Can a better understanding of the experiences and concerns of others make you happier? Maia Szalavitz, author of Born for Love: Why Empathy is Essential – and Endangered, explains.
Q: What is empathy?
A: Empathy has two parts, a mental part and an emotional part. The mental part is the ability to put yourself in the mind of another, to see the world through someone else’s eyes. The emotional part is caring about what the other person feels and experiences. Sociopaths have the mental type of empathy, but not the emotional aspect; they can take other people’s perspectives but they use this skill to manipulate and hurt them, not to help. People with autism often have problems with the mental type of empathy; they have difficulty with perspective-taking, but once they realize that other people have different thoughts and feelings, they can care very deeply about them and can sometimes even be overwhelmed by empathy.
Q: How does empathy develop?
A: Empathy develops as parents nurture their babies and teach them how to cope with stress. It starts with the basic ability we have to mirror each other’s feelings: when baby smiles, Mom smiles and baby smiles back and so on. Through these interactions, children learn about how they feel themselves and how that affects others and vice versa. However, if parents neglect their babies or don’t respond to their smiles, the development of empathy can be impaired: most people who become sociopathic have serious histories of abuse and neglect. If parents aren’t responsive to their children – and I don’t mean perfectly responsive, no one can be – children can fail to learn that pleasing other people is rewarding and being pleased is rewarding, which means you miss some of the greatest joys in life, which involve relationships.
Q: Why is empathy at risk on a social level?
A: Over the course of history, empathy has generally tended to increase. Obviously, there are huge exceptions but, for example, we don’t torture cats or people for entertainment any more, though many people still enjoy simulated violence. But since empathy requires deep relational interactions, when parents don’t have the emotional support of a strong social network, they will get stressed and stressed parents tend to be less empathetic. So, loss of contact with extended family, reductions in the numbers of friends people have, increased divorce without extra support for single parents – all of these things can reduce the ability of parents to teach empathy. Also, babies can’t learn empathy from video screens and they spend more and more time in front of them, rather than interacting with people. Free, unstructured time for social play has also declined. Many aspects of today’s lifestyle aren’t friendly to the development of empathy.
Q: How is empathy related to personal happiness?
A: Most of our joys are relational: you could be the richest person in the world but if you have no friends or family or partner to share that with, you won’t be very happy. Most people think about empathy as feeling each other’s pain but if you can feel someone else’s pleasure, you are a much happier person in general because it simply brings more joy into your life. It’s hard to say whether a person is happier if they are understanding someone or feeling understood. But if you can’t empathize, you can’t have loving relationships and if you can’t have these, it’s extremely difficult to be happy.
Q: What’s your advice for anyone who wants to foster greater empathy?
A: Simply pay attention to others. It’s harder than you think. A lot of the time, we’re tuned out and worried and paying attention to iPhones or whatever. If you really listen to someone else, you give a tremendous gift to them and you get better at reading other people’s signals and you just feel better. Massage and physical contact in general are also good at increasing empathy. In Western society we tend to be somewhat starved of physical affection. Spend time with babies; there are few things better than a baby’s smile and babies are some of the greatest teachers of empathy because their emotional signals are so clear.