“Ever since I remember, I always slept with my dog, Prince,” Rickey mournfully replied. “This morning, when I woke up, he was…he was…he was dead. He died!” A tear began to run down his cheek. “I really loved him, and now he’s dead!” More tears.
By now, a strong wave of sadness had washed over me. My voice became choked up, and no doubt my facial muscles twisted into a distinct look of deep concern. This reaction was not an act. I didn’t say to myself that the professional thing for me to do here is to appear concerned. My feelings of concern came to me as naturally as the warm feelings that come over me when I see a striking sunrise.
What is Empathy?
When we experience empathy we feel what we believe are the emotions of another. Empathy promotes prosocial behavior. For social beings, negotiating interpersonal decisions is as important to survival as being able to navigate the physical landscape. Empathy motivates individual behavior that aids in solving communal challenges as well as guide group decisions about social exchange. Its influence extends beyond relating to someone else’s emotions, it correlates with an increased positive state and likeliness to aid others.
Is Empathy a Sign of Maturity?
Empathy is not a type of skill that you either have or don’t have–it varies by degrees. It begins at a very early age. We see this when babies, upon hearing another baby cry, display signs of distress. And upon seeing a parent in a distressed state while trying to reach for an object that is just out of reach, most toddlers will often crawl to the object and push it closer to the parent until the parent can pick it up.
As children get older, their empathy tends to increase. Boys, early in their teenage years tend to have a short period in which their empathy development goes a bit into reverse, but at about age 15, they begin to move forward again in developing this skill. This development tends to continue into young adulthood for both males and females, and for many, even well beyond. Since more fully developed skills of empathy tend to be more effective in achieving goals in the long run, people often view this as a sign of maturity.
Can Empathy be Learned?
Because empathy increases as a person gets older, we may become complacent when seeing our youth acting insensitive, or even downright cruel. We might simply chalk it up to immaturity, decide to rely on time itself to do its job to increase empathy, and therefore end up doing nothing to foster its development. In my view, this is a serious mistake. Many research studies have demonstrated that a number of methods can be used to increase empathy, and it makes sense that we utilize them to benefit individuals and their communities.
Methods that Increase Empathy
We can teach children to reach more mature levels of empathy in several ways. For example, when we read to them, we can pause from time to time and ask how each of the characters in the stories are probably feeling. If one of them is likely to be sad, we can express sadness in our face, thereby modeling an empathic response. We can then ask, “If the sad character was a friend of yours, what do you think would be a kind thing to do?” When the child comes up with a helpful suggestion, we could enthusiastically express our agreement that such an act would indeed be kind and then say that we respect people who are kind. If the character is happy, we can model the expression of happiness and ask a few questions about why the character is happy.
Here’s another idea. Have children learn on a daily basis in cooperative groups. Cooperative learning is the instructional use of small groups so that students work together to maximize their own and each other’s learning. Research has demonstrated that when this happens often enough, students not only learn more, they enhance their skill at getting along and increase their empathy. In these studies, throughout the day there was time for the development of individual goals, but daily students had to learn to function under cooperative conditions as well.
Although to my knowledge cooperative learning research has been studied exclusively within school settings, I believe families can effectively use this approach. For example, whenever the family goes on an outing, a parent can say something like, “Let’s all work together to make this a great time. Before we go, let’s take a few minutes to think up some ways we can all chip in to make this happen.” Then, each member of the family takes a turn suggesting what he or she can do to cooperate to achieve this shared goal. During the trip, parents can make sure they notice whenever someone is cooperating and play it up as being very appreciated.
For older children, and for us grown-ups as well, the most consistent way to increase empathy is through meditation. In an earlier post I presented a detailed description of a simple form of meditation and presented the scientific evidence for practicing this ancient art to reduce stress and ruminating on angry memories. Well, as it turns out, practicing meditation has been shown to also increase empathy, along with its close relative, kindness.
By the way, one of my favorite kindness stories involves the psychologist and philosopher, Professor William James, his son, Willie, and the professor’s brother, the esteemed writer, Henry James.
A Story About Kindness
When Willie had grown to be a young man, a biographer who was working on a book about his recently deceased Uncle Henry, asked to speak with him.
“Did you get to know your Uncle Henry?” the biographer asked.
“Oh, yes. He would live with us for months at a time. When I was very young, I grew to love him because he took a very genuine interest in me. Most adults back then would just nod at me and maybe muss my hair, but Uncle Henry, he would take the time to engage me with challenging questions. Like he’d ask me what I had been thinking and feeling about things and people. And he always wanted to know what I thought other people were thinking and feeling. He had a nice, kind way of listening, too.”
“Can you recall for me a particular incident that occurred between you two that stands out in your mind that captures something special about your Uncle Henry?”
“Oh, yes.” Of all the events that occurred between Willie, the incident that stood out most vividly for him is the following:
One day, 9-year old Willie learned that his Uncle Henry was going abroad. The news saddened him for his absence would last a full year.
Upon Uncle Henry’s return to Cambridge, Massachusetts, the literary community entreated Willie’s dad, Professor William James, to throw a grand party for his brother to welcome him home and to discuss his latest literary achievements.
On the night of the party, Little Willie pleaded with his father to let him attend, but the professor insisted it was simply not a proper event for a young boy.
That night, Little Willie snuck out of his bedroom and peered through the banister posts at the top of the stairs. And when the grand proceedings began, oh, what a sight to remember.
All the great literary figures came—Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorn, and on and on. Each person who greeted Little Willie’s Uncle Henry did so with such awe and respect that Willie found this absolutely astonishing.
The next morning, Little Willie found Henry in the library already hard at work on his latest manuscript. Willie exclaimed, “Uncle Henry, Uncle Henry, the way everybody treated you last night, saying what a great man you are! Uncle Henry, what does it take for a man to be great?”
Henry smiled, put down his fountain pen, took a second or two to rub his chin, and then leaned forward toward Willie. “Willie, there are three things a man must do to be truly great. First, he must be kind; second, he must be kind; and third, he must be kind.”
Well, that’s my post for the week. Until next time, may you find the empathy within to remain ever mindful not to judge others by what you can or cannot see on the surface. Understand that the true wealth of individuals lies deep within, and it may be your kindness, caring and compassion that will tap into the riches of their souls.
Some people will enjoy reading this blog by beginning with the first post and then moving forward to the next more recent one; then to the next one; and so on. This permits readers to catch up on some ideas that were presented earlier and to move through all of the ideas in a systematic fashion to develop their emotional intelligence. To begin at the very first post you can click HERE.