“How to Build a Life” is a weekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness. Click here to listen to his podcast series on all things happiness, How to Build a Happy Life.
When empath first entered the English lexicon, it was anything but a compliment. The term was coined in a 1956 science-fiction story about unnaturally empathetic beings that are used to exploit workers. But the word has since taken on more positive connotations and today might even be worth putting on your résumé as a mark of leadership. Some argue that leaders should exhibit more empathy to help burned-out workers after the worst of COVID-19. The reporter Charlotte Alter dubbed Joe Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign an “empathy offensive,” and if election results are any guide, the strategy paid off.
In contemporary culture, empathy seems like a fairly unalloyed virtue. As virtues go, however, empathy is overrated. Used excessively and on its own, it can bring harm to empathizers and empathizees alike. Instead of striving to be more empathetic, we should all try to build on empathy to cultivate its superior cousin: compassion.
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Empathy is not feeling sorry for someone in physical or emotional pain—that’s sympathy. Rather, it is mentally putting yourself in the suffering person’s shoes to feel their pain. It’s the difference between “Get well soon” and “I can imagine how much discomfort you must be feeling right now.” Some researchers even hypothesize that empaths have hyper-responsive mirror neurons, which react when another person’s behavior is observed. In other words, taking on others’ burdens might be built into some people’s brains.
Evidence suggests that empathy really can lessen other people’s burdens. Participants in a series of experiments documented in 2017 were found to experience significant physical pain relief when hearing someone else express empathy, but not when hearing comments that were unempathetic or neutral. Similarly, patients cope better with bad medical news if their doctors are empathetic, showing they personally understand what the patient is going through.
But this relief comes at a cost to the empathetic person. Writing in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience in 2014, researchers showed that training people in empathy tended to raise their negative feelings in response to others’ distress. This makes sense: If you take on others’ pain, you will have more pain in your life.
Empathy can also harm others—the objects of empathy and even those uninvolved. In his landmark book Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, the University of Toronto psychologist Paul Bloom argues that empathy “can lead to irrational and unfair political decisions.” For example, policy makers might hold people to different standards because they connect to some personal challenges and trials but not others. Bloom even says empathy can “make us worse at being friends, parents, husbands, and wives,” because sometimes an act of love involves doing something that causes pain rather than relieving it, such as confronting an awful truth. The philosopher Jesse Prinz concurs, noting that when we focus on the feelings of one individual, we can ignore the greatest good, and might even do things that harm instead of help, such as “recklessly support[ing] social programs when toughness is called for.”
[Read: The dark side of empathy]
For empathy to become a full-fledged virtue requires adding a few complementary behaviors that convert it into compassion. A comprehensive study of compassion in the Clinical Psychology Review defines it as recognizing suffering, understanding it, and feeling empathy for the sufferer—but also tolerating the uncomfortable feelings they and the suffering person are experiencing, and, crucially, acting to alleviate the suffering.
Compassion helps both the sufferer and the helper. In the 2014 study that showed that empathy training worsened mood, some participants were given training in compassion instead. Compared with empathy training, compassion training lowered their negative feelings and raised positive feelings after they witnessed the pain of others. Compassion also benefits the sufferer: For example, doctors who are more comfortable around patients in pain may be more successful navigating painful treatment, such as acupuncture. Learning to look analytically at others’ discomfort and providing help can take another person’s burden and make it into an opportunity for both of you to feel better.
For your sake and others’, the trick is not to eradicate empathy; rather, it is to develop it into compassion. You can do so in two ways.
1. Toughen up.
To be tougher in the face of another’s pain doesn’t mean feeling it less. Rather, you should learn to feel the pain without being impaired to act. I learned this distinction from my son, who is a Marine. In boot camp, he faced rigors beyond anything he had ever experienced in his life, and he said he wanted to quit every single day, and often thought he would. Boot camp was followed over the next couple of years by many rounds of combat training, and finally, selection for a special unit in which nearly 90 percent of aspirants were eliminated. According to my son, this last experience was more awful than boot camp, but he never doubted whether he would finish, because he had learned how to function under extreme circumstances. Pain—never far away for a Marine—doesn’t much faze him anymore.
Compassionate people are like my son at the end of his training: just as likely to feel pain as anyone else, but able to bear it and function. Empathetic doctors relieve pain with their empathy; compassionate doctors can also calmly operate on the patient. Empathetic parents suffer with their adult kids when they are struggling at college; compassionate parents can resist the urge to drive over and treat them like children.
[Read: A short history of empathy]
2. Don’t just feel—do.
A lot of the time, when people are in pain, they resist an effective cure because it would temporarily be even more painful. A person might walk around for years with a trick knee because they can’t bear the thought of an operation and recovery (and research shows that people usually overestimate the pain of surgery). Similarly, people stay in toxic relationships because leaving seems too terrible to deal with.
Empaths can’t help others commit to difficult resolutions, because their assistance stops at the victim’s feelings. But compassionate people, toughened up to act, can do hard things that the person suffering might not want or like—but that is for their good. Compassion can be tough love, giving honest counsel that is difficult to hear, saying goodbye to an employee who is not a suitable fit, or saying no to a disappointed child. This can start a virtuous cycle, in which the recipient of compassion gets a little more resilient and becomes better able to show compassion themselves.
If cultivating compassion sounds daunting to you, you’re not alone. It might be partially outside of your control: Research has shown that compassion and empathy are to some degree genetic, and that we may be inherently drawn to people with these traits. However, plenty of evidence also shows that compassion can be learned. Techniques for doing so involve a combination of contemplative practices, loving-kindness meditation for oneself and others, and learning to not just receive another person’s pain but also give your joy and happiness to someone who’s suffering.
Like anything else of great human merit, the key for turning empathy into compassion is to use your conscious faculties to push beyond your feelings. Do the work to become strong in the face of pain and you will benefit yourself and others. There is no label like empath for someone who has become especially compassionate, but you’ll know it when you achieve it, and others will too.
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