By Eric Barker
September 15, 2015
Barker is the author of

Does it ever feel like people are all self-absorbed jerks? Like they’re not listening? Only in it for themselves?

You’re not crazy. Empathy is declining.

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It’s easy to believe that people are just selfish. That it’s human nature. There’s no denying we do think a lot about our own needs, and classical economics might lead you to believe that’s all there is.

But new research says there’s more to us than that.

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Yes, there are zero-empathy psychopaths out there but they are a very, very small part of the population. The vast majority of us are wired to care.

(To learn which professions have the most psychopaths, click .)

We all need empathy. Even selfish people do. Here’s how the power of empathy can improve your life, and how you can develop more of it.


How Empathy Brings Happiness (And Oscars)

Want to be happier? Be more empathetic.

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Plain and simple: empathy is the and good relationships are the .

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And the power of empathy is wired pretty deeply into us. How deep?

Want to know who your real friends are? Yawn. Really. Go ahead and yawn. We all know yawns are contagious but the more someone cares about you, the :

But what about that Oscar? (C’mon, I know you’ve rehearsed your speech in the bathroom mirror.)

As a method actor, Academy Award Winner Daniel Day-Lewis goes beyond the pale to understand and relate to the characters he portrays.

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On the other hand, many doctors have less empathy than your average Starbucks barista. . (In fact, research shows .)

But what happens when you make sure doctors are empathetic when they work? Their performance goes up — a lot. Here’s Wharton professor :

And other research shows that doctors with empathy .

So what are doctors doing to resolve their empathy deficit? They’re trying to win that Oscar: yes, some doctors are now using method acting techniques to show more empathy.

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You can be happier, improve your relationships, and maybe even be better at your job with empathy. (Plus win an Oscar.)

And when success does not end up bringing happiness, why might that be? Because those people are too busy and aren’t making empathy a priority.

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(To learn the 8 things the happiest people do every day, click .)

So empathy is a big deal. But what is it… really?


What Empathy Is

It’s using your imagination to step into someone else’s shoes.

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That’s pretty good. Want a great definiton of empathy? Check out this moving video explanation by :

Now empathy isn’t a cure-all. Researcher Paul Bloom has pointed out that . And he has a point. Our vision of empathy does need a software update. Let’s call it “Empathy 1.1.”

We all learned “The Golden Rule” growing up:

But again, this is still coming from you; what you want. That may not be what they want.

For true empathy, the focus needs to be on them. So golden ain’t good enough. Forget it. We’re going platinum.

Roman Krznaric suggests this for “The Platinum Rule.”

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(For tips from Wharton professor Adam Grant on how to do good without exhausting yourself, click .)

So what are the best ways to grow your empathy muscles? Here are 3:


1) Listen

Let’s look at an extreme example: . You might think when someone kidnaps people the best thing to do is let the SWAT guys storm the place. Wrong.

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What really worked? Talking.

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And what was the key factor? Yeah, you guessed it: . How does the FBI get there? .

I doubt you’re dealing with anything as high stakes as hostage negotiation but listening is always good.

We can use to learn how to be better listeners. But we need to add something to make sure they’re ready for regular old conversations. What’s that?

Vulnerability. How do you do that? I’m glad you asked.

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How do you know when you’re really opening up? The brilliant has a great idea: “vulnerability hangovers.”

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No, just connecting online doesn’t count. Too much computer time can and communicating via email .

Facebook makes you happier when you use it to plan face-to-face get togethers. When you use it to replace face-to-face meetings, .

(To learn how to make difficult conversations easy, click .)

Listening is powerful but dealing with people can be hard. What’s something you can do on your own?


2) Meditate

It’s not just for hippies anymore! Science shows has many powerful effects including making you happier and .

A specific type is really good at increasing empathy: Loving-Kindness Meditation.

Yes, it sounds corny. And doing it is corny. But shows it works.

How do you feel when you think about loved ones? Warm and fuzzy. Why keep pictures of your kids or your partner on your desk or in your wallet? Even more fuzzies.

That’s the goal here, really. We want to broaden the fuzzy. Fuzzy momentum, if you will. Extend the fuzzy feelings from those you already are compassionate toward to neutral and even to difficult people.

The best instructions I’ve found (that have no scientific jargon or mentions of woodland spirits) come from , the great book by :

Don’t get too worried about details. It’s not a magic spell and this ain’t Hogwart’s. You can customize it. The important thing is wishing others well and expanding that feeling from those you feel strongly about to a wider and wider circle of people.

(For my interview with Good Morning America anchor and meditation-skeptic-turned-believer Dan Harris, click .)

So you’re giving meditation a shot. What’s a fun way to develop empathy?


3) Expose Yourself To Different Ways Of Living

When we see people different from us we’re more likely to connect with them emotionally. Think of it as “mental diversity training.”

Hang out with those who are different from you. And then listen.

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Spending time with people from other cultures doesn’t just increase empathy, it also .

Maybe you’re an introvert. (Me too!) Want to bolster empathy without leaving the house or talking to anyone? Yes, you can.

increases empathy and makes us more likely to do kind things for others:

Does this really work? Some researchers think reading helped end slavery. Seriously.

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Don’t like reading? Netflix binges :

Want your kids to have empathy? Reading and the right TV shows are great but and are important too. And get them that puppy they’re dying for.

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(To learn the secret to getting people to like you, click .)

Okay, we’ve learned a lot. Time to round it up and get a few more insights with another awesome video…


Sum Up

Here’s how to be more empathetic:

  • Listen. And then open up until you have a “vulnerability hangover.”
  • Try meditation. Broaden the loving fuzzy feelings past family and friends.
  • Expose yourself to different ways of living. Hang out with different people. If it can end slavery, it can help you.

Empathy doesn’t just have the power to change our lives, it can also change the world:

As Roman Krznaic recounts in his book, , Muhammad Ali addressed the graduating class at Harvard in 1975. The champ was known for coming up with clever poems, so an audience member asked him to recite one.

At a length of exactly two words, what followed may very well be the shortest poem in recorded history. Ali said:

It’s a pithy reminder of the importance of empathy. Introspection only gets you so far. We need some “outrospection” to really live good lives.

If you learned something from this, share it with others and start a conversation. Let’s spread some empathy. The world needs it. :)

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