That bitter, older manager in the office who’s always grumbling about the younger generations being “all selfies and no respect” might actually have a bit more bite to his bark than you think. A Notre Dame study tracked empathy levels in college students beginning in 1979 and found that over the course of 30 years, average empathy levels in college students had dropped nearly 50%.
No one is sure exactly why, and speculation runs the gamut. One theory is that people are spending less and less time interacting with each other and more and more time with electronics. Another theory from Australian philosopher Dr. Roman Krznaric is that “digital culture has created an epidemic of narcissism and exacerbated political polarization that divides rather than unites people.”
Whatever may be contributing to this decline in empathy, the good news for all of us is that we can get ahead of this trend personally and even help turn it around. Empathy is something anyone can improve with effort regardless of their baseline. Below, we’ve compiled five strategies you can apply to help strengthen your empathy muscle.
Be curious. “Remember to look up at the stars, not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see and wonder about what makes the universe exist.” –Stephen Hawking
Perhaps the best way to grow our empathy is to be genuinely curious about everyone around us. They may not live the way we do or make the same decisions, but each person is their own universe of complexity with unlimited opportunities for learning.
Be aware of “empathy erosion.” You might snap “not now” at your kid as they climb onto your lap during a meeting or shoot off a callous email one evening on your way out the door. These lapses in empathy are examples of what Cambridge psychologist Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen calls “empathy erosion.” Our empathy wanes when we get caught up in an “I” mode of thinking, obsessing over our own thoughts and feelings at the expense of the thoughts and feelings of the people around us. Empathy erosion is the quickest and most common way for even highly empathetic people to act unempathetically. Being more aware of this possibility gives you the choice to remain connected to the thoughts and feelings of the person you are with.
Look deeper in movies and books. “Nearly everyone in the world has appetites and impulses, trigger emotions, islands of selfishness, lusts just beneath the surface.” John Steinbeck’s East of Eden
Beneath every tree is a network of roots equaling the size of the tree. People are like this too—so much of who we are is hidden beneath the surface. As you watch movies or read books, try to see what lies beneath the surface for each character. What problems, successes, emotions, thoughts, values, and beliefs, make them the person they are?
Catch your own confirmation bias. “People generally see what they look for and hear what they listen for.” –Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird
We tend to confirm what we already think, and this includes our preconceived notions of others. Whether we realize it or not, we constantly judge people, and then when they speak or act, we organize their actions into preconceived boxes. Instead, we should strive for a “tabula rasa,” treating each person we meet as a blank slate and each of their actions as a fresh mark to interpret.
Try compassionate meditation. In a two-week, daily meditation study at University of Wisconsin-Madison, one group of people practiced “compassionate meditation” while another group practiced “general positive meditation.” In the compassionate meditation group, participants focused on specific individuals they knew (some they liked, some who were acquaintances, and some who they were actively in a conflict with). Regardless of the relationship, they meditated on that person repeating the phrase “may you be free from suffering.” After two weeks passed, they measured participant brain activity and everyone was asked to spend money to help a fictional person in need. Those who engaged in compassionate meditation offered to donate more money to help. And the area of their brain associated with empathy showed an overall increase in activity. In other words, their empathy grew both in action and neurologically! Try repeating “may you be free from suffering” for your friends, acquaintances and those who pose challenges for you.
From Insights to Action. “Empathy is really important. Only when our clever brain and our human heart work together in harmony can we achieve our full potential.” –Jane Goodall
Empathy is at the core of who we are, and practicing it will restore you, not deplete you. Try the strategies above, and you might be surprised to find that the more empathy you exercise, the more full your life begins to feel as you inspire others and begin to replenish the empathy decline.