the father who deserted his mother and abandoned his
children almost 35 years ago. All through these years, he has been
wondering what kind of man his father was. He has nursed resentment
and anger, thinking of all the hardships his mother and the children
had to go through. He wants to make his father feel guilty and ashamed.
But all the while, he struggles with the urge to forgive and to
be reconciled with his father.
Now, he feels totally confused, and at a loss
for words, as he drives into the parking lot of the extended care
facility, where his ailing father stays.
But Jim need not worry, because his father,
slumping in a wheelchair, does not even recognize him. As Jim looks
at this helpless and fragile human being with pale, sunken cheeks
and half-closed eyes, he can hardly hold back his tears, and all
his anger and resentment evaporate. Jim feels compelled by a powerful
emotion to move forward to hold the skinny cold hand of a dying
man, and say, "Dad, this is Jimmy, you son. I am so glad that I
have found you. I want you to know that I love you."
Empathy leads to compassion
She witnessed men and women, even young children,
dying in the streets, rejected by local hospitals. She felt the
pain of their suffering and decided to dedicate the rest of her
life to serve the poorest of the poor. With a few helpers, she found
a home for the dying, so that she could care for the poor and lonely
homeless people, regardless of whether they were dying of AIDS or
leprosy. For over 50 years, she worked selflessly helping the poor,
and earned the name "Saint of the Gutters."
when people asked her what made her happy, she said that her greatest
joy was to care for the poor in the last stretch of their earthly
journey, so that they were able to die in peace and with dignity.
She told her followers: "Keep the joy of loving the poor and share
this joy with all you meet. Remember works of love are works of
peace. God bless you. This remarkable woman was Mother
The nature of empathy
Simply put, empathy is the ability to experience
and respond to another person's feelings. The American Psychiatric
Glossary (1994) defines it as "Awareness and understanding of another's
feelings and thoughts." To fully understand the meaning and significance
of another person's emotions requires the capacity of perspective
taking, imaging and emoting.
Emotional contagion is an example of empathy.
But what is the nature of empathy? Is it an instinctive response,
a trait, or an acquired skill?
Tania Singer and her associates (2004) from
the Institute of Neurology, University College of London, have just
published a groundbreaking study in Science.
They used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to explore
brain activity when people experience pain themselves as well as
when they observed someone else experiencing pain.
They recruited 16 couples. They assessed brain
activity in the female partner while a painful stimulation (brief
electric shocks) was applied to her or her partner right hand. The
women could see only their partner's hand and a computer screen.
When the women got shocked, the MRI showed their brain's entire
pain network activated, involving both sensory and affective brain
regions. But when their loved ones got zapped, only the emotional
part of the women's pain network was activated, and this region
includes anterior insula (AI) and anterior cingulated cortex (ACC).
Interestingly, AL and ACC activation was correlated with empathy
scores as measured by psychological tests; in other words, the stronger
the feelings of empathy reported by the women, the greater the brain
activity in their context-dependent pain regions.
This research demonstrates the neural substrate
of empathy; however, automatic empathic reactions may be modulated
by relational closeness and the empathetic nature of individuals.
Singer suggests that empathy is probably hardwired,
because it serves two important survival functions: bonding between
people, and predicting others' needs and actions; but, it may be
tempered by experience and learning.
Many questions remain unanswered: Will male
subjects show similar brain activity when their female partners
receive the shock? Is there a neural substrate of empathetic responses
to another person's emotional pain, such as grieving the loss of
a broken relationship or mourning the death of a loved one? Are
psychopaths deficient in their sympathetic brain reactions?
Typology of empathy
Perhaps, we need to be more analytical in the
study of empathy. I propose that there are at least six different
types of empathy, involving different regions of brain activities.
This represents the most primitive type of empathy,
hardwired for survival. It is widely known that all sorts of animals
respond to distress calls by members of the same species regarding
dangerous (e.g., presence of a predator) or distressful events (e.g.,
abandonment, separation, or bereavement). Human infants can show
an empathetic distress response, when they hear other infants cry
(Hoffman, 1990). Typically, we may automatically withdraw our hands
and say Ouch, when we see another person scream in pain when he
or she touches a hot iron, even when such this person is a total
stranger. Such instinctive empathy is properly hardwired, because
of its apparent survival functions and universality.
Relational empathy refers to affective responses
to another person's feelings only when there is a close relationship.
The closer the relationship, the more sensitive one is to another
person's feelings and conditions. A mother may experience greater
pain when her child is injured. For those deeply in love, even an
unintentional slight by one may cause a great deal of pain in the
partner. In short, love hurts. Individuals who have been injured
by love often try to escape intimate relations to avoid getting
This is based on personal experiences. It is
difficult for a single woman to understand the plight of a mother
with several young children. Of course, men can never fully understand
what is like to give birth to a baby. Generally speaking, individuals
are more likely to be empathic to others, when they have experienced
many hardships and are well acquainted with sorrows and sufferings.
I am grateful that I have gone through the school of hard knocks,
which has prepared me for counseling far better than any formal
Basic or primary empathy
This involves a set of skills, such as active
listening, making frequent eye contact, nodding in agreement, reflecting,
paraphrasing and summarizing, giving the appropriate emotional feedback
verbally and non-verbally. Carl Roger (1951) believes that these
empathic skills play a major role in client-centered therapy, because
therapists not only need to show their interest in what clients
say and how they feel, but also demonstrate an "accurate empathetic
Advanced empathy requires the listener to go
beyond verbal and non-verbal expressions, to develop an insightful
awareness and understanding of another person's intentions, desires
and unspoken concerns. It requires the skill to listen with the
sixth sense, to feel the pulse of the innermost being, and to make
explicit what is hidden beneath consciousness. It involves the insightful
construing of meaning and significance from a variety of seemingly
trivial clues. It tests hypothesis about the missing pieces of the
puzzle and anticipates solutions.
Carl Roger has consistently maintained that
empathy is more than a set of skills. For empathy to be effective,
the therapist needs to develop the attitude or mindset of empathy.
In other words, empathy works, only when it comes from a person
who really cares about people and who has compassionate heart. Love
precedes understanding and knowledge. Love heals, even when knowledge
fails. Empathy without love can be patronizing and condescending,
but empathy with love never fails to build up the other person.
The helping profession should be in essence a caring profession.
Now, we are getting into the "spiritual" realm,
so to speak. Therapists need to undergo some sort of personal transformation
and become compassionate. When therapists really care, they would
be willing to remove protective barriers, and open their hearts
for their clients, even at the risk of being wrong or getting hurt.
For compassionate healers, the skills of empathy become their second
nature, and their very presence is therapeutic to the extent that
it communicates empathy, acceptance and genuineness.
Empathy and compassion
At the highest level, empathy involves not only
the capacity of feeling and understanding other people's pain, but
also the compassion to reduce their suffering. But how are empathy
and compassion related?
For Buddhism, compassion or Karuna has more
to do with empathy than sympathy. The Buddha demands his followers
to recognize the connectivity of another person's suffering with
their own suffering, and such empathy should motivate them to do
something to reduce that suffering.
to the Dalai Lama (2001), compassion is the wish that all human
beings are free from suffering, and this compassion compels us to
engage in virtuous practices necessary for achieving Buddhahood.
"In the first step toward a compassionate heart, we must develop
our empathy or closeness to others" (p.91). Closeness means more
than physical or emotional closeness; it actually means feeling
concerned and responsible for another person's well-being as much
as for our own well-being. This connectivity, the brotherhood of
all people, is at the heart of empathy and compassion.
Confucius comes to a similar conclusion but
from a different perspective. One of the key constructs in Confucius
teaching as recorded in the Analects is Jen. This word can be translated
as "human being" and "humaneness". Confucius believes in the perfecting
of humanity through education by developing Jen as a universal virtue.
In Analects, Jen means goodness, kindness, compassion, and tender-heartedness.
It is defined as being selfless, and "the ability to take one's
own feelings as a guide" (XI 22) to understand the feelings of others.
Christianity places a distinct spiritual emphasis
on compassion. Firstly, love is a supernatural gift from God rather
than the product of human efforts. It is the highest spiritual gift
(I Corinthians 13:13), and an unmistakable mark of a spirit-filled
life (Galatians 5:22). It is God's love in our hearts (Romans 5:5)
that enables us to love God and love others.
compassion comes from imitation of Christ. "When he saw the crowds,
he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless,
like sheep without a shepherd" (Matthews 9:36). Jesus said: "I am
the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the
sheep" (John 10:11).
Just as love compelled Christ to die on the
cross for sinners (Romans 5:8), so love demands his followers to
model after him. He said to his disciples, "If anyone would come
after me, he must deny himself and take up this cross and follow
me" (Matthew 16:24).
Finally, compassion is based on empathy. Self-love
provides the criterion for loving others: "Love your neighbor as
yourself" (Matthew19:19). This connectivity is more clearly expressed
in the golden rule: "In everything, do to others what you would
have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets"
In spite of their differences, all three perspectives
emphasize that empathy and compassion are actually two sides of
the same coin - one cannot exist without the other.
Benefits of empathy
Empathy is widely recognized as a universal
virtue, closely related to many other virtues, such as love, compassion,
kindness, tolerance, respect, and acceptance. Educators promote
empathy as the cornerstone for moral and character development,
and as an antidote to bullying and violence in schools.
The corporate world recognizes empathy as an
important people skill, necessary for business success. Daniel Goldman
and other psychologists consider empathy a major component of emotional
intelligence, because it enables us to understand and predict the
emotions and needs of others. Such knowledge can help us influence
people and win friends.
In the political arena, empathy is important
in vote getting. Who can resist the appeal of the former President
Clinton, when he looks into your eyes with the expression: "I share
your pain"? Senator Edwards' appeal largely lies in his ability
to connect viscerally to voters.
As an individual, we need empathy to survive
and succeed in this complex and dangerous world. But humanity, as
a whole, also needs empathy to rescue it from traveling down the
road of violence and destruction.
How do we create a kinder and gentler world?
The emphatic skills are important and emotional intelligence matters.
But above all, we need compassionate empathy. There are different
philosophical and spiritual perspectives regarding how to develop
this highest form of empathy. However, the following two simple
practices are universally endorsed:
Firstly, before you do anything or make any
decision, simply ask yourself: How will it affect others? Will it
have a negative impact on their well-being? If I were in their shoes,
how would I react? This practice is basically the gold rule.
Secondly, instead of being preoccupied with
your own self-interest, everyday ask yourself: What can I do to
reduce other people's suffering? How can I bring some sunshine to
someone's life? How can I make a difference in my corner of the
world, here and now?
But you may wonder: what is the incentive to
engage in these exercises? The answer may surprise you.
Here is the ironclad existential logic - you
will find happiness and serenity only in caring for others. This
point has been emphasized by both Alfred Adler and Viktor Frankl.
Furthermore, when these simple acts of compassionate empathy are
practiced consistently by an increasing number of people, you can
help create a kinder and gentler world at work, at home and in the
larger community. Such a positive environment will be good for you
and for others as well.
I need to conclude with a warning: Empathy can
be very costly; it may even cost you your life. However, only in
willingly embracing the dangers and injuries of caring, will you
find healing and happiness for yourself and for others. There is
no better way.
Dalai Lama (2001). An
open heart: Practicing compassion in everyday life. (Edited
by Nicholas Vreeland). Boston: Little, Brown and Company
Edgerton, J. E. (1994). American
Psychiatric Glossary, 7th Edition. Washington, DC: American
Hoffman, M. L. (1990).
Empathy and justice motivation. Motivation and Emotion, 14,
Rogers, C. (1951).
Client-centered therapy. Boston: Houghton Miffli.
Waley, A. (1992). Confucianism:
The Analects of Confucius. (Translated by Arthur Waley).
New York: Book-of the Month Club.