Connection is a vital piece of what enables us to flourish in life. We need connection—to our food, to nature, and to those around us. Researchers have even shown that social activities are associated with better cognitive function in older age. But while the simple act of spending time with others is a great way to connect, there’s another powerful tool we should all be making use of: empathy.
Empathy is the ability to connect with the internal state of another person. Specifically, it’s about sharing in the feelings and thoughts of other people—getting on their wavelength, so to speak. Our ability to use empathy is a key determinant in the quality of our relationships because empathy forms a bridge that allows us to bond more deeply. In support of this idea, more interpersonal empathy predicts greater satisfaction in romantic relationships, and it’s also linked to more supportive friendships.
Unfortunately, so many things about our modern world are making empathy a precious commodity. Glorification of the idea that we should get ahead of others at any cost is in direct opposition to healthy empathy. How can we care about others if we’re constantly trying to best them? Perhaps even more caustic is increasing polarization in viewpoints across the world. This black-and-white thinking extends far beyond our political affiliations. It can be seen vividly even in the world of healthcare. Emotionally charged social media posts and blogs are quick to ridicule people following opposing diets without any discussion about the objective pros and cons, or why different diets may be better for different people.
In medicine, there’s a cognitive bias called “premature closure.” This is a tendency to stop thinking about a differential diagnosis too early. It can lead to unquestioningly accepting an incorrect diagnosis. This concept applies directly to a lack of empathy in considering others’ opinions. When we fail to apply empathy in our interactions with other people, we are far more likely to leave our viewpoints unchanged. We suffer by prematurely closing ourselves off to new and potentially better information, which then blocks our ability to learn and grow.
With all of this considered, it’s readily apparent that if we want to have good relationships, to expand our understanding of the world, and to grow as people, we hobble ourselves by not prioritizing empathy. It’s good to know then that there are several things we can do to expand our empathic range. The most basic of these interventions is simply to question how we could be wrong. When we become curious about what we don’t know, we’re more willing to learn from others, especially if they hold viewpoints different from our own. An effort to spend more time listening is another great step. Mindful awareness of when you start to feel defensive is also a signal that it’s a good time to practice empathy, and to try to hold space for opinions that clash with your own.
At the end of the day, and especially as we approach the end of 2020, it’s worthwhile to take a step back and ask how we want to enter the next phase of our lives. For many of us, our physical separation from those we care about is a testament to the role of interpersonal relationships in our mental health. Connection with others has to be prioritized, although it may take on a different form for the foreseeable future. With so many struggling physically, psychologically, financially, and otherwise as a result of recent events, there has never been a better time to focus on empathy. It’s a free, effective, and essential part of our toolkit for wellness. Remember, it doesn’t take much to put empathy into practice—a bit more listening and a bit less judgment goes a long way!