Connect IN PERSON with people! In today’s digital world, we often do not give our mirror neurons an opportunity to fire: texting, emailing and posting items on social pages do not increase our sense of connections at a neural level – in a way that brings us together to strengthen our sense of humanity. Digital communication lacks eye contact, facial expression and tone of voice – all of which normally promote connection (positive or negative). As such, one way to increase your capacity for empathy, is to practice face to face (ichat, skype, facetime) and in person communication. Even (gasp!) having a good old fashion phone conversation creates more connections than a digital one.
Did You Know? A new study of “500 college students found that those who use their cellphones most often are likely to be less happy, more anxious, and less successful students than those who sometimes ignore them.”
(Source: The Week, December 27, 2013, page 21.)
Another way to work on empathy is through mindfulness and meditation:
“Many studies have shown that mindfulness meditation that includes LKM (loving-kindness meditation) can rewire your brain. Practicing LKM is easy. All you have to do is take a few minutes everyday to sit quietly and systematically send loving and compassionate thoughts to: 1) Family and friends. 2) Someone with whom you have tension or a conflict. 3) Strangers around the world who are suffering. 4) Self-compassion, forgiveness and self-love to yourself.
“Doing this simple 4-step LKM practice literally rewires your brain by engaging neural connections linked to empathy. You can literally feel the tumblers in your brain shift and open up to empathy by spending just a few minutes going through this systematic LKM practice.”
The above quote was so spot-on, we left it the way we found it from the article. Countless studies have been done to prove the benefits of mindfulness and meditation. From better cognitive functioning (read: doing better in school) to healing mood disorders, practicing mindfulness and meditation has significant positive influences that also boost empathy, for yourself and for others.
Give back – Helping others is one of the most effective ways to increase your connections with those around you and foster your compassion for others [a close cousin to empathy and an effective strategy for boosting your self esteem! (SAM, Sept/Oct. 2013, page 32)]. In fact, doing a kindness for another person is the single most reliable factor in increasing your sense of happiness! What does that mean exactly? It means that when you help another person, your happiness increases more than if you had done something like, buy yourself a gift or eat a favorite food or play a game (Martin Seligman, Flourish, Atria Books, 2012).
So if you feel like you need a little boost in self esteem and empathy, go volunteer to help someone (or even animals!).
Did You Know? Being nice at any age seems to have its benefits. During childhood, when we behave kindly by cooperating or sharing or consoling each other, in later life we are more successful academically. As a preteen, “performing acts of kindness may boost happiness and popularity – and reduce the chances of being bullied.” In adulthood, spending money on other people is a greater predictor of happiness than spending money on oneself.
(Source: Scientific American Mind, September/October 2013, page 8)
Facing hardship yourself helps you empathize with others who are going through difficult times. When life is all sunshine and roses, it’s difficult to imagine what people who face hardship are feeling. So challenge yourself to something new, different, maybe even grueling to see what exerting yourself, and maybe even failing, might feel like. Failure is a growth experience and through it we learn so much about ourselves and we gain the capacity to understand other people’s pain and triumphs.
For people who have a severe lack of empathy, they are not likely to try any of the above mentioned ways to improve their levels of empathy. As a result, they are more likely to find improvement through therapeutic interventions such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). In CBT, individuals are instructed to become more aware of their thoughts and to change negative thinking patterns to more beneficial ones. Behavior is also targeted. Individuals are instructed to avoid situations that trigger maladaptive patterns of behavior and to actively engage in more positive actions.
For example, for someone who is lacking empathy, CBT might focus on challenging negative thoughts such as That person deserves to be hurt – she’s a loser! This thought process involves name calling, which dehumanizes people. As a result, someone in CBT would be asked to change such thoughts whenever they occur: No one deserves to be hurt. Then, to alter behaviors, the individual in CBT might be challenged to ask the person his/her name, make eye-contact and, in time, to offer help in some way.
Post Question: How will you work on your empathy?