The 5 Upshots of Practicing Empathy on a Daily Basis

9 minute read

(84 minutes if you click on each of the links.)

Adam Shepard
Co-founder and COO, Practice Empathy™

There  are few more powerful practices than empathy. Empathy not only improves the way we relate to others--both strangers and those close to us--but proves to be advantageous in all walks of life.  

Most of us become so consumed with our own ambitions and problems that we forget about engaging empathetically with others. We forget that when we consistently practice understanding others, and being in tune with helping them, the quality of our own lives drastically improves too. This precious social skill is the key to empower not only our own health and relationships, but allows us to find success in various other engagements.  

If you’re new to empathy, or new to caring about other people’s feelings in general, you can start here for a little edumacation. Empathy is compassion or concern for another person. You know, that thing your therapist said your father lacks. The process involves seeing others' perspectives and imagining how you would feel if you were in their situation. When you are empathetic, you are seeking to understand how the other person feels, and why they do what they do. When you are not empathetic, you are voted president of the United States.

Aside from the obvious enhancement to society, then, what exactly are the benefits to us? What’s in it for me? How can I profit? What can you and I stand to gain from practicing empathy on a daily basis? Why do I have to wear pants to work? 

Well, gosh. The questions you’re posing there are completely self-serving and entirely counterintuitive to the idea of empathy and altruism in the first place, but, hell, let’s explore anyway!

Upshot #1 of Practicing Empathy on a Daily Basis: Empathy is the Key to Wellness

All humans have a basic need for connection and attachment. Too often in our world do we feel alone and isolated. Empathy allows for genuine connection with others that brings us out of our shells and serves as an antidote to loneliness. Kind of like alcohol except you make friends instead of ruining your cousin's baptism.

Empathy is essential to attaining great health. Science tells us that empathetic people are healthier. Those who practice empathy are far better prepared to deal with stress than those who do not, and they even have lower blood pressure. Practicing empathy helps mitigate high levels of depression or anxiety. Empaths usually share a happier mood and stronger, more robust immune systems. When we steer into this biologically-ordained social skill, we can stay warm, full, connected, and even resilient. People are stronger when connected with each other.

Nevermind that empathetic people are generally kinder to their bodies with the food that they eat, with or without a gym membership, compassionate people are on a better track, in general:

A clue to this question rests in a fascinating new study by Steve Cole and Barbara Fredrickson that evaluated levels of inflammation at the cellular level in people who describe themselves as "very happy." Inflammation is at the root of cancer and other diseases, and it's generally high in people who live under a lot of stress. We might expect that inflammation would be lower for people with higher levels of happiness. Cole and Fredrickson found that this was only the case for certain "very happy" people. They found that people who were happy because they lived the "good life" (sometimes also know as "hedonic happiness") had high inflammation levels but that, on the other hand, people who were happy because they lived a life of purpose or meaning (sometimes also known as "eudaimonic happiness") had low inflammation levels. A life of meaning and purpose is one focused less on satisfying oneself and more on others. It is a life rich in compassion, altruism, and greater meaning. 

And this goes both ways: One study published by the National Institute of Health shows that when clinicians are more empathetic in their handling of a patient, the interaction activates the patient's immune system and can help prevent a cold: “When patients perceive clinicians as empathetic, rating them perfect on the CARE tool, the severity, duration, and objective measures (IL-8 and neutrophils) of the common cold significantly change.” 

That’s right. Neutrophils. 

Where there is empathy, there is well-being. On the flip side, people that don't practice empathy often experience pressure and negative feelings when things don't go their way. They are grouchy and irritated and stressed (with a nod to Bashful, Sneezy, and Doc), and none of that is good for the heart valves. 

Upshot #2 of Practicing Empathy on a Daily Basis: Empathy Improves Your Ability to Communicate

Empathy involves thinking about what the other person feels. When you are empathetic, you learn how to reach out to others in an effective way. The process involves learning to place yourself in someone's shoes so that you can find better ways to express your feelings in a way that makes sense to them.

Showing empathy will help you to make the best of your situation. For instance, compassionate people are more attentive and mindful of those around them and can thus leverage nonverbal cues and sign language for better communication. Empathy emphasizes that communication is more than just words. By watching out for non-verbal signals, we position ourselves in our audience’s perspective, and we can therefore gain the ability to respond appropriately to all interactions. This is a particularly important concept for you to learn if you are the kind of person who says “okay, cool” when your girlfriend says she’s “fine.” 

The process of walking in someone's else's allows us to:  

  • Understand the struggles someone else is going through 
  • Feel out what they need to hear 
  • Connect through mutual understanding  
  • Appreciate a proper-fitting shoe 

Communication, then, becomes more than just about changing our language. It takes on the deeper purpose of looking at everything that changes when we send a message. Compassionate people are more attentive and mindful of those around than their less empathic counterparts. Empathy teaches awareness of nonverbal cues, as most communication is unspoken. We therefore gain the ability to respond appropriately to all social interactions when we empathize. 

As an example, after Pinnacle Health System in Harrisburg, PA, started empathy and communication training for their physicians, patient satisfaction rates improved by more than 40%. Physicians found that good listening and communication skills improved patient adherence to medication and led to better nurse-physician coordination. Also:

In a study of 29 family physicians and 891 diabetic patients, the patients of physicians with high empathy scores were significantly more likely to have good control of their hemoglobin A1c and LDL cholesterol compared with patients of physicians with low empathy scores. The second study included more than 240 physicians and examined the incidence of hospitalizations among 20,000 diabetic patients. The rate of hospitalizations due to acute metabolic complications in diabetic patients was much lower for patients of high-empathy physicians compared with patients of low-empathy physicians.

What we can gather, then, is that as doctors were more aware of the struggles and potential struggles that their patients faced, patients felt more understood and more motivated to practice good care for themselves. 

Empathy, communication, and health. They go together like Earth, Wind, and Fire, burgers, fries, and a shake, and Bubbles, Blossom, and Buttercup.

Upshot #3 of Practicing Empathy on a Daily Basis: Empathy Can Boost Your Future Success 

The ability to manage stress effectively, provide good communication, and relate well to others are some of the main ingredients for success for business, health, and relationships. Empathy is the gateway that allows these crucial tools to prosper.    

Take boardroom negotiations for example. Without empathy, they are simply a single-minded war where those involved do not understand the other’s motivations, so shows of aggression are their only alternative. But when a level of empathy is implemented by both parties, each party understands where the other is coming from, and can navigate to success together.  If you have a boss, empathy also helps you navigate the sometimes challenging relationship with someone in a position of authority. Your boss is a person, too, right? I, for example, learned through empathy that my boss hates when I shorten his name to Dick. Probably because his name is Steven. 

Empathy promotes collaboration and fosters cooperation, one of the pillars of success in business and work engagements. When team members show understanding and respect for each other, they are more likely to work in harmony for speed and success in projects. But this is not just about being a sweetheart. Empathy gets results: progress and innovation come when we get out of our own head and start to see the bigger picture, the worldview that very well might not be our own.

Sales success, too, like all professional relationships, is born out of a mutual collaboration to solve a problem rather than the simple pitching of a fancy gadget that’s going to cure the world’s ailments. Marketing success means learning to interpret the soul of your client or customer rather than focusing solely on maximizing CPC rates.  

Oh, yeah: and if it’s really what matters to you, selfless people make more money

Ultimately, practicing empathy leads to a healthier and more successful organization. People want to be understood, heard, and valued, and a productive and fun workplace is sure to happen if these needs are met.

Upshot #4 of Practicing Empathy on a Daily Basis: Generosity Spawns Generosity 

The world is often dark, and life is seldom easy. When we read the news, it is too easy to be overwhelmed by the tragedies that afflict people worldwide. Murder in Chicago; famine in Africa; wars in the Middle East; and the politics of it all. The burden of our lives is too heavy to carry alone. Our instinct is to try and preserve our own energy so that we can survive. But the reality is that showing compassion to others actually relieves the burdens in our own lives too. And, more often than not, that compassion will be returned by others so that both find support. 

One act of compassion can add just a little brightness to the world and slowly starts to replace the bad things with the good. Even small actions can have a significant impact, as it is from the small things that big things happen: one meal isn’t going to win the battle to abolish world hunger, but it’s a better start than no meal at all. 

Empathy is just as contagious and communicable as giggles in a puppy shop and easier to explain than why we yawn when someone else yawns. The neurons in our brain are preset to mimic the behavior around us. Jonathan Haidt’s research on elevation explains that the emotional effect of seeing one person commit an altruistic act warms us (physically and figuratively) and inspires us to want to repeat those very same acts. 

The ripple effect extends one act into many, but it’s more than a butterfly flaps its wings in New Zealand and a homeless person in Cleveland gets a dollar or whatever that theory was about: our actions right here in our town right now can--and do--reverberate among ourselves. From Haidt’s work:

One study induced elevation in a laboratory by showing one group of participants video clips from a documentary about Mother Teresa. Control groups saw other videos, including an emotion­ally-neutral but interesting documen­tary, and a comedy sequence from the television show America’s Funniest Home Videos. Compared to participants who watched the control videos, partici­pants who watched the elevating video clip reported feeling more loving and inspired, they more strongly wanted to help and affiliate with others, and they were more likely to actually volunteer to work at a humanitarian charity organization afterwards.

Equally as interesting, a study from Harvard:

In Studies 1 to 3, participants decided how much to donate to charities before learning that others donated generously or stingily. Participants who observed generous donations donated more than those who observed stingy donations. Crucially, this generalized across behaviors: Participants who observed generous donations later wrote more supportive notes to another participant (Study 3). In Studies 4 and 5, participants observed empathic or nonempathic group responses to vignettes. Group empathy ratings not only shifted participants’ own empathic feelings (Study 4), but they also influenced participants’ donations to a homeless shelter (Study 5). These findings reveal the remarkable breadth of prosocial conformity.

Interesting, indeed. Helping people makes others want to do good as well: initially because they want praise, too, and ultimately because they learn to actually like the feeling of helping people whether they receive praise or not. Kind of like the plot of every Disney movie ever.

As with most things human, we begin our journey from a place of self-service, and we arrive having become a member of a broader community. We learn to do it for the sake of doing it--to “pass it on” just because that’s the right thing to do--and before we know it, we’re so far out of our comfort zone, we can’t even recall each and every one of our good deeds. Random acts of kindness, often unseen or overlooked, parent the next round of random acts of kindness. And on and on. The size of the pie is unlimited: you and I are baking this pie.  

An empathetic person can recognize that giving resources to another person means that he or she is okay with having less. In this way, we become even more generous and derive greater fulfillment from life, because empathetic people find success and happiness in helping others succeed. Perhaps one person can’t save the world by themselves, but that one person can most certainly be the beginning of real change.

Upshot #5 of Practicing Empathy on a Daily Basis: Practicing Empathy Will Make You Happier 

We say we want one of those fancy-looking Tesla’s in either white or blue and that 4500 square foot vacation lodge over in Jackson Hole and a little bit higher equity percentage in the startup we’re working for and a 20-day vacation in the spring to Hawaii, but what we really want costs nothing: to be happy.  

As human beings, we thrive on genuine relationships and strong interpersonal bonds, and empathy helps us with both. Empathetic people have higher levels of joy and satisfaction. From a report in the Journal of Personal and Social Psychology:

Human beings around the world derive emotional benefits from using their financial resources to help others (prosocial spending). Survey data from 136 countries were examined and showed that prosocial spending is associated with greater happiness around the world.

And this isn’t limited to the developed world:
The robustness of this mechanism is supported by our finding that people experience emotional benefits from sharing their financial resources with others not only in countries where such resources are plentiful, but also in impoverished countries where scarcity might seem to limit the possibilities to reap the gains from giving to others.

Can you put a price on that? Well, not directly, necessarily, but it’s worth noting that those who spend money on others are happier than those who spend money on themselves

We are built to give. Another report from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences confirms this and with much smarter words:

We show that the mesolimbic reward system is engaged by donations in the same way as when monetary rewards are obtained. Furthermore, medial orbitofrontal–subgenual and lateral orbitofrontal areas, which also play key roles in more primitive mechanisms of social attachment and aversion, specifically mediate decisions to donate or to oppose societal causes. Remarkably, more anterior sectors of the prefrontal cortex are distinctively recruited when altruistic choices prevail over selfish material interests.

“Medial orbitofrontal–subgenual and lateral orbitofrontal areas.” Basically, when we give to the world, our brain smiles; when we take from the world, our brain frowns. Empathy can improve our lives and our community in dramatic ways. While some people have an inborn ability to be more empathetic than others, it is not too hard to use this essential social skill for our happiness. It starts when we show more understanding and kindness to others.  

And it is easy to practice in our daily interactions. In conversation, listen before you talk; examine the beliefs that might limit the way you communicate with others; focus on what the speaker might be saying or feeling.

Be grateful for the people in your life. 

Or, more specifically: 

Teach your kids not to cut worms in half and burn ants with a magnifying glass. 

When you hear something interesting on a podcast, call a friend and tell her about it. 

Shower before entering the pool. 

Know when the time has come to take your leave from a dinner party. 

Hang a bird feeder. 

Sneeze into your elbow. 

Return your shopping cart to the shopping cart corral.

Don’t cook bacon naked. (Not empathy. Just excellent advice.) 

Empathy is all about perspective and shifting the focus away from ourselves. Practicing it plugs us into the universal interconnectedness where we can share in the magic around us. After all, success, communication, wellness, and happiness? What’s not to like about being altruistic?

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Our mission at Practice Empathy™ is to spread kindness and compassion. If you're an asshole, then we likely wouldn't get along. But if you're not an asshole, and you want to show your friends and family and various random passersby that you're both thoughtful and considerate (and have impeccable fashion sense), have a look around our site to see what we have to offer. 

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