Can You Learn Empathy?

Understanding another person's situation will affect how you see the world. (Photo: wk1003mike/Shutterstock)

Empathy seems to be in short supply these days.

Maybe it's because we spend so much time on social media, or maybe it's because there are now 7 billion humans (and counting), but a general lack of it is evident. Older people often accuse younger generations of demonstrating less of this attribute, and every few years a new study supports that point of view. But the truth is worse than that. We are all becoming less thoughtful of one another. One study showed that overall, the ability to empathize may have declined by about 50 percent in recent decades, while narcissism has increased.

Defined as "the ability to understand and share the feelings of another," empathy is at least part of the reason human beings have been so successful as a species. Empathy is one of the must human traits, one that builds bonds between non-related individuals, encouraging sympathy between people who come from different countries or from different age groups. In fact, it's what helps parents understand where their kids are coming from.

Empathy isn't just learned behavior though. It can also be passed down through genetics.

A 2018 study surveyed 46,000 people, collected DNA samples and concluded that people who showed more empathetic feelings had genetic differences from people who expressed less empathy. Also, women overall are more empathetic than men.

"We know that basically anything you can measure in humans has a genetic component, and this establishes that empathy does have some heritable component," Gil McVean told BBC.

However, researchers didn't discover any genes that specifically correlate with empathy, and more research is needed to determine if there is a specific gene.

"Since only a tenth of the variation in the degree of empathy between individuals is down to genetics, it is equally important to understand the non-genetic factors," Varun Warrier told BBC.

Empathy is a natural feeling

It can even work across species; animal rights are based on the idea that animals shouldn't suffer any more than humans should suffer. Empathy is also imperative for enjoying art like film, paintings and especially novels.

Unless you're a psychopath, you're naturally able to feel empathy. And that first part isn't hyperbole. One of the definitions of psychopathy is a "lack of empathy." It's a depressing thought. If you lived a life without empathy, you'd spend all of your time confined to your own perspective. (How boring is that!) Being able to experience or understand someone else's viewpoint is an incredible way to see what it's like to live in someone else's shoes. There's no better tool for helping you appreciate your own situation or to help you change your mind about an issue.

Sounds great, right? But knowing all the benefits is one thing. Can you learn to be more empathetic?

Yes. And it's a skill that can be improved upon over time.

Good listener badge
Are you a good listener? Maybe you should practice. (Photo: iQoncept/Shutterstock)

As Daryl Cameron, Michael Inzlicht and William A. Cunningham — a brain scientist and two psychiatrists who studied the subject — wrote in the New York Times, "... when people learned that empathy was a skill that could be improved — as opposed to a fixed personality trait — they engaged in more effort to experience empathy for racial groups other than their own. Empathy for people unlike us can be expanded, it seems, just by modifying our views about empathy."

So empathy can be practiced and expanded. It's a choice.

Some easy empathy exercises include:

  • Really listening to a friend. Keep your mouth shut and your ears open. When you want to say something, nod your head instead. Just hear what the person is telling you, believe that what he is telling you about his emotions is true for him, and then listen some more. Don't judge. Then, listen some more.
  • Talk to strangers: This might be tough for introverts, so if you aren't always comfortable chatting about random stuff, remember that a conversation can happen anywhere, including online. The point is to communicate with someone who is different from you. If you're older, talk to a kid; if you're online all day for your job, talk to someone who works with their hands. If you don't know what to talk about, ask about the person's work or what their last vacation was like.
  • Think about who made your clothes or your car, or your meal. At the grocery store, imagine whose hands may have picked your oranges, or who made the pre-packaged sushi plate you've picked up.
  • Read novels or short stories, or go to a play about people whose lives are different from yours.

You could also go to a museum. At the Empathy Museum, you'll literally be able to walk in someone else's shoes or have a conversation with someone you might not otherwise meet. That's a pretty smart (and fun) way to practice empathy.

All of the above can increase your empathy, and with it, your enjoyment of the world as you gain greater understanding of how interesting and diverse it really is.