The Benefits of Empathy
When was the last time you sat alongside someone you didn’t know? Someone who had a story that was completely different to yours, or whose background was a stark contrast to your own?
We live in a world of such diversity and culture that one would think that every day in the world was an adventure and that every person we met was a new experience. In an ideal (or open-minded) environment people’s differences are embraced. However, there are still many cases where differences are rejected. Sometimes this is a result of deliberate hostility and ignorance and most times a result of fear, institutionalization and the desire to maintain a comfortable mindset.
Because of the human obsession with categories and differentiation we habitually place people in boxes which we often accept as true and allow these stereotypes to drive our interaction with the people we share an existence with. The more we separate ourselves from people and continue to accept the ‘us and them’ dynamic, the least receptive we become to others and (because the world is too diverse for us to avoid people from different backgrounds) the more negative our social connections become.
Admittedly, it might be more challenging for people from traditional backgrounds to accept the ideals of those from seemingly opposing backgrounds, but developing an open-mind and empathetic spirit is immensely more beneficial to our wellbeing than simply accepting the dividing lines.
Here is why:
1. Makes you happier
We’re all having the human experience, no matter what our background; we’re all experiencing a physiological and psychological existence that is only separated by circumstances. We are all thinking and feeling individuals who grapple with similar emotional concerns.
We only get to know this when we take an approach of understanding to our daily interactions. Everyone has a story. The man on the street, that bumped your coffee because he was in a hurry to get to his first interview in months, has a story. The cashier, who didn’t give you a smile and quality service because she was too concerned about how she would come up with the money to pay for her three-year-old daughter’s hospital bill, has a story. The business man, who lashed out at you because, after a lifetime of being shot down by his own father, this is the only way he has learned to deal with anything, has a story.
To extend this kind of understanding to others before judging them by their physical and socioeconomic circumstances is not only helpful to them, but also to you.
In this way you suppress feelings of hostility or distrust that may automatically arise from years of stereotypical mental conditioning and avoid being confronted/affected by negative social connections.
Your mind is opened and sympathetic to the daily lives of others, and because we are all sharing the same experience, it is easier, as a human being, to understand the plight of another.
You’re happier in the sense that you don’t take negative interactions personally.
You’re happier in the sense that you are able to embrace the differences you share with others while appreciating your similarities.
You’re happier in the sense that you’re able to meet people on a level of understanding, meaning that your social interactions are more amiable and less apprehensive.
2. Makes you healthier
A new study published in Psychological Science has come up with results that show a direct link between health, positive emotions and positive social connections. Participants of a study by researcher Barbara Fredrickson and others were made to take part in Loving-Kindness Meditation, daily contemplative exercises where each participant focuses on generating feelings of love, compassion, and goodwill toward themselves and others.
What was observed in participants, who self-generated positive emotions through thoughts of compassion and then went out and had positive social experiences, was that they experienced an increase in vagal tone.
Vagal tone reflects the functioning of the vagus nerve, the primary component of the parasympathetic nervous system which regulates heart rate to signals of safety and interest. While a low vagal tone is linked to high inflammation, an increased vagal tone is linked to fewer colds, reduced inflammation and less cardiovascular disease.
So essentially, people who experience warm, upbeat emotions live longer and healthier lives. Just by practicing a mindset of compassion, you expose yourself to the same kind of benefits one gets out of exercise and eating healthy.
3. Makes you smarter
Compassion begins with having an open mind. Spending time and having meaningful discourse with others from different backgrounds is somewhat of a mental exercise. Speaking to others who challenge your own perceptions increases your knowledge of the world; of culture, keeping your mind sharp.
Consider this: You meet people from your background, who you relate to easily because their story is so similar to yours. You don’t deviate from this group of people because they represent, confirm and compliment everything that you are. How much more do you learn about the world every day from this group of people who are exactly like you?
Being positive may not necessarily increase your I.Q, but being open-mined and compassionate will certainly increase your emotional intelligence, which is just as important.
How do you cultivate compassion?
Keep an open mind – allow each interaction you encounter to start on a blank canvas. Instead of judging the person from what you’ve previously heard about ‘their kind’, be genuinely interested in who they are.
Meditate – Self-generate feelings of positivity by setting aside time daily (whether it is 5 minutes or an hour) to remind yourself that people are not that much different than you are. Meditate on kindness and understanding.
Practice Empathy – You will encounter trying or uncomfortable social circumstances. Take a moment to empathize with the person. Remember that just like you, they have something that they’re dealing with, but might be just a bit more overwhelmed by it. If you cannot comfort them, move on, but don’t allow their emotions to upset yours. Don’t take everything personally – most of the time, it’s not about you but what they’re going through.
Compassion is a life exercise; its effects stretch much farther than the action of it and have a way of weaving more emotional and physical profits than one would anticipate. Extend your kindness because you understand daily struggle, and also maintain your peace because you understand daily struggle.