It strengthens relationships…and is even linked to happiness…

When it comes to personality traits, empathy—the ability to feel another person’s experiences and emotions—is one of the least understood.

We think of empathy as an admirable trait that gives us the ability to “walk in another’s shoes.” But some people are better at expressing empathy than others.

Why it matters: With so much tragedy around us—whether it’s mass shootings, floods, wildfires…or even a serious health threat in a loved one—how do we strike the right balance when it comes to being empathetic?

To learn more, Bottom Line Health spoke with Nancy Eisenberg, PhD, a leading psychologist who has written extensively about empathy and similar traits.

How is empathy different from sympathy? Empathy is more than just listening and relating to someone’s concerns. You experience empathy when you understand (or intuit) someone’s feelings so completely that their feelings become your own. If you feel sad when watching a sad child, for example, that’s empathy.

A person who feels empathy may also feel sympathy. In that case, you may feel sorry for a sad child but also want to help—“I’m so sorry you feel sad. What can I do to help?”

Does being empathetic and/or sympathetic give a person more personal happiness? Individuals who are inclined to be helpful tend to be better adjusted overall and get along better with others than those who are less helpful. In general, people who participate in “prosocial” activities—such as volunteering and community service—will be happier and experience more empathy/sympathy than those who aren’t socially engaged.

When empathetic/sympathetic individuals want to help, they are generally motivated by their concern for others, with little regard for concrete or social rewards.

Consider a child who stands up for a bullied classmate. The defender faces physical or social risk but does so out of concern for the other child. Research has shown that this type of “defending behavior” is associated with high levels of sympathy, which often stems from empathy.

Are empathetic people born that wayor is it something that we learn? A bit of both. Studies involving twins suggest that genetics, as well as environment, play a large role in empathy, altruism and similar traits.

Neurochemistry also comes into play. Oxytocin, for example, is widely known as the “love” hormone, but it is also called a “bonding” hormone because it’s released when people get close emotionally. When test subjects are given oxytocin, they exhibit more generosity, cooperation and empathy. In one study, women who watched emotional film clips showed an increase both in oxytocin and empathy.

Parental influences are critical, too. Children who grow up with warm, empathetic parents are more likely to develop the same traits than children who come from households where there is less empathy. Children can also learn not to be empathetic. Adolescents who have experienced difficult childhoods, for example, and feel less secure with parents and friends tend to be less empathetic than those with closer relationships.

So some people have a distinct lack of empathy? Yes. They’re called psychopaths. Those with antisocial personality disorders don’t respond to the distress of others, and they have little empathy or remorse.

Without empathy, as well as sympathy, people are more likely to behave violently…have poor relationships…and show little or no regard for other people. Some of the most notorious criminals (including serial killers) fall into this category.  

Is it possible to become more empathetic? Perhaps, but empathy is largely developed in childhood. Children as young as age two to three become aware of other people’s feelings (and realize that the feelings might be different from their own). Empathy begins even earlier than that. Infants will look more uncomfortable when their mothers show sadness—and express more joy when their mothers are happy.

What specific steps can a person take to become more empathetic? It’s largely a matter of heightening your own awareness. When you read or hear about a news event, think about the emotions that are likely affecting those who are involved instead of seeing it simply as a news report. It’s easy to imagine that a person who has just lost his/her home in a flood, for example, would be experiencing sadness, anger and any number of other strong emotions.

This is good training for situations that may come up in your own life. Let’s say that a spouse is upset after learning that a good friend has betrayed him/her. The first step is to really listen to and acknowledge your spouse’s hurt feelings…accept those feelings without judging them…and resist the temptation to try to talk your spouse out of having those feelings. All these steps will go a long way toward strengthening the relationship via empathy.    

In general, do women have more empathy than men? People tend to think so. Women themselves often believe it. But it’s not clearly supported by the research.

A recent study in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology found that women given high doses of testosterone had reduced activity in the brain regions involved in empathy and processing emotional cues, but the correlation to empathy isn’t conclusive. Does the finding mean that girls/women are more empathetic than boys/men? Not necessarily. The differences could have more to do with presentation than biology. An empathetic man might simply be less likely to express it.  

What’s more, the capacity for empathy is not all-or-nothing…everyone is a mix. You might be highly empathetic one day and less so the next. It depends on how you’re feeling, what you’re going through, etc. No one’s empathetic all the time.

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