President's Column

Creating a Kinder and Gentler World: The Positive Psychology of Empathy

Paul T. P. Wong
Paul T. P. Wong, Ph.D., C. Psych.
Trent University

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 for everyone.

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 place.

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 Compassion

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.

Empathy heals

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.”

mother1Later 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 Teresa.

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.

Instinctive Empathy

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

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 hurt again.

Experiential Empathy

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 professional training.

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 understanding.”

Advanced Empathy

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.

Compassionate Empathy

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.

dalai-lamaAccording 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.

jesushuggingsmChristianity 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.

Secondly, 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” (Matthew 7:12).

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 Psychiatric Press.

Hoffman, M. L. (1990). Empathy and justice motivation. Motivation and Emotion, 14, 151-172.

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.