“You can’t love someone or something without relating to its existence,” says musician Pharrell Williams in a MasterClass about empathy. “In order to relate, you have to empathize.”
For Williams, it’s about changing your vantage point. “A lack of POV is a lack of context” he says, and when you don’t have a context then you can’t understand the greater situation that’s around you. It’s like you’re looking at just the mountain in front of you and don’t realize that there’s an entire landscape behind it.
“When you open your mind’s eye, you get a bigger view,” he says. This goes for people too.
He suggests thinking about a demographic and trying to imagine an hour of what that person is going through, he says. It’s best to think about a segment of the population that is very different from you or one that you have a bias against.
“We tell people to just get over it and let it go,” he says about when people are oppressing you, but if you close your eyes and try to imagine what it’s like to live their experience, you might stop oppressing others.
“Empathy is a crucial step in forgiveness,” he says because it makes us realize that “we might have made some insane choices in similar circumstances.”
Empathy is the first step in forgiveness and understanding because it’s a step of awareness. It becomes a democratizing and political force, Williams says.
Developing empathy is something you can actively cultivate, which is cool and hopeful, but scientists also think it might have to do with this thing called “mirror neurons,” which is still kind of a concept right now.
As Psychology Today explains,
“These neurons, it is theorized, enhance the capacity to display, read, and mimic emotional signals through facial expressions and other forms of body language, enhancing empathy. But whether mirror neurons actually operate this way in humans is a subject of longstanding scientific debate, and some scientists question their very existence.”
So, yeah, they aren’t sure if they are real. But whatever. It’s still cool-just like empathy.
The thing is that empathy does a lot of cool stuff when it comes to making yourself better and your community and world better.
Empathy helps us be friends, cooperate, make decisions that are moral and helps us help others. And we start showing it in infancy. It’s built into us. But I think sometimes fear strips it away, or maybe it’s selfishness that does that or society saying kindness isn’t tough, all that BS.
But empathy is so important. As Psychology Today says,
“Empathy Developing empathy is crucial for establishing relationships and behaving compassionately. It involves experiencing another person’s point of view, rather than just one’s own, and enables prosocial or helping behaviors that come from within, rather than being forced.”
Some surveys indicate that empathy is on the decline in the United States, which is honestly pretty terrifying.
A study in 2010 by Konrath and O’Brien found:
“That empathy is declining sharply among college students today. The authors examined the responses of nearly 14,000 students who had completed a questionnaire measuring different types of empathy. The results show that the average level of “empathic concern,” meaning people’s feelings of sympathy for the misfortunes of others, declined by 48 percent between 1979 and 2009; the average level of “perspective taking,” people’s tendencies to imagine others’ points of view, declined by 34 percent over the same period. There was a particularly steep decline between 2000 and 2009.”
And dude, that’s terrifying because empathy is what makes us a good society, a kind society, a work-together society. So then you have to think, okay. There’s a problem in that we as a culture are losing our empathy, so what do we do? How do we build it back up, right?
There’s actually a TedTalk by Thu-Houng Ha that centers on that.
THREE STEPS TO UP THE EMPATHY
- “Strengthen your own resources”
“Think about something you’re struggling with and how it makes you feel. Then imagine a friend coming to you with that same problem and how you’d respond to them. Doing this can highlight the chasm between the kindness we give to the people in our lives and the kindness (or lack of) that we show ourselves. You’ll probably find a significant difference in how you’d treat your friend — most likely with patience, generosity and forgiveness — versus how you’d react to yourself — perhaps with blame, harshness and self-criticism.
2. Be kind to other people when you are all “dude, I cannot handle any more”
“At some point in your day, especially when you’re stressed or feel like you don’t have any spare bandwidth, spend in some small way — whether it’s in time, energy or money — on someone in your life. Send a text message of support to someone who’s having a hard time. When you’re running errands, pick up your partner’s favorite coffee. Carry an older neighbor’s groceries upstairs. “Building empathy isn’t necessarily about donating half of your salary to charity. It’s about the little things that we do each day,” says Dr. Zaki. “It’s about habits of mind.”
“In an attempt to conserve energy for ourselves, we tend to turn inwards when under pressure. While it may seem counterintuitive, Dr. Zaki has seen that performing these tiny acts — especially at moments when we feel like we can’t — can be energizing and enlivening. “Students are happily surprised to find that when they give to others, they don’t end up depleting themselves,” he says. “Happiness and well-being are not a zero-sum situation.”Ha
3. Don’t debate when you don’t agree
You can disagree, but explain where your opinion came from and let the other person you’re disagreeing with do that too. Don’t do this with someone who hurts you or who is a bigot about your demographics because you have to protect yourself too, but if it isn’t someone like that just try to talk about your difference of opinion without thinking that person is the anti-christ.
DOG TIP FOR LIFE
Dogs have empathy so should you. Notice when other people need a good lick on their face or a lay on their lap.
RESOURCES AND PLACES TO LEARN MORE, MAN!
“Changes in Dispositional Empathy in American College Students Over Time: A Meta-Analysis”
Konrath, S.H., O’Brien, E.H., Hsing, C. Personality and Social Psychology Review, August 2010, Advance online publication.
The music we’ve clipped and shortened in this podcast is awesome and is made available through the Creative Commons License.
Here’s a link to that and the artist’s website. Who is this artist and what is this song? It’s “Summer Spliff” by Broke For Free.
We have a podcast, LOVING THE STRANGE, which we stream biweekly live on Carrie’s Facebook and Twitter and YouTube on Fridays. Her Facebook and Twitter handles are all carriejonesbooks or carriejonesbook. But she also has extra cool content focused on writing tips here.
Carrie is reading one of her raw poems every once in awhile on CARRIE DOES POEMS. And there you go! Whew! That’s a lot!